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The Most Costly Mistake You Can Make as a Servant Leader

I’ve heard it said that “sacred cows make great hamburgers.”

With this post, I’m testing that observation.

Why? Because I’m about to challenge the idea that Jesus is the exemplar of “servant leadership.”

And with that challenge, I’m also going to warn servant leaders about the most costly mistake they can make.

As a seminary graduate, Christian ministry leader, and later leadership scholar, I’ve really wrestled with this concept.

So, I ask two things from readers who are now considering throwing digital stones at me:

  • Please read to the conclusion of the post, and
  • Please remember Jesus’ advice on stone-throwing. 

With that preface, let’s reflect on the text that is often quoted in reference to Jesus as servant leader.

Jesus as a Servant Leader

Consider Mark 10:45, where Jesus tells his followers the following:

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now the first half of that verse works well for Jesus as exemplar of servant leadership. He clearly states that his purpose is not to benefit from the service of others, but rather to provide service for the sake of others.

It’s the second half of the verse that begs the question, “Is Jesus really talking about servant leadership, or is this something different?”

Robert Greenleaf’s work on servant leadership affirms my question about Jesus’ leadership style, while also indirectly pointing out one of the most costly mistakes a servant leader can make.  

Here are three important points about servant leadership from Greenleaf:

  • Servant leadership begins when the leader has a primary desire to serve the organization, and following that desire then leads to a place of leadership. 
  • Servant leadership focuses on meeting the highest needs of those served, and strives to not harm the least privileged in society. 
  • Servant leadership both serves the organization and allows the organization to serve it as well.

Certainly Mark 10:45 exhibits the first two bullet points from Greenleaf.

However, that last bullet point differentiates the servant leadership model from how Jesus described himself.

The relationship Greenleaf described is two-way, where leader and organization serve each other. Jesus’ life on earth seemed to be a one-way relationship with those he led; where he served constantly, until it literally killed him.

In other words, Jesus transcended “servant leadership” (because he certainly showed servant-like qualities) and entered into a new space: “martyr leadership.”

Martyr Leadership

For those who wish to lead an organization for a prolonged period of time, martyr leadership is problematic.

Why? Because it is not sustainable.

Certainly, there are causes worth dying for. We can look to police, firefighters, and soldiers who risk their lives for a cause they believe is worth the ultimate sacrifice. 

The question servant leaders must ask themselves is, “Is this cause worth dying for?” (or more to the point, worth sacrificing health, family, etc.).

The question servant leaders must ask themselves is, 'Is this cause worth dying for?' Click To Tweet

The application here for organization leaders is a cautionary one. Leaders who want a long-term relationship with the organizations they serve must distinguish between servant leadership and martyr leadership.  

For non-profit leaders especially, board members or other well-intentioned members may push you to be a “servant leader.”

But this ask may come while you are also experiencing family hardship, negative health consequences, or possible financial ruin.  I ask that you take a moment and clarify what they are really asking from you.

Don’t allow an organization to force you into a position of “martyr leadership” by asking you to be a “servant leader.”

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

Dr. Stanley J. Ward is the Dean of Capstone Studies at Claremont Lincoln University, where he continues to develop CLU's unique action research model for mindfulness, dialogue, and collaboration that lead to values-based change. As dean, he also supervises graduate student action research projects in ethical leadership, social impact, and interfaith action.

Outside of academia, he is a certified 360 feedback facilitator through the Center for Creative Leadership and a certified change management practitioner through Prosci. In 2014, he founded Influence Coaching, LLC (www.coachingforinfluence.com) to provide individual and small group coaching resources that help leaders maximize their strengths, correct their liabilities, and make peace with their weaknesses, all while developing others in their organizations.
 
Dr. Ward holds a PhD in Leadership Studies, thinks fountain pens are cool, and jams on the ukulele with his family.

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Claremont Lincoln University

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Stan Ward

Stan Ward

Dr. Stanley J. Ward is the Dean of Capstone Studies at Claremont Lincoln University, where he continues to develop CLU's unique action research model for mindfulness, dialogue, and collaboration that lead to values-based change. As dean, he also supervises graduate student action research projects in ethical leadership, social impact, and interfaith action.

Outside of academia, he is a certified 360 feedback facilitator through the Center for Creative Leadership and a certified change management practitioner through Prosci. In 2014, he founded Influence Coaching, LLC (www.coachingforinfluence.com) to provide individual and small group coaching resources that help leaders maximize their strengths, correct their liabilities, and make peace with their weaknesses, all while developing others in their organizations.
 
Dr. Ward holds a PhD in Leadership Studies, thinks fountain pens are cool, and jams on the ukulele with his family.

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