Leadership is one of those things that people have a lot of opinions about. There are a lot of books, articles, podcasts and teaching about leadership. Yet this idea of servant leadership is still difficult for many people in our culture to grasp. It does not come naturally to most leaders and cannot be implemented simply by studying the ideas. Most leaders really grasp these concepts of leadership when they have a belief and personal relationship with the ultimate leader of all time Jesus Christ. Serving others as a leader is no simple, easy task; yet this style of leadership builds great organizations, teams and families.
In 1977 Robert Greenleaf coined this term and wrote a lot about it. Since then many others have addressed this radically different style of leadership. Larry C. Spears wrote about ten characteristics of a servant leader and John Barbuto Jr and David Wheeler added one more characteristic in their article entitled Becoming A Servant Leader: Do You Have What It Takes? These characteristics describe servant leadership and are a great lesson for all leaders to look to if we want to improve our influence and effectiveness.
So here they are:
Calling – Do people believe that you are willing to sacrifice self- interest for the good of the group? Servant leaders have a natural desire to serve others. This notion of having a calling to serve is deeply rooted and value-based. Servant leaders have a desire to make a difference for other people and will pursue opportunities to impact others’ lives — never for their own gain. A servant leader is willing to sacrifice self-interests for the sake of others. This characteristic cannot be taught, so unless a person has a natural calling to serve, servant leadership is not a realistic or compatible style.
Listening – Do people believe that you want to hear their ideas and will value them? Servant leaders are excellent listeners. They are receptive and genuinely interested in the views and input of others. People instinctively understand that servant leaders want them to share their ideas and that these ideas will be valued. Listening is a skill that can be learned and is essential for those who desire to be a servant leader. Without good listening skills, many of the other characteristics described in this publication cannot be achieved.
Empathy – Do people believe that you will understand what is happening in their lives and how it affects them? Servant leaders can “walk in others’ shoes.” They understand and empathize with others’ circumstances and problems. Leaders who are empathetic have earned confidence from others by understanding whatever situation is being faced. This characteristic is a skill that comes more naturally to some people than others, but it is pertinent for all who aspire to be a servant leader.
Healing – Do people come to you when the chips are down or when something traumatic has happened in their lives? Servant leaders are people who others want to approach when something traumatic has happened. They have developed a remarkable appreciation for the emotional health and spirit of others. They are good at facilitating the healing process and others gravitate toward them when emotional needs arise. The ability to create an environment that encourages emotional mending is crucial for those who want to become great servant leaders.
Awareness – Do others believe you have a strong awareness for what is going on? Servant leaders have a keen sense for what is happening around them. They are always looking for cues from the environment to inform their opinions and decisions. They know what’s going on and will rarely be fooled by appearances. This skill is crucial to the development of servant leaders.
Persuasion – Do others follow your requests because they want to or because they believe they “have to?” Servant leaders seek to convince others to do things rather than relying on formal authority. They are naturally very persuasive and offer compelling reasons when they make requests. They never force others to do things. This ability is important for servant leaders to develop.
Conceptualization – Do others communicate their ideas and vision for the organization when you are around? Servant leaders nurture the ability to conceptualize the world, events and possibilities. They encourage others to dream great dreams and avoid getting bogged down by day-to-day realities and operations. They foster an environment that encourages thinking big and valuing the creative process. Those who want to be great servant leaders must develop an environment that fosters conceptualization.
Foresight – Do others have confidence in your ability to anticipate the future and its consequences? Servant leaders have an uncanny ability to anticipate future events. This is not to say they are psychic or always right, but they are adept at picking up patterns in the environment and seeing what the future will bring. They usually anticipate consequences of decisions with great accuracy. Those who want to be successful servant leaders need to have and develop this foresight.
