The power of servant leadership lies not in position but in motive. The CEO of a massive corporation, holding great responsibility, may “wash his employees’ feet” by seeking their benefit in business. There is no conflict between a well-managed business making a profit for its stockholders and one making a good life for its employees. There is no room for exploitation in Jesus’ model of servant leadership.
The servant leader is still in authority even as Jesus was when He washed the disciples’ feet. No one in the room doubted who the leader was. Because He authentically ministered to their needs, no one resigned, no respect was squandered, and no face was lost.
Servant fathers will still discipline their children. The servant CEO will still make decisions, sometimes decide for layoffs, and will dismiss employees who fail to meet company standards. He will never browbeat, threaten, or manipulate. He will not withhold money or praise or encouragement.
The servant leader stoops to anoint his followers with the oil of gladness and never stands taller than when he kneels to wash their feet. His power rests in servanthood, not dominion. Far from losing power in serving, he is enriched by it. He goes from strength to strength not by bending others to his will, but by sacrificing that they may be blessed.
What does servant leadership really mean in practical terms for a CEO or a college president such as I am? Does it mean that the CEO is out in the parking lot washing his employees’ cars every day? Does it mean that the college president makes the beds and cleans the bathrooms in the dorms?
No, it doesn’t mean that. Not that I am too good for it, however, but if I spend my working hours doing that for which I am not paid, what am I paid to do goes undone. Then I would be stealing from the college. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet once, and the fact that it is not recorded is the surest proof that He did not do it every day.
Being a servant leader is about being genuinely interested in the well-being of those entrusted to you. It means treating subordinates with respect and securing the dignity of all. To reduce the Jesus model of servant leadership to random acts of servitude is to trivialize a great truth. To make foot washing merely ceremonial is to risk ritualizing the call to practical servanthood, thereby separating it from real life. Authentic servant leadership is indeed sacramental, and does, in fact, mean practical acts of kindness, but it is so much more.
Servanthood is a mysterious spirit with power sufficient to break proud hearts and humble the high and mighty. Infinitely more important for leaders than for servants, an attitude more than an action, the power of servanthood is very near who Jesus is and who He was on the last night before He was crucified. Loving Him, we grow like Him. Like Him we serve. Serving, we know His power. Empowered, we change and heal whom we serve.
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