Servant leadership is the gold standard of leadership principles in church circles. It’s even become a surprising buzz word in some business training resources. Even people in the secular world are seeing the value of humility and the downfalls of leading by fear and coercion and intimidation. Maybe he was on to something when Jesus proposed leading with a towel not a title.

He said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant… even the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom to many.” Matthew 20:26, 28

But what does that mean in real life? How does a person actually lead in a servant-y kind of way? The whole thing seems a little nebulous. Does this mean strong and decisive leadership is bad? Does it mean leaders shouldn’t set agendas, or expect results, or hold people accountable for their work? The whole concept feels a little too squishy.

For starters, let’s look at the inventor of this whole concept – Jesus. His life is the picture of servant leadership. But he wasn’t a Middle Eastern version of Mr. Rogers either. He demanded hard things. He held incredibly high standards. His inner circle sometimes asked him to lighten up a little. He said ‘no’ to people all the time and sometimes turned people away from following him. Religious leaders thought he was dangerous and out of control. He was eventually executed as a revolutionary. He sounds anything but squishy.

So, what is servant leadership? I think in its simplest form, servant leadership means being attentive to what is best for the people you lead and connecting them to their divine purpose.

It doesn’t mean being a pushover. It doesn’t mean avoiding hard things.

Sometimes that means protecting the people you lead and sometimes it means challenging them. Sometimes it means having them watch you do it first and sometimes it means having them do it before they feel qualified. But it involves prioritizing what’s best for them and then unleashing them toward God’s divine plan.

But there are things that stand in the way. Things that make this difficult. First, it’s hard. It takes time and energy and a lot of dedication to lift up those you lead. Ambition creeps in and says it’s all about you and your success. Pride creeps in and says you have to be the one that gets the credit. Fear creeps in and says what if they screw it up? Insecurity creeps in and says what if they do it better than you?

I think there is a key ingredient that allows servant leadership to overcome all these obstacles. Jesus possessed it and we need to discover it. There is a clue in a little verse in the middle of the passage that contains Jesus’ ultimate servant leadership moment: Washing the disciples’ feet.

John 13:3-5 says that Jesus, “got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

They should have been on their knees at his feet, yet he was on his knees at theirs. The one who created every foot in the room was now doing the servant’s work of washing off the dust and grime of everyday life. How could he do this? What allowed him to have the wherewithal to honor them like this? To allow them to feel so loved and supported and empowered? What did Jesus know that we don’t know that allowed him to do what we so often fail to do? The key is in the first part of the first verse of this account of Jesus’ act of servanthood in John 13:3, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God…”

What is the key to servant leadership? Identity.

Jesus was crystal clear on his identity before God. He was secure in who he was. Check out what this little verse affirms:

  • Jesus knew the authority he had been given by God.
  • Jesus knew he had come from God.
  • Jesus knew he was returning to God.

I believe the path to servant leadership traces back to your identity before God. The only way you and I can be secure enough to lead in a way that lifts others up, is to know who you are in Christ.

Christian leader, do you know the authority that you have been given by God? Are you firm on where you have come from? Are you assured of where you are going? When those truths are nailed down, you are free to serve others without hesitation. All the barriers melt away, ambition and pride and fear and insecurity, they don’t stand a chance when you know who you are in Christ.

As you meet with God every day through prayer and bible reading. As you seek Him during your weekly sabbath; may part of your goal be to reestablish your identity. Understand your authority. Be reminded of where you came from and where you’re going. Then and only then will you be secure enough to be a servant leader.