From “lording servants” to “stooping lords”

In 1970, Robert Greenleaf introduced a paradox that swept the business community: the idea of The Servant as Leader. Many leaders have picked up his books, embraced the concept and developed a servant leadership methodology. They do mind tricks like inverting the organizational chart, and they develop great management practices, all while missing Greenleaf’s point: he wasn’t writing to leaders.

Few recall that Greenleaf wasn’t suggesting that leaders should become servants. Rather,

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That perhaps is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions….

The natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader first and who later serves out of promptings of conscience or in a conformity with normative expectations. (p50)

Greenleaf was starting with different building blocks: a different attitude, a different spirit, a different person who gets noticed and promoted. In this sense, Nehemiah was a great candidate for development. He learned servantship through years as an exiled cupbearer, attending to the needs of a foreign king. When he eventually aspired to lead, Nehemiah didn’t lose his sense of grounding and character. As a godly governor, he really believed his call was to serve and relieve the people, not add further burden upon them. He was a servant leader long before it became the rage.

So why did Nehemiah use his platform to critique servant leadership?

It turns out that even servanthood doesn’t guarantee the right attitude. In chapter 5, Nehemiah’s turns the harsh glare of his spotlight on his predecessors, who laid heavy burdens on the people. He doesn’t stop there, condemning their followers: “Even their servants lorded it over the people” (Neh 5:15).

That sentence just sticks in my craw! I can’t rationalize this seemingly-impossible paradox. How can servants lord it over anyone?

But we do, don’t we? We all leverage any power we can get. From the exaggeration regularly found in CVs to the length of a person’s title, we all use every tool at our disposal. There’s a constant temptation for the administrative support staff of any leader to use the influence of their boss to gain power for themselves. If we’re really honest, we’re all laid bare by this critic of the accepted business practice of his day.

How do we steer clear of lording servantship? What can we learn from Nehemiah?

1. The position doesn’t change the person.
The position of governor came with a high level of responsibility and expectations, one of which was hospitality. Chapter 5 tells us Nehemiah could anticipate as many as 150 gathering at his table any given day. He was a good host, assuring that they had the finest food and a selection of wines. He was a connoisseur, after all.

This was clearly a business expense, and it was a right his predecessors had readily used. In fact, to claim the allowance would not draw any attention, while refusing the perk could create headlines. Nehemiah chose to forego his rights.

Why? My pastor, Glen Nudd, notes:

There was something bigger going on in Nehemiah’s heart and mind than the opportunity to enjoy an enormous hospitality budget.

This decision alone demonstrates that Nehemiah did not change when he got a promotion. After stepping up to enormous responsibility and position, he didn’t forsake humility.

2. Followers pay a cost.
Pastor Nudd says any perk received by a person in a position is a tax, and taxes always have a cost.

No government programs are ever free; they have to be paid by someone.

Nehemiah perceived that the people already carried a heavy burden, and he wasn’t going to add to it. Instead, he sought to lighten it.

The ‘servant-style’ of godly leadership demands that we ask ourselves questions about privileges we’re given, offered, and expected to take and then to ask ourselves the question: ‘If I take advantage of that particular thing, could it potentially undermine my mission to serve those I’m leading?’

3. We are all followers.
What was Nehemiah’s motivation? Verse 15 says it was the fear of God. Because of his understanding of his position in relation to God, he knew his position in relation to the people.

Centuries later, Jesus would marvel at the faith of a Roman with high position willing to beg him to heal a highly-valued servant. This centurion told Jesus he was not worthy to have him step into his home, but knew he could heal with a word.

For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9)

It’s easy to see the nature of authority in that quote. Sure, the centurion could tell people what to do. The key is that first phrase, “For I too am a man under authority.” If we know who we’re really serving, then we don’t abuse power; we handle authority and position with care. Servants don’t lord it over anyone.

4. Servants can “lead upwards.”
Followers usually emulate the behaviors and attitudes they see in their leaders. Nehemiah’s servants were right there with the people, rolling up their sleeves to lay stones in the wall. But what happens to followers who serve beneath a lording leader? Do they get a pass?

Chapter 3 draws out of obscurity the actual men and women who built the wall of Jerusalem. In the middle of this chapter, we see a case study of servants who plotted their own course. Verse 5 says the Tekoites repaired a specific part of the wall, and verse 27 adds that they went the extra mile, helping build a second section. They went above and beyond in spite of the example of those who should have been their role models. While the Tekoites put in the hard work, “their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord” (Neh 3:5). What powerful phrasing, though a footnote is quick to point out the word “Lord” could also mean lords, or supervisors. Frankly, it’s all the same. When we serve our supervisors, our leaders and our followers, we’re serving our Lord (Eph 6:7).

