My friend Anthony told me an amazing story that illustrates the complicated concepts around serving, leading and being served. At the time Anthony held a senior role in a global community development charity. The organisation did a lot of work funding churches in India to support their communities, and he travelled there to inspect the work.
One very hot day he planned to go to a remote village. There had been a few hold ups before commencing a long journey on dusty roads. They were running late, and Anthony had called ahead to let his contact know. However when he drove up, he found that the entire village had been sitting in the sun for over an hour. He was embarrassed to be ushered up to a stage, under a shade cloth, with one chair meant for him.
Although Anthony protested to the village elder about being in the shade while the villagers continued to bake in the sun, the elder insisted. As Anthony took his seat, he saw something that made him blush. There was an elderly woman making her way through the crowd with a bowl of water and a towel over her shoulder. It was clear what she was going to do, and Anthony did not want to be part of it. He did not want to be the big white saviour who had come to the village to be served by them.
What would you do? Would you refuse the woman’s act of service?
Find out what Anthony did later.
Jesus is the one who has taught us most about how to lead by serving, in the wonderful example from John 13 when he washed the disciples’ feet – even the feet of Judas and Peter, who would both betray him.
I have written about Jesus-shaped leadership in Workship 2: How to Flourish at Work; pointing to the two postures of Jesus evident in this passage: an inward posture of humility and an outward posture of service. This event exemplifies the way Jesus came to serve. He took on the role of a doulos, a Greek word that can be translated ‘servant’ or in this context – washing feet — more likely ‘slave’.
As a lecturer in leadership for various colleges, I can say that Jesus’ example of servant leadership is a significant gift to the practice of leadership in all organisations and contexts.
His example is important as a means of revealing who Jesus is and what he is like. It shows that you value others’ success and wellbeing more than your own. It is reflecting who Christ is and what he has done for us.
This creates an opportunity to make a real difference as a leader. As one doctor said, “There are still many leaders who call the shots and lead in a very autocratic manner, who don’t bring their teams along with them and are still very patriarchal in their leadership models. You can really show difference by being a servant leader.”
It tends to be the common thread among great Christian leaders. Others rise quickly, shine brightly and crash noisily. But a humble and serving leader quietly makes a significant difference, empowers those around them and is remembered long after.
Leading by Example
What does this look like in practice? One of my favourite stories is about the head of a medical unit who cleaned up vomit.
A friend who worked in that medical unit told me that the boss messaged her that the office had been broken into and entirely trashed by a group of young people, with mess that included quantities of urine and vomit. The head of the unit drove in on the weekend and helped clean the office: he got down on his hands and knees and cleaned up the mess. This simple act will never be forgotten by the rest of the staff, since they saw that he was prepared not just to give the orders, but to do the dirty work. It made a profound impression, particularly on non-Christian staff.
So, back to our first story: What did Anthony do?
Anthony was sitting there hating the situation as this elderly woman struggled up onto the stage with the bowl of water. He wanted to refuse or to grab the bowl from her and make her sit. Suddenly he felt God urging him to stay seated – that the most loving thing to do was to receive this act of service as a gift. In this case servant leadership involved empowering her to act like Jesus towards him.
As she washed his dusty feet, there was a moment when he was able to make eye contact and say thanks. In the end they both wept, and embraced.
NEXT TIME: I will report from a conference on work and worship, labour and liturgy.
Kara Martin is an Adjunct Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and lectures at Mary Andrews College, is author of the Workship books and Keeping Faith and co-hosts the Worship on the Way to Work podcast.