What is Your Heart in Being a Servant Leader?

Hands embracing another's hands

It’s popular to talk about serving as a leader today. You can hear leaders in all settings, even politics, claiming the language of servant leadership. While I take with a (large) grain of salt what politicians say, and I measure what all other leaders say against what I know of them as a person, the idea that leading is a position of service to others is a good one. I embrace it. However, I’ve been seriously challenged to examine my own heart in being a servant leader.

In modern times, it was Robert K. Greenleaf who popularized servant leadership. The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership has the following quote on their homepage:

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

Greenleaf placed heavy emphasis on the motivation to serve, beginning with “the natural feeling that one want so serve.” Don’t let that idea pass by without clearly thinking about it. Readers of this blog are leaders, so pause to ask yourself “What was it that first drove me to lead? Why did I choose this responsibility?”

I’ll venture to say that many of us don’t know. Or don’t remember. Most of us would probably agree with the statement that “The work of leading seemed to have found me.” That’s true for me. I don’t think I realized I was a leader until I had the responsibility. It wasn’t until a few years into my career that I consciously decided to pursue and refine my skills in leading.

But why? What was my heart in leading? What was the motivation?

And very importantly, Am I a servant first?

While Greenleaf is credited with starting the modern discussion of servant leadership, the concept of serving in the context of leadership is ancient. The most widely recognized example, or living model, of servant leadership is the Jewish rabbi from Nazareth we know as Jesus. His life and death exemplified servant leadership. (Most of us are not called to die for others in fulfilment of our leadership responsibilities. However, this is a reality in many places as Christians are the most persecuted people group in the world today.)

Jesus addressed the heart of serving on many occasions. One example was his visit to Mary and Martha’s home in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42). If you’re not familiar with the story, please take a moment to click that link and read it—it’s very short.

To understand this story it helps to know a little more about Jewish culture in that place and time. Hospitality to one’s guests was highly valued. A guest in your home meant providing the best food you had, taking care of their needs, offering them the most comfortable seat or pillows to recline on.

Given this, you can understand why Martha was “distracted with much serving.” She probably wasn’t expecting these guests. She may not have had food prepared. Without running water, she may not have had fresh water. Resolving these and many other concerns would have been difficult. (Plus, it’s likely that she welcomed Jesus’ friends into her home, further compounding the responsibility.) So, you can also understand why she was frustrated with her sister, Mary, who “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” So Martha confronted Jesus:

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

What was Martha concerned about? What was her heart in serving? Why would she care that Mary was “just” listening to Jesus (merely the greatest rabbi ever!).

Jesus addressed the core of Martha’s heart in serving. He said she was “anxious and troubled.”

Anxious about what? Troubled by what? Look again at the question Martha posed to Jesus and you’ll see that she was concerned about herself and, given the cultural context, she was likely concerned about being approved in Bethany as a good hostess for her guests. She was concerned about her reputation and position in the community.

Mary, on the other hand, was attending to what she will have forever—an experience and Jesus’ teaching “which will not [ever] be taken away from her.” In eternity, Martha’s reputation and community approval will be irrelevant. What Mary is able to store in her heart will last for eternity.

Why do you serve? What’s your motivation? What is in your heart?

I know that there are times I have put on the guise of servant leadership with the motivation to be recognized, to have a position of importance, and even to have greater control over a situation or certain people. (I cringe as I type this. It’s so ugly.)

The part of me that is humble before God my Father leads to build up, to guide, and to draw others to the Lord. But that part still needs to grow.

What about you? Which part is greater? Which is growing?

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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