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  • Elder Aaron Tan (PSPC)

THE SERVANT AS LEADER

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. – Robert K. Greenleaf


I recently attended a leadership programme and was pleasantly surprised that in a secular programme like that, a whole afternoon was spent discussing about the values and characteristics of a servant leader. The main reference book we used was The Servant as Leader, by Robert K. Greenleaf. This book was originally published as an essay by Greenleaf in 1970 and in it he shared how he was inspired after reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. In that story there was a band of men who were on a mythical journey, and among them was a man named Leo. He accompanied the men as a servant and undertook their menial chores, and at the same time he uplifted them with his joyful songs and positive spirit. All went well on that journey until one day Leo disappears. Soon after that the band of men fell into disarray and the journey was eventually abandoned. They realised that they could not carry on without the servant Leo. Many years later, one of the men from the band found Leo who was with the Order that had originally sponsored the journey. It was only then did he realise that Leo, whom everyone first knew as the servant, was in fact the Head of the Order, their great and noble leader.


After reading Hesse’s story, Greenleaf went on to investigate the notion of servant leadership in greater depth and set forth to lay out what he saw as key characteristics of a servant leader. In fact, he went on to found The Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership which is based in Atlanta, USA, to train people in leadership. I do not have the luxury of space to share all the characteristics here, but I will highlight just a few, and I do so with the aim to help us as men to reflect on our respective leadership roles whether these may be in Christian ministry, in our secular jobs, or even at home as heads of our households.

First, a good leader must be a servant first rather than a leader first. Greenleaf says that “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”. This reminds us about the responsibility that we have over those we lead – that we must make a positive difference to the lives of our ministry co-workers, our staff who report to us in the office, and our family members. When all is done, would they have grown individually and become better people?


Secondly, a servant leader is one who has clarity of purpose, a clear sense of direction, steady and not easily swayed by distractions. For us as Christian leaders, our ultimate purpose is to bring glory to our Master by following His lead in all the decisions that we make no matter what our vocation may be. Do those we lead see Christ as Master in our lives and thus imitate us as we imitate Christ? Do they seek the praise of God and ultimately desire to honour Him? For our pre-believing staff who report to us, do they see us upholding the character of Christ even in our secular dealings and respect us for it?

Thirdly, a servant leader constantly practices the discipline of listening first. We seek to understand more than to be understood. We put the needs of those we lead before our own, and we take a genuine interest in their lives. We intentionally suspend judgement and ask good questions to gain deeper insights before making a stand or taking a decision. We know how to balance inquiry and advocacy to bring about quality conversations that are fruitful rather than arguments that lead to nowhere.


Fourthly, a servant leader is one who practices regular withdrawal to reflect, learn and grow. For us as Christian leaders, this has to be part of our regular time with the Lord each day where we reflect on God’s Word, seek Him in prayer, and let Him order our lives.

Fifthly, a servant leader is one who brings about healing. As leaders we do this through constantly seeking the wellness (physical, emotional and spiritual) of those we lead. In Philippians 1:25, the Apostle Paul writes, “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith”. Do those we lead feel supported and cared for?


There are many more characteristics listed in Greenleaf’s book, but I have only shared five. While he may have written these for secular leadership and to train what he would call good leaders, we as Christian leaders can learn much from it. And the best thing is we do not need a Leo to inspire us because our Lord and Master, Jesus Himself is the ultimate Servant King. Let me close with these two verses:


“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” John 13:14-15 (ESV)


“A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” Luke 22:24-25

Whether we are leaders in ministry, at our work places, or at home, may we honour and glorify our Lord as true servant leaders.

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