What leadership traits then look like now: Servant heart

In this series, the challenge we’re considering: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them? What competencies do you look for, and what do the early version of those competencies look like? I think this has relevance to other industries as well, because the competencies we’re considering would benefit every industry.

The working theory I’m exploring is that you should look for evidence of early indicators of megacompetencies. Last post, I covered the first megacompetency, resourcefulness. The second one I want to propose is:

2. Servant heart

There’s a glut of articles on servant leadership, so I won’t add to their number here. However, we’re talking about early indicators, and Robert Greenleaf himself said that the servant leader should be servant first. So it’s important to break down servanthood itself.

Early experiences shape a leader’s approach to problems, working with teams and handling of authority. The approach of numerous biblical leaders was shaped by years of serving, including Joseph, Aaron and Nehemiah.

Let’s park here for a minute before we get to the competencies. Attitudes and character are not the same as competencies. As I’ve written before, leadership training should never be given to someone who lacks character. Nothing builds character like serving, and nothing reveals character like being treated like a servant. A servant heart comes out in attitudes and attributes such as humility, selflessness and longsuffering (an archaic, but revealing way to articulate patience).

Now, those attitudes may not be evident in young leaders, because they are often developed by experience. How many brash, overconfident young people do you know who emerge from crisis, failure or loss with a greater maturity, self control and wisdom? The apostle Peter comes to mind. But there are some who are wired for service (Enneagram 2, for instance), transformed by the Holy Spirit or raised in conditions that hone early development of a servant heart.

But what makes servanthood a megacompetency? Let’s look at some of the specific competencies of a servant.

“As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.”

Think of period pieces like the TV show Downton Abbey or the film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Picture a banquet table, with beautiful table settings and guests seating arrangements carefully planned. The servants stand still on the periphery of a room, trying not to be noticed, but where are their eyes focused? On their master’s hands, looking for the slightest indication of need before it can be expressed. Servants are good listeners, empathetic, with high levels of awareness and emotional intelligence. My wife and I refer to this trait as “radar” and long to build it into our kids so they will notice a door that needs to be held for someone, a car full of groceries that needs to be unloaded, or a person carrying a heavy load that could use some help.

  • Attentive. This is related, but I want to list it separately to draw out additional competencies:  reliability, trustworthiness and diligence—to listen to, carry out and follow up detailed instructions. One way to describe this attentiveness might be to call them a student of their master or boss.

Attentiveness also touches on proximity. An attendant by definition keeps his or her position by the master’s side. In a 1990 study of successful executives, John Kotter identified one of the most important leadership development opportunities as “visible leadership role models who were either very good or very bad.” A young leader can draw his or her own conclusions from close experience with another leader, so back-stage access combined with attentiveness will accelerate a leader’s development.

  • Prescient. The best servants don’t even require an indication of need, because they know the need before it happens. They are prescient—but in the sense of having foresight, not clairvoyance. Through study and paying attention over time, they know how their master operates and what his or her preferences are. Early indications might be commitment, loyalty, curiosity and a deep interest in people.
  • Forbearing. Another archaic word with no modern equivalent. Collins Dictionary says, “Someone who is forbearing behaves in a calm and sensible way at a time when they would have a right to be very upset or angry.” A servant has to have thick skin. In The Butler, protagonist Cecil Gaines mostly succeeds at ignoring or shrugging off slights and racist comments made in his presence while maintaining a functional working relationship with eight successive presidents from both parties and a wide range of personalities. Yes, this characteristic becomes more prevalent with age, but not exclusively; well before he began working at the White House, Cecil Gaines—and Eugene Allen, the real butler his character  is based on—had gained these skills by growing up on a plantation.
  • Stewardlike. Chuck Bentley at Crown Financial Ministries says that, while there are behavioral characteristics in a steward, the definition is simple:

“A good steward is someone who doesn’t see their own life, money, and possessions as their own.”

It’s often been observed that renters treat property differently than owners. But stewards are qualitatively different. They see their role as caretakers of someone else’s property, company, organizational unit or staff, but treat them in the way they would if they were owners. In a steward, you might find early indicators of competencies like duty, resource management, resourcefulness, and employee care and development.

If you want to find a leader for the future, look among your servants. But you will have to look; the problem with seeing potential in servants is that they don’t stand out. They can get typecast and limited because leaders don’t see or allow for their potential. For many years I wondered how cupbearing could have prepared Nehemiah for a governorship, and I resolved that question in my blog post From “lording servants” to “stooping lords”—which is probably my most extensive reflections on servanthood and servant leadership.

Servant heart is important to cover before I get to the next megacompetency, because this one gets at issues of character. My next one is easily misunderstood, and I’ve seen very little written about it.


Megacompetency Series

1 thought on “What leadership traits then look like now: Servant heart

  1. Pingback: What leadership then looks like now: Resourcefulness | the back row leader

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