As a student of leadership for the last decade (both informally and through pursuit of formal education), I have been interested in the development of leadership theory. In the early years of the field, the focus was on identifying specific behavior traits of the most successful leaders. It was believed that if others adopted the same traits, they too would be successful. Realizing that there was not a one-size-fits-all approach, experts devised a style by which leaders adapted their behavior according to the maturity of the followers and the tasks needing accomplished. Leadership theory continued to address external behavior and skills.
More recently other leadership styles have emerged that center on the heart and soul of the leader. Effective leaders are authentic, possess strong character, and engage life and leadership with wholeheartedness. These types of leadership qualities are more complicated to assess.
Servant leadership has perhaps created the most difficulty for researchers. It is distinguished by the feature of placing followers first, even above the organization. Leaders use their influence to serve followers, providing resources and environments for them to grow and succeed. Some researchers do not feel comfortable including servant leadership as a model, because it is deeply spiritual, patterned after the example of Jesus Christ. It originates from a life of faith. While people may be able to adopt certain servant leadership qualities, the genuine motivation to love without strings attached is not easily imitated. And, how can it be measured?
This creates a challenge for those of us who identify with servant leadership. Servant leadership is not about merely doing the right things. Yes, the prominent qualities of servant leadership include love, empowerment, humility, trust, and vision. Yes, our followers take priority in our leadership decisions. However, we must remember that servant leadership goes beyond our outward actions. We bring who we are to what we do and how we lead. Our natural strengths and willpower are simply not enough to practice servant leadership. True servant leadership flows from a vibrant, growing relationship with Jesus. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NIV). As we walk with Him in daily communion and rely on the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to love and serve those we lead. The fruit of the Spirit is released and expressed through us.
So what is the most important relationship for the servant leader? Above the relationship with our followers, and even above the relationship with ourselves, the most important relationship is with Jesus Christ Himself. I encourage you, if you have not already done so, develop a spiritual growth plan. Make sure it includes ways, as my friend Gail Johnsen says, “to keep company with Jesus” (gailjohnsen.com). As we intentionally connect with Him and become more like Him, we will serve and lead as Jesus did. We will be the servant leaders He desires us to be.