Here is Jesus, sharing the Passover meal with His disciples. He has created everything in that upper room. He invented the oak tree that made the table. He started the time that counts out the hours before His crucifixion. In His mind swirls the physics of the universe.
He also spun the DNA of His disciples and shaped their hearts and feet, dirty feet that He washes.
As He kneels—imagine, washing our feet—He takes off His outer garments and offers us this invitation: if we want to know and love God, the Creator of all that is—imagine!—then we are called to serve as He serves, expecting nothing in return. He says to us, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). How might we follow Christ to serve others out of a meek and lowly heart?
There is the inevitable Monday morning: egos at the office, conflicts at home, competition in the classroom. How do we humble ourselves, receive God’s grace, and serve? How do we keep from looking after number one, our own best interests? Serving is—hard.
It’s especially challenging if we find ourselves in positions of influence. A thousand subtle temptations arise to promote ourselves, take credit, misuse our authority, and desire recognition.
Whether we’re leading a team, a family, or a Fortune 500 corporation, building a life inspired by serving can turn me-first ambitions and our topdown organizational power structures upside-down. The life Jesus led models for us what it means to be a servant leader in all areas of our life.
Oxymoron or Redundancy?
The pairing of the words servant leader, a bit like jumbo shrimp, makes the mind cramp. What seems to be an oxymoron, an apparent contradiction, is really a redundancy, like free gift. A gift, by definition, is always already free. A leader, by Christ’s definition, is always already a servant.
But sadly, not all leaders are servants. In a 2014 nationwide survey by the Christian research organization The Barna Group, 62 percent of working Americans say they “wouldn’t follow their boss if their paycheck didn’t depend on it.” Roughly 30 percent of Americans report that “their boss makes them feel controlled, manipulated or defensive,” and an equal percentage reports that this unhealthy leadership is a source of great personal stress. A “slave-driver” employment culture is more common than we realize.
Yet God calls us to influence cultures—in corporations, churches, and communities—by one of the most powerful transformational agents that exists, the act of serving. Through serving, we experience God’s grace, and we lead others to do the same.
PLNU professor of business Kim Hogelucht earned her Ph.D. in leadership studies and education sciences, and focuses much of her teaching and writing on mentoring young leaders.
“Since the Enron scandal and other corporate scandals,” Hogelucht said, “people are more aware of toxic leadership. Good leaders—servant leaders— are needed now more than ever before. Servant leadership is a commitment to the growth of the followers.”
Dr. Carl Summer agrees. Summer teaches in PLNU’s Masters in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) program, and also wrote his doctoral dissertation on leadership, synthesizing lessons learned from decades of serving. Prior to earning his D.Min., Summer served as a pastor for more than 25 years. He was also an active district board member of the Church of the Nazarene for more than 40 years, organizing ministry teams to buy property and develop facilities, including two urban ministry centers, a retreat center, a church and education center, and a university student center.
Summer has distilled his vast experience into one simple and profound lesson. “What is the essence of a servant’s heart?” he reflected. “It’s becoming excited about helping someone else succeed.”
What an extraordinary possibility—to rally every resource, skill, talent, and gift we ourselves have to help others experience God and fulfill their highest potential.
The mission statement of PLNU’s Fermanian School of Business is, “More than the bottom line, business education to change the world.” Professors help students fulfill their highest potential as servant leaders so they may transform business as we know it.
PLNU professor of business Bruce Schooling also studied theories of leadership in his doctoral work and is a devoted teacher and mentor of emerging leaders, receiving an international award for teaching excellence from the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs.
“Being a servant leader isn’t just theoretical. Servant leadership is lived out here in the School of Business, a daily practice that we teach students to pursue,” Schooling explained. “It comes from our deep roots in the Nazarene and Wesleyan traditions, where our faith is expressed through service.”
The phrase servant leader was coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf in his essay, “The Servant as Leader,” in which he contrasted two types of leaders.
The first type of servant leader desires to lead above all. Serving is just an afterthought.
The second type desires, above all, to serve. Serving is primary; leading is secondary, the consequence of serving.
According to Greenleaf, only this second type is the true servant leader, one who places the welfare of others above mastery or profitability:
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? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?
