Principles for Transformative Servant Leadership
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect, either in whole or part, the official policies or positions of the Office of the Army Chief of Chaplains, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. The ideas advanced herein are intended to increase professional discussion on the topics addressed and are written from the author’s perspective as a qualified religious leader of his denomination.
Authentic servant leadership should and can be of vital strategic interest to the republic and thus the world. In inculcating this ideal by their example into the geopolitical institutions of the nation, Christian leaders of deeply-held conscience and authentic character can shape the decision-making apparatus of the state, though in a formative and not coercive manner. This is certainly true in my vocational realm in the profession of arms, but, given today’s “whole of government” mindset to strategic problem sets, it should also be applicable in all diplomatic, informational, economic, financial, intelligence, and legal venues of the state. Indeed, when any strategic leader at this level fails morally or ethically while in his or her duties, the accompanying loss of trust both inside and outside the bounds of the state corrodes all healthy democratic functioning. In contrast, when such a strategic leader succeeds in living out an ethic of authentic servant leadership, the nation and world are ennobled, and democratic functioning is immeasurably strengthened for all.
What are some basic principles for living out a vocation as a servant leader? Of course, scholarship on organizational culture is awash in articles, books, or posts addressing the “buzzword” of servant leadership. What is it? How does one do it? What effect does it have, permanent or temporary? Where is it found, or how can it be taught? This plethora of questions indicates that servant leadership is both intriguing yet difficult to employ. Were it the opposite, whole business schools would build their curriculum to pass on such a crucial stratagem and form such leaders. Our struggle to grasp after this ideal indicates that we are somehow both far from discovering it yet deeply desirous that it would nurture our broken, ethically impoverished world. As a corrective, I suggest a return to first principles, for there is no doubt that transformative servant leadership has been repeatedly associated with the life and witness of Jesus of Nazareth. To both a temporal and eternal end, then, I want to posit five principles for servant leadership (vice values, norms, or worse yet rules) from Jesus’ earthly ministry that inform our challenge.
First, transformative servant leadership is predicated on not prudentially assessing outcomes but on the servant leader living out faith by eschewing all thought of cost or reward (Mark 10:29-31). Jesus commands His disciples to be committed to the task of kingdom building, even at the risk of losing all meaningful human expressions of connection (families of origin, marriage and children, earthly wealth). However and ironically, Jesus does add a word of warning: do conduct a prudential calculation that such a commitment will bring attendant and unforeseen (but not wholly incomprehensible) further results of persecution, rejection, and perhaps even death. If one becomes an authentic servant leader, the world may and perhaps will reject him or her, but the Christ will not; rather, Christ will accept the witness of the transformative servant leader to the kingdom and proffer an eternal reward that stands beyond human systems of reasoning or calculation.
Second and relatedly, the transformative servant leader does not afford himself or herself the mantle of leadership; rather, he or she acts only in willing obedience to God’s decisive calling to lead, and for no other reason. Any other motivation is a temptation to false humility and, ironically, an expression of the first and greatest sin of pride. Servant leadership is thus always an exercise in deep humility to God’s calling to obedient discipleship (Luke 22:41-42). Some might say that the Christological context of Jesus’ ministry establishes an unattainable standard for any subordinate human leader within the Body of Christ, a type of impossible ideal which only Jesus can fulfill. However, I contend that as with all of Jesus’ earthly public ministry—both His teachings and His actions—there is an implicit, divine recognition that though the standard is perhaps impossible to reach amidst a fallen world, it is nonetheless one toward which we must strive. Obedience to God’s calling is the sine qua non of Christian discipleship and vital for transformative servant leadership.
Third, the transformative servant leader always acts intentionally for the other and not the self. In this particular principle is demonstrably found the ideal of lived service, or perhaps the fulfillment of the Christian expression (and standard) love of agape. As Christ would demonstrate on the cross, love must be manifested in tangible action and with the specific intention of serving another and his or her deep need, never the leader’s self-interests (Luke 19:10). Thus, inextricably linked to the prior principle of obedience is the principle of motivation; the servant leader always acts with and for the vested interests of others. This is so whether others have any cognitive recognition of their need or, presuming they do, have voiced such need in penitent request. Moreover, the servant leader acts for others despite the risk to himself or herself which the process of serving may entail.
Fourth, the transformative servant leader acts with an awareness of genuinely leading both church and community. While not motivated by aggrandizement or adulation, a true servant leader must be cognizant that he or she is actually leading others (John 10:27). In my ministry context in the US Army, the institution focuses on leader development as a core task that is vital to the success of the force, so success in battle for the whole is predicated on the successful exercise of leadership by the one. Leadership is thus both the art and act of motivating a group of followers to achieve a specified end that only the whole can attain. Why Christian seminaries and divinity schools so often fail to teach this basic premise of leadership is a mystery, for there is no doubt that the profession of ministry is predicated—as with our Lord—on the task of actually leading not only the church but also the polis, or the civic community. Leader awareness of this contextual reality is critical to success.
Finally, the fifth principle of transformative servant leadership is that it always exercises fidelity to the name and nature of God and arises from the leader’s continuing relationship in Him. This ideal can be categorized as a healthful subordination, where the servant leader continually remains aware of his or her spiritual poverty and need for God’s enduring provision (Matthew 4:10). However, I contend that it is more than simply an assessment of receiving that which may be necessary to accomplish an accepted task. Rather, the servant leader must act in reflectivity as to how his or her actions communicate and honor both the name and nature of the God he or she professes to serve and on whose behalf he or she professes to act. Moreover, a conduit for remaining grounded in fidelity to God is for the servant leader to continually cultivate an ongoing relationship with God. By His example, Christ was teaching us that our task in public ministry will always be done in faithfulness to the God who called us and only in an abiding relationship to Him, just as He continuously exercised with His heavenly Father.
If all of this sounds radically different than what we hear in our contemporary consumerist ethos, it is. However, the Christian ideal of transformative servant leadership is both an inversion of contemporary secular models and yet patently effective in its exercise. That is why I have continually referred in this essay to transformative servant leadership, for this task healthfully grows both the leader and the led and achieves radical kingdom growth. This is done by never calculating either cost or reward by human standards; obeying only the call of God; acting always for the interest of the other and not the self; remaining cognizant of the task of actually leading both church and, by extension, community; and, honoring both the name and nature of the God we serve and abiding in relationship to Him. Jesus of Nazareth both embodied these principles in His earthly life and ministry and established them as enduring guides for future servant leaders of the faith. Consistently and rightfully employed, these principles are both sacrificial yet ennobling for the servant leader, countercultural and transformative for both church and community, and an enduring, hopeful temporal and eternal witness to the power of God in redeeming His creation.
Chaplain (Colonel) Timothy S. Mallard, Ph.D., is a career US Army Chaplain of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church now stationed at the Pentagon, Washington, DC. He has deployed to combat operations as a Battalion, Brigade, and Division Chaplain and is the incumbent Command Chaplain, United States Army Europe, and 7th Army.
Photo Credit: Mosaic in the Hosios Loukas, Greece, of Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles, via Wikimedia Commons.