Being a leader changes everything. Before you are a leader, success is all about you. It’s about your performance, your contributions. It’s about getting called upon and having the right answers. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. Your success as a leader comes not from what you do but from the reflected glory of the people you lead”–Jack Welch

Reading and reflecting this morning on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, I thought it might reinforce my own commitment to movement building by wrestling with the notion of servant-leadership. Larry Spears, a protege of Robert Greenleaf and champion of Greenleaf’s work on Servant-Leadership, argues here that **servant-leaders display the following ten behaviors.** (In my own reading about movement leaders like MLKjr or William Wilberforce, each behavior was present. As you launch and build church or para-church movements, use Spear’s work as a grid to evaluate and improve your own leadership.)


Far too often leaders assume the role of expert, believing that their title, position or experience demands the role of “answer man.” All genius rests in them. All communication thus flows out and down. Servant-leaders, on the other hand, realize that the “genius is in the room.” As James suggested to the leaders of the early church, leaders should be quick to hear and slow to speak as well as hesitant to assume the role of teacher. “For who is truly wise and understanding among us?” (James 1:19; 3:1ff). Servant leaders apply the meekness of wisdom–drawing out the “genius” of others.


In my own journey, I’ve become aware that I lack empathy. Empathy means that one is deeply cognizant of the other’s perspective. (Sympathy in contrast suggests an affinity with or judgment of the other’s perspective.) Lacking empathy, leaders are often driven by a narcissistic assumption that everyone is merely an extension of me. Those I lead are like members of my body, an arm or leg to do my bidding. Spears argues that servant leaders are empathic; they seek to both understand and acknowledge the perspectives of others. Others are separate from me; they have thoughts, ideas, feelings, value. An emphatic leader uses his or her sensitivity to build a nexus between the desires and aspirations of separate individuals and the larger collective or movement.


Henry Ford once lamented that even though he needed only the services of his employees’ hands, he unfortunately had to hire the whole person*. Often in leadership, we’d love for those we lead to just “perform” as expected. We’d be happy to just get their “services.” In reality, we lead “whole” persons who bring their whole self to the table–with all its personal messiness and brokenness. Servant leaders recognize the reality that “we are all broken people living with other broken people in a broken down world (P.D.Tripp). In turn, they realize–without becoming therapists or counselors–that the work of building movements can be a forum for individuals to elevate their lives. As Spears elaborates: “Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is a part of being human, servant leaders recognize that they have an opportunity to help make whole those with whom they come in contact.”


In pointing out my lack of empathy, a counselor added that I’ve got additional work to do in the area of “self-awareness.” Lack of empathy seems to go hand in hand with poor self-awareness. We don’t “know” others or ourselves. And it’s hard to serve and lead others without self-awareness, without the ability to lead ourselves. Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman argues that: “The ability to manage yourself — to have self-awareness and self-regulation — is the very basis of managing others, in many ways. For instance, science has learned that if you are tuned out of your own emotions, you will be poor at reading them in other people. And if you can’t fine-tune your own actions — keeping yourself from blowing up or falling to pieces, marshaling positive drives — you’ll be poor at handling the people you deal with. Star leaders are stars at leading themselves, first.”


Servant leaders realize that mandating behavior, based on some formal or hierarchical authority never really works. They must persuade. In WWII, Russians commanders often set up machine guns behind their troops shooting any Russian soldier who retreated or refused to fight the advancing enemy. Dwight Eisenhower recognized the futility of such an approach, writing: “I would rather try to persuade a man to go along, because once I have persuaded him, he will stick. If I scare him, he will stay just as long as he is scared, and then he is gone.” Servant leaders in whatever environment marshall their listening, empathy and self-awareness to “persuade,” building an environment of mutuality, in which leaders and followers become a community of friends in the pursuit of a great cause.


How we conceptualize the future is critical to servant leadership? Leaders are often more comfortable with short-term horizons, falsely believe that thinking about today or tomorrow, this quarter or this year is more important. The reality is “we accomplish a lot less in a year than we think and a lot more in five years than we can imagine.” Servant-leaders stretch out the time horizon and invest in shooting for something big. As they lead, they speak of dreams, of what could be–helping facilitate a commitment to bold collective visions. They say, as Martin Luther King Jr did, “I have a dream that one day….” As they do so, leaders and followers get captured by that “could be” and experience what Walt Disney once said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”


Foresight is the ability to see the future, in such a way that the leader and the led know what to do. Peter Drucker asserted that foresight is the leader’s lead, arguing that the best way to predict the future is to create it. Servant leaders stand at the intersection of the past, the present, and the future. Using the experience and lessons of the past, leaders stay focused on the two futures–the probable future and the preferred future. For the servant leader with foresight, these two futures help determine the present. The “foreseen” probable future represents what will “probably” happen if nothing is done in the present. The “foreseen” preferable future, on the other hand, drives the leader toward action in the present. Applying the insights of the past, the collective wisdom of his/her team and the foresight garnered from playing off in his/her mind the probable and the preferred futures, the servant leader acts in the present to create that preferable future.


Servant-leaders recognize their role as stewards first of all people. Leaders guard the interests of others; they champion others before themselves; they put others in the center. As James Kouzes and Barry Posner articulate: “Leaders we admire do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others. They do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires; they look for ways to respond to the needs and interests of their constituents. They are not self-centered, they concentrate on the constituent.”

Commitment to the Growth of People

As stewards of those they lead and serve, servant leaders are committed to help others grow and develop. They believe their people present a nearly inextinguishable supply of potential (JG), building an environment in which that potential can begin to emerge. According to Greenleaf, the litmus test of servant leadership is the following: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Building Community

In a recent article, Dave Soliel contrasts the typical single heroic person whom large groups of people follow with the reality that it’s a community at the heart of leadership, not a hero. All leadership is mutual–a process of community. Leadership is powerless without community. Martin Luther King, Jr did not march for freedom and equality alone–he was a visionary voice of the collective effort of hundreds of thousands of people. Since servant leaders see leadership, not as a person, but as the collective action of a community, they see every person as critical. They empower, engage, release responsibility to others. They see their main role as “building a company of friends in the pursuit of a great cause.”

(Thanks for James Grinnell review and reflection on Spears’ work ideas here).

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