Christ calls us to be servant leaders, to “wash the feet” of others in a figurative sense, but what does this look like in our careers?
Servant Leadership … in Business
For 30 years, PLNU alumnus Jerry Goodwin has been developing satellite communications, networking, and security systems for commercial and defense applications. For the last two decades, Goodwin has worked for satellite-industry leader ViaSat, which holds the world record for highest capacity communications satellite.
Goodwin began working at ViaSat when the startup had only 40 employees. It now has more than 3,500, with annual revenues of $1.4 billion. He attributes his ride to the top of the company to his quest for servant leadership.
“I don’t do my job to get ahead or make money,” Goodwin said, “but my goal is to be a servant leader. Servant leaders don’t think about their own position or advancement, but only how to make their teams successful. In everything I do, I try to help the people around me achieve beyond their ability.”
Goodwin organizes and hosts formal leadership training sessions at ViaSat as a significant addendum to his job description as vice president of secure network systems, overseeing multiple teams in commercial and government projects. Goodwin admits that serving others while demanding high performance and high profit margins is a tricky business.
“I have to lead teams to perform and meet numbers because we’re a public company, and we must complete projects on time or face financial penalties,” he said. “What matters most of all, though, is how I interact with others. Servant leadership is all about character.”
Influence comes only through legitimate authority, according to Goodwin, and that true authority can only be earned through excellent character, demonstrated through serving.
Dr. Mark Berry, who also teaches in PLNU’s MAOL program, explained how leaders gain legitimate influence. It’s a matter of the heart.
“A servant leader leads from the heart and not necessarily the mind,” Berry said. “As leaders, if we see ourselves as superior to others, then we will never gain their respect and admiration. We may have the knowledge, but if we don’t reach the hearts of those we serve, they will never understand our strategy. Without a servant’s heart, people will never catch our vision.”
Goodwin, Hogelucht, Summer, and Berry agree that their highest aim, the heart of their own servant leadership, is mentoring others to become servant leaders—just as Christ taught his disciples to follow him in his serving.
“I take a ton of time cultivating people as a mentor,” Goodwin explained. “I ask the colleagues I mentor, ‘How do you cultivate people? Do you encourage or criticize them? When they leave you, do they feel better off than when they came?’ Taking that approach, the whole organization succeeds.”
Servant Leadership … in Hollywood
PLNU alumnus Larry Rench has orchestrated film scores for some of the most popular Hollywood films in the last 25 years, including “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Rench has achieved remarkable success in Hollywood, but he leads behind the scenes, shaping composers’ scores. He is in the business of “making composers look good and sound good,” he explained.
Rench’s work is highly detailed and meticulous, and he is keenly aware of his obligation to craft flawless scores so time at high-priced recording studios isn’t wasted. His Hollywood reputation and dedication to his work are world-class, but his devotion to serving others through his profession is even more exemplary.
“Relationships and how I embody my faith in those relationships are more important to me than the film projects I work on,” Rench said. “Servant leadership is about serving—serving the music, yes, but also serving the composers in whatever they need, and acting with integrity within those relationships.” In particular, mentoring relationships with young composers have become Rench’s passionate pursuit.
“I work to help young people network in Hollywood, get the next job, and learn lessons along the way. I really value sharing my knowledge,” Rench said. “I would rather champion young people than my own career.”
Generosity of time and talent—such as Rench and Goodwin model in their mentoring—builds not only strong individuals, but vibrant, growing businesses and communities.
Dr. Michael Reagan, another instructor in PLNU’s MAOL program, recasts servant leaders as “broad-based” visionaries.
“The servant leader creates or embraces a vision of the future,” Reagan said, “that encompasses not only the individual, but the community.” These leaders work for long-term growth of many rather than short-term, personal gain.
Practical Benefits: Business Capital
In Practicing Servant Leadership: Succeeding Through Trust, Bravery, and Forgiveness, Larry Spears, president and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, writes, “The idea of servant leadership, now in its fourth decade as a concept bearing that name, continues to create a quiet revolution in workplaces around the world.”
