Servant Leadership

The most important lesson for every leader in any enterprise is this: It's not about you! Leadership is not about what you get; it is about what you give. Photo: Franck Boston
The most important lesson for every leader in any enterprise is this: It's not about you! Leadership is not about what you get; it is about what you give. Photo: Franck Boston
Published October 30, 2012

David Mahoney was the chairman of Norton Simon. Richard Beeson, president of Norton Simon’s Canada Dry division, had been on the job only a few weeks when he talked to Mahoney about goals. Here’s how the conversation went, according to Beeson.

“I said to Mahoney, ‘Dave, we’re a little bit below budget now, and I think we can hold that for the rest of the year. It won’t get any worse.”

Dave looked at me, smiled and said: “Be on budget by the six-month mark; be on budget by the year.”

“But Dave,” I said, “there isn’t enough time to get on by the half. I inherited this situation, after all.”

Still smiling, Dave looked at me and said: “Do I pay you a lot of money? Do I argue with you over what you want to spend? Do I bother you? Then don’t tell me what the goals should be. Be on budget by the half; be on budget by the end of the year.”

“What if I can’t, Dave?” I asked.

“Then clean out your desk and go home,” Dave replied.

Beeson argued why he couldn’t meet the goals. Mahoney replied, “Not interested. My board and my stockholders want me to make my numbers. The way I make my numbers is if you guys make your numbers. Make your numbers!”

That is one style of leadership still common today-the leadership that insists that people over whom we have authority respond to our every whim. It is the leadership that uses power to intimidate, pressure or manipulate others to do what we want them to do. It is leadership that says, “It’s my way or the highway! Make your numbers or find a new job!”

With all the layoffs, cut-backs, give-backs and high unemployment today, we understand this kind of leadership all too well. The new global economy may benefit many of us, but it can also be ruthless, emphasizing corporate profits while minimizing human welfare. Wouldn’t it be nice if executives who terminate thousands of workers were willing to refuse their extravagant bonuses and even take a pay-cut so as to share in the sacrifice of the company? But, with rare exceptions, that never happens. Those who would let others suffer never seem willing to suffer themselves.

In Mark’s gospel, chapter 10 verses 35 to 46, Jesus teaches about leadership that turns the power-scale upside down. Let’s call it servant leadership. “Whoever wishes to become great among you,” he says, “must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [as] a ransom for many.”

The most important lesson for every leader in any enterprise is this: It’s not about you! Leadership is not about what you get; it is about what you give. It’s about serving others rather than being served. It’s about sacrificing for something greater than you. It’s about rising above self-centredness and becoming people-centred, outwardly focused and inwardly directed, adding value to people’s lives, and bringing goodness into this world.

Examine the ministry of Jesus and you will find that he would walk up to people and ask, “How can I help you?” If they wanted to see, he would open their eyes. If they wanted to walk, he let them walk. If they wanted a daughter or son brought back to life, he brought their child back to life. If they wanted wine, he gave them wine. If they wanted bread, he gave them bread. Even when they wanted him dead, he died. He did all these things without a fight, all because he believed that service to others was the way to change the world.

There’s a story about a man in India who converted to Christianity. When he was asked why he became a Christian, he offered this explanation: “In examining my life, I discovered I was trapped in a deep hole of which I was unable to climb out. The Hindu religion taught me three steps to climb out of the hole. But the three steps were too hard for me. I turned to Buddha, and he taught me seven steps to climb out of the hole. But I was unable to climb the seven steps. So I turned to Christ. He didn’t teach me how to climb out of the hole I was in; instead he climbed down into the hole and lifted me out.”

Now, that is the Christian social ethic. Greatness is measured by jumping into the hole and lifting someone out. Greatness is not a matter of how many people help me. It is a matter of how deep is my commitment to help others. Am I willing to make the extra effort, go the extra mile, step out of my comfort zone and stretch my thinking because loving and serving people is what matters most?

I know, this is a difficult lesson to learn. It goes against our thinking about power and authority. It challenges our view of hierarchy. It turns the world upside down. Some of us, even in the church, never learn this lesson. The disciples themselves had great difficulty with it. Two of them, James and John, were more concerned about power than servanthood. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” they begin, sounding like first graders hoping to get a favour from their teacher.

“What is it you want me to do for you?” asks Jesus.

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”


Jesus shook his head. “You do not know what you are asking,” he said. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

“We are able,” James and John reply, but it is evident they had no idea what Jesus was talking about. They just did not understand the cost of servant leadership.

Peter Drucker, the foremost management scholar of the 20th century, told a story of when he was in his final year of high school around the mid-1920s. A whole spate of books on World War I and its campaigns suddenly appeared in English, German and French. For the term project, his history teacher, who was a badly wounded German war veteran, told each student to pick several of these books, read them carefully and write a major essay on their selections.

Later, when the class were discussing their essays, one student said, “Every one of these books says that the Great War was a war of total military incompetence. Why?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, the teacher responded, “Because not enough generals were killed; they stayed way behind the lines and let others do the fighting and dying.”

Jesus didn’t just talk about laying down one’s life for others; he laid down his own life. He didn’t just talk about the high cost of love; he showed us the high cost of love when he sacrificed himself on the cross for you and me. He didn’t just talk about victory over death; he showed us the victory over death. Jesus led by example. Those are the kind of leaders who love the rest of us to higher ground-people who have the opportunity to say no but who say yes; people who spend their lives serving rather than being served.

Many Canadians know and love Margaret Craven’s book, I Heard the Owl Call My Name. It is the story of Mark Brian, a newly ordained Anglican priest who has (unbeknownst to him) been diagnosed as terminally ill. His bishop could tell him the diagnosis and send him home to his family to die. Instead, the bishop sends him to the most difficult parish in his diocese, so that Mark will be able to experience the totality of ministry in a relatively short time.

Mark is assigned a circuit of remote First Nations villages in northern British Columbia. He must learn to pilot a boat, to fix things when they break, to live among his parishioners as one of them. When the people of Kingcome Village are cold, because of severe winter weather, Mark is cold. When there is food in abundance because the salmon are running, Mark learns that he knows nothing of fishing and so must depend on others in the village, but he does eat. When an ancient cemetery must be relocated, Mark helps to move the bodies of the tribe’s ancestors. When members of the village get lost or are in trouble, he joins in coming to their aid.

Shortly after Mark discovers his terminally ill diagnosis, he is mercifully killed in an avalanche while looking for a missing logger. After his body is recovered, the villagers loving anoint him for burial, as one of them.

Margaret Craven’s young priest knows what James and John and the rest of us must be taught. According to Jesus, it is the most basic principle of leadership: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

The secular corporate model of leadership is the ability to ensure the outcomes one wishes and to prevent those one does not wish. It is leadership that would let others make the sacrifice that they themselves refuse to make.

Jesus shows us a different way: recognizing the freedom to surrender one’s own preferences in order to serve the purpose of God and the good of others. Jesus sacrifices himself to the point of his own death so that others might live. He puts himself on the line, never asking others to do what he himself has not done for them. Here is where true greatness is to be found: in the one who serves.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.



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