Leadership: Service or Self-Interest?

If you’ve spent any time in a library or bookstore lately you may have noticed a topic that fills the shelves. In my local library there is not just a single shelf, but an entire row of books addressing one particular subject: leadership. With titles ranging from Total Leadership to Fierce Leadership to Mindful Leadership, leadership is an issue that captures our attention. But why?

Jack Welch in his book Winning provides a key reason. “I’ve never known a person who didn’t light up at the memory of a truly great boss. And for good reason…they can shape and advance your career in ways you never expected – and sometimes they can even change your life. In stark contrast, a bad boss can just about kill you”. [1] We all know the enormous impact that a boss has in our lives, both for good…and for bad. 

While I personally have never been the CEO of a multi-national, or the Chair of a company board, or the President of any organisation, I have had a first hand encounter with the greatest leader of all time: Jesus. And if there is one distinctive, defining feature of His leadership it would have to be service.

“The Son of Man came…”

In the Gospels there are three “the Son of Man came” statements. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19), “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), and “The Son of Man came not be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). The first is where Jesus did His ministry – around meal tables and in dining rooms. The second is what He came to do – to seek and save the lost. But only the third tells us how – service. If there is a defining word to sum up how Jesus did all that He did it is this: service.

However if you’ve been a Christian for any period of time then I suspect that some of the enormity of Mark 10:45 gets lost on you. It does for me. But this verse is nothing short of extraordinary, because of just who it is who serves, and the nature of that service.

Who it is who serves

Jesus calls Himself in this verse “the Son of Man”. It’s an expression loaded with significance coming straight out of the Old Testament, in particular Daniel 7. In this chapter Daniel has a vision where he encounters one called “the Ancient of Days”. Thousands upon thousands are attending to this ruler. Then Daniel writes,

“In my vision I looked and there before me was one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).

This Son of Man is given the kind of authority that human leaders could only ever dream of. He doesn’t just rule one large corporation or multi-national; all nations and peoples submit to his rule. His leadership is not partial, his authority hamstrung by a company board, or frustrated by incompetent employees. Rather, He is given “authority, glory and sovereign power”. And His time at the top is not temporary. Unlike the CEO who is moved aside when the share-price drops, “His kingdom is one that will never be destroyed”. This is a leadership unlike any other; all powerful, all encompassing, and everlasting.

The nature of Jesus’ service

That we should even then ask, “What was the nature of the Son of Man’s service?” should shock us. For someone with this kind of authority does not serve. And yet what does this leader, the Son of Man, look like when He makes Himself known in human form?

“After the meal Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:5).

But washing feet, as extraordinary as that is, is just a foretaste of the kind of service the Son of Man came to do. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). What is the nature and extent of His service? His whole life given in death for you.

How this changes our hearts and our habits

The higher we climb up the corporate ladder the more privileges come our way. And oftentimes with them comes a sense of entitlement to those privileges. “This is just what comes with the job” might be our thought.

What are the privileges that come with the role of the Son of Man? Not death on a cross. And yet such is the service of the Son of Man. This was a kind of leadership the world had never seen before. Let this example of Jesus melt your hearts, for the Apostle Paul says it is to be our model for workplace leadership. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ…taking on the nature of a servant” (Philippians 2: 5,7).

But as well as melting our hearts it should also shape our workplace habits. Australian author John Dickson in his book Humilitas gives one of the best descriptions of what this will mean for workplace leadership. The humble leader is “marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others”. [2] Any authority, power or leadership we are granted in the workplace we are to ask of ourselves not how we might wield it to better our own interests. Rather, we ask, how can I wield this power for the betterment of others? So a simple habit to develop might be making a list of all the staff under your authority (or one particular team if you are in charge of dozens of employees). Next to each name you might then write down one practical thing that you could do over next week where you could use your power for their advancement. It might be giving them a task to do that would have made you look impressive, but you give them the chance to shine instead. Or it might be speaking up to senior leadership on their behalf for a well-earned pay rise. Service often looks like advocacy. As one writer says, “Do you have big ambitions for yourself or big aspirations for the people on your team?“[3]

The beauty of service

In Humilitas Dickson speaks of the “aesthetics of virtue”, [4] that is, the way that servant leadership looks attractive. If you’ve ever had a servant-hearted boss you’ll know precisely what Dickson is talking about. If that is the case, and I believe it is, I wonder if service in the workplace might just be the most significant way that we display something to our colleagues of the beauty of Christian faith, and the beauty of our Saviour. The Son of Man who did not come to be served but to serve.


[1] Jack Welch, Winning, 299.

[2] John Dickson, Humilitas: A lost key to life, love and leadership, 24.

[3] Cheryl Bachelder, Dare to Serve: How to drive superior results by serving others, 112.

[4] Dickson, Humilitas, 69.

 

 

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