I’ve always seen servant leadership as one-way service. Not sure why, but I suspect it’s a western, individualistic interpretation of service. Perhaps that’s why I’ve had a vague uneasiness with the servant leadership concept. In In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen picks up on some of the shepherding themes I’ve been ruminating on in my studies over the last few weeks. He caught my attention with his thoughts on John 10, about Jesus laying down his life for the sheep.

Nouwen would say my interpretation of servanthood stems from my experience with the professional “civil servants.” For instance, I was watching my flight attendant a week ago as she served passengers, realizing that she was paid to meet the passengers’ needs. But it’s one-directional. It would be very strange for a passenger to try to serve her in return. You just wouldn’t see someone stand up and take her cart and ask her to sit down while they served her — though that would be fun to try sometime!

There is no dependence among nurses, doctors, police or firefighters. No mutuality. Follow Nouwen’s logic here: “Someone serves, someone else is being served, and be sure not to mix up the roles!” That leads to the conclusion that “mutuality can only be seen as weakness and a dangerous form of role confusion.” Therefore servanthood “quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others.”

How on earth can something as humble as servanthood break down into paternalism and authoritarianism? When it doesn’t allow reciprocation.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Nouwen says that we are to be a radically different kind of servant:

The leadership about which Jesus speaks is of a radically different kind from the leadership being offered by the world. It is a true servant leadership — to use Robert Greenleaf’s term — in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need him or her….

We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for…. The mystery is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love now the gateway for both the unlimited and unconditional love of God.

How difficult is it for you to become indebted? How difficult is it for you to receive love back again? How difficult is it for you to allow someone to serve you? These are questions that those who enter another culture face on a regular basis. Over and over again, I hear people who return from mission trips say how they thought they were going to bless the people “over there” and they ended up being blessed far more themselves. There’s real power in the “servant” allowing one who has little to give them whatever they do have to offer. To deny that is to begin to slide toward an unhealthy view of oneself.

How much do you open up about your brokenness to those you serve/lead and let them minister to you? Servant leadership is about mutuality.

“Is this a decision I need to make?”

I love Steven Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. He points out that while the conventional view of leaders is that they’re decisive and bold, most situations don’t necessarily call for snap decisions. Instead, he offers two rules for decision making:

1. Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.

So the first question he proposes that a leader ask is whether he’s the one to make the decision. A colleague of mine often reminds me that budget decisions are better made by the local manager. That’s true for more than just budgets, and it’s a good reminder to figure out who is best-qualified to make a decision. But I believe Sample is going a step further with his contrarian advice. He’s saying that a leader should deliberately delegate a decision he has the right to make as an act of empowerment to his team. Of course, he qualifies it by saying “reasonably,” but he’s talking about a bent, a tendency to defer on decisions whenever possible.

When all decisions have to pass through the top, we generally refer to that style of leadership as “autocratic.” But not all autocrats are despots. In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page says there’s a subsidiary of the autocratic model that he calls the “benevolent dictator.” These paternalistic leaders thrive in Christian organizations.

In its simplest form, it means that the leader alone knows what is best for the organization, either because of their direct connection to God or because of their superior God-given abilities.

Ouch. I know a few of these… in other organizations, of course. I pray that if I ever take that viewpoint, I’ll have given someone enough room at some more sane point in my tenure to be able to call me out on it. Far better to empower your managers at every level to make decisions. And to consciously push a decision down to build the capacity of your team.