Stewardship – Do others believe you are preparing the organization to make a positive difference in the world? Servant leaders often are characterized by a strong sense of stewardship. Stewardship stems from medieval times when a steward would be assigned to hone the skills and development of the young prince to prepare him for his reign. The kingdom relied on the steward to teach and hold the prince in trust so that he would be a successful king. Today the term stewardship involves many of the same things. A steward in an organization is responsible for preparing it for its destiny, usually for the betterment of society. When we describe a leader as having a strong sense of stewardship, we refer to a desire to prepare the organization to contribute to the greater good of society — not unlike preparing the prince to serve the greater good of the kingdom. Making a positive difference in the future is characteristic of the stewardship mentality. Those who desire to be excellent servant leaders need to have a natural sense of stewardship. If you don’t naturally have a stewardship perspective, it is unlikely that the servant leadership style will come naturally to you.
Growth – Do people believe that you are committed to helping them develop and grow? Servant leaders have a strong commitment to the growth of people. They believe that all people have something to offer beyond their tangible contributions. Servant leaders work hard to help people in a number of ways — spiritually, professionally, personally. Those who want to be great servant leaders need to connect to others’ developmental needs and actively find ways to meet these needs.
Building Community – Do people feel a strong sense of community in the organization that you lead? Servant leaders have a strong sense of community spirit and work hard to foster it in an organization. They believe that an organization needs to function as a community. A servant leader instills a sense of community spirit in the workplace. Those who want to be great servant leaders need to work hard to build community in the organization.
Servant Leadership Development
Servant leadership is characterized by a belief that leadership development is an on-going, life-long learning process. For this reason, servant leaders commit to continual development in the 11 characteristics of servant leadership. Some characteristics come more naturally to some people than to others. By their nature, characteristics such as calling, empathy, healing and stewardship are more difficult to learn and develop than other servant leadership characteristics.
These are characteristics that leaders must already have to be successful servant leaders. Characteristics such as listening, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, growth and building community all are learnable skills, so servant leaders can continually develop these. I encourage you to reflect and thoughtfully assess the degree to which you have what it takes to be a servant leader. If you are committed to being the best servant leader that you can be, I urge you to continuously work to develop these characteristics.
Last night I taught a class called Refocus Your Marriage. Really it could be called Refocus Your Relationships. I thought I would share a few of the opening comments I shared with that group.
Here are three important truths to remember:
I want to introduce you to the emotion that destroys relationships. This has been going on for thousands of years since the beginning with Adam & Eve. It has been destroying relationships and people very effectively. At the core of every person is a button called fear. That fear takes many shapes, things like fear of failure, fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, you name it.
From where does this fear come from? Let’s take a look at the creation story with fresh eyes Genesis 2:17 – After God created Adam & Eve, he informed them about two special trees blossoming in the middle of the garden: The tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Regarding the first he gave no commandment. But the second he said “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
Why did God create a perfect garden and then put these two trees right in the middle? Why not outside the garden? I think it was because he created us to depend on him, not living an autonomous life apart from him. He gave that command to not eat of the tree so that we wouldn’t become self-sustaining and insist on stubborn control of our own lives. He wanted us to daily choose to trust Him for everything we need.
I believe that command created a healthy fear in Adam & Eve, the fear of being separated from God. It also created a fear of losing each other as well. Well along comes Satan, or the Serpent and he plays on this fear. “Did God really say, You must not eat from any tree in the garden?” Eve replies exactly what God told them, we can eat from any tree in the garden except the tree in the middle of the garden, you must not touch it or you will die.
“You will not surely die, serpent said to the woman. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. My guess is that Eve thought that her fear of being separated from God was not true and therefore took the fruit. This caused a whole new fear to take root. This fear was unhealthy and destructive. When Adam & Eve heard God walking in the garden they hid, because they were afraid. There fear caused them to respond in a certain way. After eating the fruit their response became unhealthy, defensiveness, blaming others.
Our relationships are much the same way. We all have hurts from our past or guilt from us hurting someone else. Those hurts and guilt drive the fear that drives our unhealthy behaviors. That causes us to struggle to have healthy, happy relationships. To learn more about this idea of fear and relationships read the book by Gary Smalley called “The DNA of Relationships”.