Epic is About… Servant Leadership

In the following nine blog posts, we will attempt to articulate “nine elements of a leadership reproduction culture.”  For more explanation, see our first post here.  Feedback and questions are more than welcome!

On the road to fruitfulness in its mission, Epic is about… Servant Leadership

By Brian Virtue

Servant leadership is commonly referred to today as an ideal model of what spiritual leadership should embody.  Unfortunately, definitions vary and understandings vary even more.  At its core, servant leadership is about giving your power away for the sake of others.  One’s position, title, or influence brings a power in community that one can use to preserve one’s own influence, or use to increase the dignity and influence of others.

Servant leadership rejects the idea that titles and positions are the ultimate source of authority.  The pursuit of power reflects a philosophy in which the leader is the one to be served by others, which goes directly against the way of the cross.  Servant leadership brings the question of what it means to steward power into full focus.  When we have power to lead change and influence – how do we use it?  What is the ethical impact of our leadership on those around us?

But there are two big ways in which servant leadership is misunderstood, and ultimately lived out.  First, instead of servant leading being about giving away power, some interpret servant and spiritual leadership to be a giving away of self or identity.  Whether due to low self-confidence, people-pleasing tendencies, a guilty conscience, or exposure to various teachings that cause people to second-guess their own needs and limits – many of us struggle with knowing how to serve, without losing ourselves in the process.  Servant leadership, while often sacrificial, is not a limitless and boundary-less “spending” of self for the sake of meeting others’ expectations or pleasing others.  Servant leadership involves not just a stewardship of power, but a stewardship of self and identity.

The other significant way in which servant leadership is misconstrued is when leaders believe that they are truly serving God and others because of their sacrificial dedication to the mission or cause, yet people aren’t being truly valued, served, or empowered in the process.  Sometimes we believe that if we are working really hard, and even enduring through great stress and responsibility, then it automatically follows we are serving others.  But that can be a powerful lie!  In our goal-oriented and often pragmatic culture, we often serve our own strategies and can develop a blind eye to the realities of the people that those strategies affect.  We can often choose strategy over story.  Yes, servant leadership is strategically focused on mission, but it doesn’t overlook or minimize the stories and values of people in the process.

When the identities and stories of those we serve are honored and drawn out, rather than being lost to tasks and strategy, we’re making room for more leaders and investing in communities with greater integrity and trust.  That is what servant leadership is about – stewarding power for the sake of helping other leaders emerge… into the fullness of their identities, and in the context of their stories.

Discussion Questions:

  • The first misconception of “servant leadership” was described as giving away oneself, through self-sacrifice or people-pleasing.  How have you seen this in yourself or in others’ leadership?
  • The second misconception of “servant leadership” was described as working hard on our own strategies, without considering the stories and empowerment of those we serve.  How have you seen this in yourself or in others’ leadership?
  • What might it look like for you to give away power for the sake of others, without losing yourself?