Before Nehemiah ever aspired to lead, he revealed his posture and his heart. In his prayer in chapter 1, he used the word “servant” seven times. He put himself in good company with Moses and Israel as a “servant of the Lord.” It was easy for Nehemiah to think that way, because I’m convinced he thought the two words – “leader” and “servant” – were synonyms.

Nehemiah never undermined his mission. His character inspired a generation of Jewish leaders. His honest account in the book of Nehemiah influenced many generations to come. And as an exile in a hostile culture, he likely offered a striking contrast to the leadership style of an ungodly king in an ungodly culture. On that point alone, his life and his leadership are certainly relevant to us today.

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What does healthy ambition look like?

I want to go one step further with the topic of ambition. It’s easy to link to someone else’s blog and take no risk with my own thoughts about ambition. I want to explore a few verses on the subject, asking two questions. One, is ambition the opposite of humility, as some seem to suggest? And two, what does healthy ambition look like?

First, let’s look at the Bible, starting with 1 Timothy 3:1.

This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position.”

In the next couple of verses and in Titus 1, Paul lays out a string of traits needed in an elder, such as faithfulness, self-control and gentleness — elements related to humility. In verse 6, Paul lists a concern that new believers who become elders might become proud and get tripped up. So, I take from these verses that it’s okay to aspire to be an elder, but in a way that does not lead to pride.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins described the ideal CEO as a “Level 5 Leader,” the marks of which are “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will,” best expressed as an ambition for the company. So, humility does not necessarily exclude ambition. What’s the difference between this kind of ambition and the version the Bible condemns? It’s the focus of the ambition.

Let’s look back at the verses in my last post on the subject. 1 Thessalonians 4:11,12 describes an ambition to live a quiet hard-working life. Why? On first glance, his reasons seem shaky. First, to win the respect of outsiders. Well, respect can be dangerous if it’s means recognition, acclaim or popularity. But Paul’s goal is to win over outsiders to the cause of Christ. He’s always focused. Second, to not be dependent on anybody. Independence can be dangerous when paired with ambition. Independence usually doesn’t align with Christianity very well. But we know from other contexts that Paul had a desire to avoid asking those he was trying to reach to pay his salary; he wanted to fund his own ministry while he worked among them. So Paul is saying in this verse that his audience should aspire to do whatever it takes to avoid any offense to the cause of Christ.

Romans 15:20 describes an ambition to “preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” Sounds to me like Paul had a healthy, Level 5 ambition to expand Christ’s kingdom. I don’t think there’s any question that Paul had humility and stubborn will. But the last part of that verse shows some of Paul’s heart: “so that I would not be building on anyone else’s foundation.” Do you see the edge in that phrase? I would think Paul opened himself for criticism for his desire to be first or to go it alone. On the other hand, I think God has given ambition to certain people to be trailblazers and entrepreneurs. Without Paul’s gift, the Church wouldn’t have expanded as quickly as it did in the first century.

So here’s my theory. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ambition, if it’s directed correctly. There’s nothing wrong with a desire to do something great. There’s nothing wrong with a desire to be a trailblazer. And there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to greater influence. The question is motivation. If your ambition is directed toward yourself — to be great, to be known for trailblazing, to get a name for yourself, to have greater power — then you’re setting yourself up against God. That didn’t work out so well for those in Babel or for their descendant Nebuchadnezzar. But I think God has gifted people with ambition in His service. And those people can accomplish amazing things as they apply their gifts, their stubborn willpower, their strategic minds, and yes, their humility, to the cause of Christ.

Let me close with a personal story. When I was asked to be an elder at my local church a number of years ago, I questioned whether I should pursue it. One day I heard my pastor read 1 Timothy 3:1. I’d never noticed that verse before. You mean it wasn’t sinful to desire to be an elder? I’d wanted to be an elder for some time, because I thought God had gifted me with some of the qualities that make a good elder. It was the character traits that humbled me; it’s quite a list to measure up to. I noted in my journal that I asked myself a question from Steve Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Was I willing to “do” elder, or did I just want to “be” elder? Once I settled my motivations, I believe my ambition for that position met the demands of Scripture.

I still struggle to meet the qualifications, and I still struggle to do the work, but it’s my ambition to help expand the kingdom of Christ through this local church. And it’s my ambition to see Bible translation begun in every language that needs it in this generation. I think it’s my life’s work.