Myth Busters. Myth #6: Servant Leadership is Inherently Christian

Christians of various denominations and theological convictions seem to have fallen in love with servant leadership.  Books on the biblical foundations of servant leadership have proliferated, and countless seminars and workshops have been conducted.  This sudden and explosive popularity of servant leadership can be explained in part by the widespread impression that it has been taken directly from the Gospels.  After all, Jesus implored those of his disciples who wanted to be great in His Kingdom to be servants to others.  He gave them an example by washing their feet.  In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that servant leadership is effective in delivering profits, as the often cited example of Southwest airlines supposedly confirms.  And what can be better than leading like Jesus while reaping spiritual and financial benefits and thus bringing a powerful witness to those in the workplace who are not Christian?

Those who hold that servant leadership is inherently biblical may be surprised to learn that it did not originate from the Bible.  As it stands, it has its beginnings in the writings of Robert Greenleaf, a long time AT&T executive and management consultant.  In building his theory in the late sixties and early seventies of the last century, Greenleaf drew his inspiration from various sources, primarily from Journey to the East, a novel by Herman Hesse.  Leo, the main character, exemplifies the servant leader: in leading a group on the journey, he does menial chores and sustains the group spiritually.  Greenleaf defines the servant leader as the one who feels the call to serve first, and then lead.  He does not give the list of servant leader characteristic in a neat bullet point format, but names listening, understanding, imagination (paired with language), withdrawal, acceptance, empathy, intuitive knowledge beyond conscious rationality, foresight, awareness, perception, persuasion, action (phrased as “one action at a time”), conceptualizing, healing and serving.  Imagination, intuition, foresight, awareness, ability to persuade, perception, conceptualizing and ability to take action are important for any kind of leader, not just for servant leader, and the quality of serving is tautological.  We are left with listening, understanding, withdrawal, acceptance, empathy and healing.  These qualities are distinctly therapeutic, and servant leadership as originally conceived basically turns leader into a therapist.

A few years before Greenleaf penned his theory Philip Rieff published his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic.  In this volume, Rieff predicted a seminal shift in Western culture: in a relatively short time it would be permeated with a therapeutic mindset.  No longer would family, church, political party or nation provide spiritual guidance.  That role would be assumed by hospitals and therapists.  The religious person is born to be saved, but the therapeutic person is born to be pleased.  “I believe” would transition into “I feel,” and saints as a cultural ideal would be substituted by Everyman looking to get rid of extraneous institutional shackles in order to achieve the true self-realization by endless self-exploration and catering to his desires.  Rieff’s book turned out prophetic in some important respects and Greenleaf’s theory appears to be a byproduct of that rush to shift into a therapeutic culture.  So, the question of whether servant leadership is inherently Christian hinges on another question, namely, whether the therapeutic mindset of modern Western culture can be integrated into Christian faith without fundamentally altering the latter.  It is exceedingly challenging to see how that could be accomplished.

There is another quality of servant leadership that many Christians find appealing, and that is simplicity.  In this day and age of short attention spans, leadership gurus, including Christian ones, feel the pressure to give simple, almost bumper sticker solutions to complex issues, such as the nature of leadership.  Servant leadership, or at least the way it is often presented, seems to fit the bill, and offering simple solutions to complex problems tends to rake in clients and finances.  But does it deliver real solutions?  The exact stats are hard to come by, so let me offer the following three considerations: an empirical one, a philosophical one and a theological one.

First, I will broach the empirical.  After forty plus years of numerous books and countless workshops on leadership in general, and servant leadership in particular, is there evidence that the quality of leadership in this country has improved?  I have had a chance to ask this question in numerous settings, and almost invariably it has been met with laughter signifying that the negative answer is rather obvious.

Second, I will explore the philosophical.  Life is complex and resistant to humanity’s attempts to fit it into the Procrustean bed of simple schemata. H.L. Menken’s words, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” ring true of many efforts at populist oversimplification, including those in leadership theory.  A viable theology of leadership needs to have a sufficient complexity to it enable it to deal with various intricate leadership issues presented by modern culture.

Last, but not least, the theological.  Throughout church history, church fathers staunchly resisted attempts to simplify Christian theology by watering down, or even doing away altogether with its complexity.  Efforts to remove tensions between the human and divine natures of Christ, the indivisibility and distinctness of these natures and between singularity and multiplicity of the Trinity by removing one of the poles have been uniformly rebuffed as heretical.  This theological posture should serve as a warning to many Christian leaders today as they are tempted to lift up a given dimension of theology of leadership and make it the whole of leadership theory.  That holds true even in cases when the dimension so lifted up is a crucially important one, such as service.

The above mentioned words of Jesus need to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and an authentic Christian theology of leadership must have a robust service dimension to it.  At the same time, these words must not be used either to baptize a modern therapeutic mindset or circumvent the hard work needed for working out a viable theology of leadership capable of making a difference in the increasingly complex and interconnected world.

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