Servant leaders: egos altered?

What kind of kingdom values metamorphosis over triumph; death as a pathway to victory? Earthly kings tell stories of victory over enemies, conquest, and territory won. But Jesus warned us not to “lord it over others.” His parables about kings (leaders) and kingdoms were about seeds growing into trees, sowing and harvesting, and hospitality to strangers, also known as “enemies.” Jesus introduced a radical approach to leadership, something we might call “servant leadership.”

Today, there are all kinds of leaders, and all sorts of metaphors to describe them: shepherds, visionaries, managers, motivators, administrators, teachers, prophets, and artists. Some are hard-nosed; others soft-hearted. Some polarize and others connect. Each brings a certain personality type and set of competencies to the table.

No matter what they bring, leaders see themselves as change agents. And we want our leaders to be change agents: effective and transformational, even as servant leaders.

But since Jesus turned leadership on its head, I think there’s a “kingdom surprise” here. It’s the fact that servant leaders themselves are vulnerable to hardship, heartbreak, and suffering, and might be significantly changed as they lead.

Jesus recognized that leaders may be resistant to countervailing forces. “Lording it over others” entails, in some way, the expectation that leaders are enforcers. The leader stands impervious to any backdraft. There’s no personal vulnerability while change is unleashed on others. Jesus said of legal experts: “you load people down…and will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46).

A popular image of “lording” leadership, often seen in movies, is the cold, calculating man or woman in a glass-walled office, high up in a tower. The effects of their unleashed power are felt far below, but never within the safety of that office.

Our Lord, on the other hand, gave up “equality with God” to help us (Philippians 2:6–7). He started out as a vulnerable baby. He wept and got tired. He “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). The world he came to impact also impacted him deeply.

Consider the recent movie, The Blind Side. It’s an adaptation of a true story about an upper middle class white woman who, with her family, takes in a black teenager from the poor part of town. The young man becomes part of the family – someone they love and accept into their hearts. First, the woman’s friends chide her for stooping to associate with the “boy from the projects.” Then, trying to understand, patronizingly suggest she’s “doing such a wonderful thing to change the boy.” The woman replies, “No, he’s changing me.”

Being a leader in the Canadian conference has wrought changes in me. I’ve constantly felt that God was interested in working in me, as much as he was interested in what I accomplished.

Sometimes God’s work in a leader occurs via direct critique. Often it’s the push and pull of grappling through issues – theological, strategic, and personal. For me, change has occurred through humbling scenarios where I know I’m wrong and need to admit my mistakes. It has occurred through the uncertainty of having to make decisions with partial information.

Vulnerability and servant leadership are bedfellows. Vulnerability changes a leader. You feel like you’re losing something – an argument, a battle, the war. But vulnerability is a kingdom quality, and an important characteristic for church leaders. Through a posture of vulnerability, God can
mould a leader into someone fit for his kingdom.

David Wiebe is executive director of the Canadian conference and lives in Winnipeg.

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