The Biggest Mistake You Can Make as a Servant Leader
Don’t make the mistake of confusing “servant leadership” and “martyr leadership.” Here’s how to tell the difference.
I’ve heard it said that “sacred cows make great hamburgers.” With this post, I’m testing that observation.
Why? Because I’m about to challenge the idea that Jesus is the exemplar of “servant leadership.” And with that challenge, I’m also going to warn servant leaders about the most costly mistake they can make.
To do so, let’s reflect on the text that is often quoted in reference to Jesus as servant leader. Consider Mark 10:45, where Jesus tells his followers, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The first half of that verse works well for Jesus as exemplar of servant leadership – he clearly states that his purpose is not to benefit from the service of others, but rather to provide service for the sake of others. It’s the second half of the verse that got me wondering, “Is Jesus really talking about servant leadership, or is this something different?"
Here’s why: Robert Greenleaf’s work on servant leadership affirms my question about Jesus’ leadership style, while also indirectly pointing out one of the most costly mistakes a servant leader can make.
Greenleaf provides three important points about servant leadership:
First, servant leadership begins when the leader has a primary desire to serve the organization, and following that desire then leads to a place of leadership. (Greenleaf, 2002, p. 29)
Second, servant leadership focuses on meeting the highest needs of those served, and strives to not harm the least privileged in society. (Greenleaf, 2002, p. 29)
Third, servant leadership both serves the organization and allows itself to be served by the organization. (Greenleaf, 2002, pp. 203; 250)
Certainly Mark 10:45 exhibits the first two bullet points from Greenleaf, but that last bullet point differentiates the servant leadership model from how Jesus described himself. The relationship Greenleaf described is two-way, where leader and organization serve each other. Jesus’ life on earth seemed to be a one-way relationship with those he led – where he served constantly, until it literally killed him. In other words, Jesus transcended “servant leadership” (because he certainly showed servant-like qualities) and entered into a new space: “martyr leadership."
For those who wish to lead an organization for a prolonged period of time, martyr leadership is problematic. Why? Because it is not sustainable. Certainly there are causes worth dying for, and we can look to modern examples of people who daily risk their lives, such as police, fire fighters, and soldiers, for a cause they believe worth the ultimate sacrifice. The question servant leaders must ask themselves is, “Is this cause worth dying for?” (or more to the point, worth sacrificing health, family, etc.).
The application here for organization leaders is a cautionary one. Leaders who wish to have a long-term relationship with the organizations they serve must distinguish between servant leadership and martyr leadership. For non-profit leaders especially, I ask that when you feel the push from board members or other well-intentioned members of your organization to be a “servant leader” while you are also experiencing family hardship, negative health consequences, or possible financial ruin, clarify what they are really asking from you. Don’t allow an organization to force you into a position of “martyr leadership” by asking you to be a “servant leader."
Greenleaf, R. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (25th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Paulist Press.