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

Happy to Serve, Reluctant to Lead

It’s been a while since I’ve written on reluctant leadership, my original passion and motivation for this blog. But last week I saw an amazing article on the subject in the Wall Street Journal that made some excellent points. Let me write a preface for it and send you with expediency to the Wall Street Journal. It’s that good.

The article is built on the models of a handful of reluctant leaders, including Moses, George Washington, and Chuck Stokes (CEO of Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston), with President Dwight D. Eisenhower headlining the list. His motivation for running as president was the same as entering the military: his country needed him. So he approached both military service and public service with a reticence to put himself forward. As Robert Greenleaf said, “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 was Eisenhower’s m.o.

As I read the article, I was reminded of Jesus’ words:

But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored. (Matthew 23:8-12, CEV)

My takeaways were in the discussion about the CEO and COO roles. Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

Being an enthusiastic, charismatic, highly visible public figure with a lively Twitter account may add value, but those duties won’t coax a hesitant leader out of hiding. Some executives, like Mr. Stokes, would rather shut the office door and apply their vast experience to solving problems. Ideally, a leader excels at both, but let’s be honest. These proclivities rarely flower in the same pot.

Maybe we should start paying COOs like CEOs and invite the vice president to live in the White House, too. Or split the toughest jobs between people with complementary skills, as Salesforce’s Marc Benioff recently did by elevating his trusted operational chief, Keith Block, to the role of co-CEO.

Without further ado, go read the article (it should be free if you haven’t read anything on WSJ in a while).

eisenhower code

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.