When Servant Leadership becomes…Leader Servantship

//When Servant Leadership becomes…Leader Servantship

When Servant Leadership becomes…Leader Servantship

2018-08-30T21:19:55+00:00By |

I taught high school Sunday School for nearly a decade.  One of my students was the quarterback of the local football team, and whenever I asked him a question that he was not sure of the answer, he would smile real big and slowly say “Jesus”?   No kidding…he got a scholarship to Princeton.

As “Jesus” was his Sunday School answer, in the same way, “servant leadership” is, at least, a part of the most evident answer to about 15% of the questions that search committees ask in an interview for a Christian university or ministry president.  As a search firm, we have attempted a workaround by asking candidates to describe their leadership style without using the terms “servant leadership” or “collaboration”.  It becomes almost an SNL skit as these otherwise articulate Ph.D.’s  scramble to find substitute words for the answer to the one question that they thought they could ace.

“Servant Leadership”…we all want to hear those words included in a candidate’s response when we ask the leadership question during an interview, and we all generally know what WE mean by the term, but exact definitions are a little harder to come by.  Suffice it to say, we may not be in agreement about what servant leadership is, but we are likely in full agreement about what it is not.  None of our clients would hire someone who is unable to demonstrate or, at least, articulate a servant leadership style, and that makes me think that at least when they were hired, most, if not all, Christian leaders possessed that quality of servant leadership.

Somewhere along the way, however, servant leadership has often changed and been replaced by something much less attractive.  That desire to be the helpful servant of all sometimes becomes a hierarchical tyranny with a king or queen on top who demands rather than earns respect and gains followers by an underlying fear rather than by example.  Somehow, over time, the servant leader who was hired can gradually transform into a much more demanding, more expectant and more arrogant version of the earlier self.  When that happens, servant leadership has become “Leader Servantship.”  There are five indicators that a university, ministry or business is developing a Leader Servantship culture –

A general feeling of irreplaceability begins to surround the leader.  The Lord uses leaders in every for-profit and nonprofit institution, and yet we are all replaceable, and if our work is to survive, we will all be replaced.  As an organization gains strength, scale and recognition, the board, the staff and the leader may begin to believe the leader is critical to the continuance of that success.   The Old Testament is rife with examples of God removing leaders whose personal authority began to challenge His ultimate leadership.

The Bible teaches us that we are to honor our leaders and that a workman is worthy of his hire and yet James also teaches us that we are all like a vanishing vapor.  As I was contemplating executive search as a career, my father told me he thought it would be “a great field in which to build a career in that sooner or later all leaders quit, get fired, retire or die…but turnover is eventually 100%.”  Logically, if a leader is not replaceable, the organization dies when the leader dies.

The line blurs between personal and missional finances.  I have a friend who became the executive pastor of a 20,000 person mega-church.  When he joined, he learned that none of the pastoral staff, including the senior pastor, was giving to the church.  Perplexed, he confronted his new boss who responded that tithes were already considered when establishing compensation, and all staff were paid approximately 10% below market in order to cover giving.  Not satisfied, my friend pressed it further at which point he was told to give all staff a 10% raise and make an automatic payroll deduction of the tithe, in order to painlessly accomplish the giving goal.

In another instance, a ministry leader had his organization pay for all of the furnishing of his second home, as he would often be working from there.  Business environments can experience this, too.  When the owner of a small business takes necessary operational capital out of a business to buy his family a boat, he or she damages a culture that depends upon financial standards for its viability.  In either situation, treasure and heart are inextricably tied together, and when financial lines are blurred, the prioritization of organizational mission begins to be challenged.

Good business principles are conceded to convenience.  I asked “what does he do?” and the answer came back, “Well … he is the president’s son.”   I am sure that was not what was printed on his business card, but when an organization perceives that a paycheck is being allocated based upon a family relationship, symptoms of Leader Servantship have developed.  In privately held businesses, it may be acceptable to employ family members as a benefit to the family or for tax purposes.  But non-profits never “belong” to the leader; they belong to the board, to the community, to the mission or to God, and they exist to serve a purpose different from the best interests of the leader.

Why does the leader of international ministry live in Kansas?  Why does that person who has been unsuccessful in the last four roles, now have a very nebulous job at an income that still reflects significant responsibility?  Why is the organization headquartered in Grand Rapids, but the president lives in Palm Beach?  Is a one year paid sabbatical really practical?  These questions and many more must be rigorously asked and honestly answered if an organization is to operate on business principles that line up fully with its mission.

Accountability becomes unilateral.  From a practical standpoint, many boards exist solely to support the leader in his or her effort to lead an organization, without providing any real accountability to the leader.  While a governance board may follow its leader regarding vision or even strategy, it must still hold the leader accountable to accomplishing the organizational mission and living within the operational expectations of the organization.  From a governance standpoint, the leader is accountable to the board and the board must assert that responsibility, even in regard to a competent, charismatic, successful and perhaps famous leader.

The New Testament provides some great language regarding mutual accountability.  In Romans 12:10, Paul encourages followers of Christ to prefer one another.  In a similar manner Peter, writing to the elders (“leaders”) of the church writes “All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.”  Mutual preference and submission are hallmarks of servant leadership, and a board is missionally charged to ensure a culture that requires and embraces accountability.

The culture begins to revolve around the leader rather than the mission.  We have all seen it.  The reserved parking spaces, the oil-painted portrait in the lobby, the personal awards in the curio and the leader’s achievements matted in frames along the long walk to the corner office.  We know this is a great person and likely a wonderful leader, but the very culture of the mission has begun to change to reflect a personalization of what was once a mission-shaped culture.  In one instance, a cabinet member with no intent to slander talked about the “cult following” the mission’s leader was beginning to attract.

The two most important roles of an academic or non-profit board are –

Mission Focus – This means assuring that the organization remains fully aligned with the mission as spelled out in public statements and governing documents and with the core intent of its purpose.  To do this a board must prevent an unintentional drift in mission that may occur over many years of service, especially under the direction of a highly effective leader.  The board must also prevent the organization’s culture from becoming shaped around a leader who is ultimately and always temporary.

Leadership Selection – This means choosing leadership that will often sacrifice a personal agenda for the accomplishment of the organizational mission.  It also less pleasantly means holding selected leaders fully accountable to build a culture and operating practices that center on the attainment of the mission.  Finally, leadership selection requires a governing board to deselect a leader who has become a less than effective institutional “fixture,” often visible in these symptoms of Leader Servantship.