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, businesses endorsing servant leadership are, in fact, more successful than those driven by traditional leadership models that promote professional success, hierarchy, or profit alone. Spears cites leading companies that have adopted the servant leadership model as their corporate philosophy, including Starbucks and Southwest Airlines. TDIndustries in Dallas, Texas, one of the first companies in the nation to adopt a servant leadership business model, has consistently held a place among Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work for in America.”
While servant leadership may have been trending in the U.S. for several decades, the practice has been present—and productive—in other cultures and groups of people for hundreds of years. Spears cites multicultural leadership writer Juana Bordas, from her article titled, “Pluralistic Reflections on Servant-Leadership.” Bordas observes that, “servant leadership has very old roots in many of the indigenous cultures. Cultures that were holistic, cooperative, communal, intuitive and spiritual.”
Contemporary Christian scholar of servant leadership Ken Blanchard, author of Lead Like Jesus, has studied this phenomenon in great depth, recasting Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership in more nuanced economic terms. Specifically, Blanchard contrasts “capital-center leadership” with “people-centered leadership.”
Capital-centered leaders, Blanchard explains, “see their role as delivering results despite people.” These leaders are motivated by fulfilling the corporate vision to the end of gaining profit and beating the competition: people are the means to this end. Ironically, Blanchard observes, despite the emphasis on profit-making, this type of leadership “is becoming a primary cause of company failure.”
According to Blanchard, many traditional views of leadership developed out of a “mindset of scarcity, competition, and preservation.” We lack, so the strongest among us must rise up, conquer the land, and win, despite casualties of colleagues along the way.
The mindset of Blanchard’s people-centered leadership, conversely, is “abundance, collaboration, and evolution.” We begin with faith and trust in God: there is no lack, in other words, but more than enough for all. Through mutual honor and respect, we seek to work together, collaborating to discover the best solution for everyone.
Reagan agrees: “The servant leader is value driven by a mission that is grounded in the worth of the individual and the betterment of the community. While this leadership model does not ignore the importance of profit, it does not see profit as the prime factor for evaluating the effectiveness or purpose of the organization.”
According to Blanchard, an organization must be designed so individuals are free to contribute according to their unique abilities and creative gifts. This maximizes productivity in the long run.
Eternal Benefits: Spiritual Capital
Berry challenges us with the question at the very heart of servant leadership: “Just as Jesus’ disciples were mentored and trained by a servant leader, so we must be committed to developing others. After all, isn’t life about giving ourselves away to others?”
The answer is yes, absolutely.
But it’s a difficult process.
Just as God’s grace is sufficient in our serving, His grace is made perfect in our failure to serve. Following Christ isn’t about loving perfectly, but receiving love imperfectly, despite our brokenness, and then giving love away, stuttering and tripping along, in meekness and lowliness of mind and heart, with Jesus the Servant-King by our side.
Eventually we will experience moments of grace when we truly are broken bread and poured out wine, broken and beloved, and come to follow the Master, our Servant Leader, esteeming others as better than ourselves.
American writer Saul Bellow published a collection of traditional Jewish tales, including a stunning vignette about what it means to be a servant leader. It’s often quoted because it is so apt, and so true:
In a small Jewish town in Russia, there is a rabbi who disappears each Friday morning for several hours. His devoted disciples boast that during those hours their rabbi goes up to heaven and talks to God.
A stranger moves into town, and he’s skeptical about all of this, so he decides to check things out. He hides and watches. The Rabbi gets up in the morning, says his prayers, and then dresses in peasant clothes. He grabs an axe, goes off into the woods, and cuts some firewood, which he hauls to a shack on the outskirts of the village. There an old woman and her sick son live. He leaves them the wood, enough for a week, and then sneaks back home.
Having observed the rabbi’s actions, the newcomer stays on in the village and becomes his disciple. And whenever he hears the villagers say, “On Friday mornings our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven,” the newcomer quietly adds, “If not higher.”
In the Wycliffe translation of Philippians 2:7, we read that Christ “meeked himself” as he took on flesh and the form of a servant, although He was King of kings. As we live to follow Christ the Servant Leader, here is the challenge to each of us, no matter our calling or career: we are invited to meek ourselves, esteem others above ourselves, and serve.
By Anna Stepanek Cox