Servant-Leadership: Have we Gotten it all Wrong?

Servant-leadership seems to be a buzz word among leadership circles today. But what is it? Is it being available 24-7 at the beck and call of those in our churches, organizations, or ministries? Is it being a quiet leader? Is it seeking to make sure we aren’t identified too much with our ministry? Is it being someone’s or some organization’s butler? Just what is it? In this post I suggest a simple definition and 11 qualities of a true servant-leader.

servant leadership puppets

What a servant-leader DOES NOT DO:

  1. Constantly self efface himself or herself.
  2. Force humility.
  3. Try to stay behind the scenes all the time.
  4. Say ‘yes’ to everyone’s need.
  5. Act tentatively.

What servant-leadership IS: I like Audrey Malphurs’ definition.

A Christian leader (servant-leader, my addition) is a godly person (character) who knows where he is going (vision) and has followers (influence.) [Pouring New Wineskins into Old Wineskins, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1993, p. 163)]

What a servant leader DOES:

  1. Is driven by God’s vision for his life and ministry rather than personal interest or accolades from others. He knows where he is going.
  2. Makes others feel valued in their roles. 
  3. Brings out the best in others by empowering them.
  4. Knows what he or she must focus upon, the important, rather than getting sucked into the urgent, less important.
  5. Leads from within his unique personality and leadership style without trying to fit somebody else’s mold or style.
  6. Bases his significance and value on his relationship with God, knowing that as His child, he is loved unconditionally regardless of his “success.”
  7. Seldom uses power and authority as a leverage.
  8. Seeks to lead with true humility without comparison to another’s church or ministry. C. S. Lewis wisely noted that, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next guy.” 
  9. Balances modesty with boldness, tenacity, and initiative.
  10. Doesn’t  believe her own press clippings.
  11. Refuses to act independently.

What other characteristics would you add to this list?

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Should you get Closer to your Critics?

What’s happening in this picture? I used this in a recent talk and asked the church audience to give me their answers. Their responses included… two people are angry, they are upset, they aren’t talking, they disagree about something. One lady came up to me afterwards and said, “I think it means that she was right and he was wrong.” I chuckled at that one. In a phrase, this is what I see: two people, for whatever reasons, have cut themselves off from each other, both physical and emotionally. Leaders do that sometimes to their critics and naysayers. Here’s why that’s not a good idea and how we can stay closer to our critics.

emotional cut off copy

One of the greatest survival stories ever began in August 1914 when the famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, sailed with twenty-seven men on his ship the Endurance. He planned to lead the first expedition across the Antarctic continent. However, his ship got stuck in heavy sea ice which eventually crushed it off the coast of Antarctica. Stuck on four feet of ice over mile-deep water, Shackleton and his crew survived 635 days and nights with poor shelter and limited rations in some of the harshest conditions known. Amazingly, on foot and by small boat he eventually got to safety and then rescued his entire crew. You can read the full story in the great book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

What was the key to this amazing story of survival? It was a quality of Shackleton’s leadership presence. The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured one of the most important characteristics Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival. He wrote in his diary, “Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly (my emphasis) that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; he never lost his optimism.”[1]

Shackleton illustrates a quality I believe leaders need: to maintain a calm presence with their critics, dissidents, and naysayers. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and potential troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

It’s a counter intuitive approach. Staying reasonably and calmly connected is the better way to lower the relational tension and personal anxiety we feel toward our critics. It can improve those relationships and it doesn’t mean that we become their best friends or that we let them run over us.

So, who in your ministry is your biggest detractor today?

  • An old-timer who has been in the church 40 years?
  • A board member who seems to always take a contrarian view?
  • A staff person who isn’t performing?
  • A volunteer who doesn’t like you?
  • Or?

Shackleton’s secret was that instead of pushing away his detractors he actually drew closer to those men. He made two of his troublmakers his bunkmates in his tent. And when he left on a lifeboat to assemble a rescue party, he took 3 men whom he felt might cause trouble with the men who were left.

Here’s what I suggest to maintain a calm presence with such people.

  1. Recognize the power of emotional and relational force fields.
    • Just as magnets have force fields around them, leaders carry emotional force fields as well. Our demeanor, words, and vocal tone all carry power. We can draw people to us or push them away (like the same poles on a magnet do). Great leaders monitor and control their emotional force fields because others will sense our tone. It’s a social neuroscience concept theory of mind that states that we can somewhat intuit the emotions, intentions, and thoughts of another. Although it’s not mind reading and we often misread other’s intentions, it is what some call our sixth sense. Great leaders recognize this and create welcoming rather than repelling emotional force fields, especially toward their critics.
  2. Take the initiative.
    • With our critics and naysayers, it’s easier to keep our distance even though we know relationship tension exists. A good leader, however, will take the initiative to reach out to a critic, even though he’d prefer that if, “they have a problem, they should come to me.” A simple conversation like this can potentially ease tension… “Hi, John, just wanted to check in with you. How are things going?”
  3. Practice empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside another’s shoes and see life from their perspective. Try stepping into your critic’s shoes to see you from their perspective. You might gain new understanding about what lies at the root of their resistance. Daniel Golemen (the emotional intelligence guy) believes there are three kinds of empathy. I describe them in this way: knowing empathy (we cognitively know our critic’s distress), feeling empathy (we feel our critic’s distress), and doing empathy (we are moved to help relieve our critic’s distress). Which kind do you need to express toward your critic?
  4. Become more self-aware.
    • Related to number 1 above, becoming more self aware refers to recognizing the power of emotional contagion, the concept that explains how others catch our emotions. If you act distant or cold toward someone, they tend to mirror your behavior. If you act friendly and open toward others, they tend to respond in like kind. Neuroscientists have discovered a unique set of brain cells called mirror neurons that play a role in emotional contagion. These brain circuits prompt us to subconsciously mimic goal directed behavior we see in others. Ask yourself how you come across to your critics. Would you want them to relate to you as you do to them?

Again, who’s the person in your life or ministry that criticizes or hassles you the most? Which of these four suggestions if applied might make that relationship better?

Even though we may not feel we have the strength or emotional reserve to relate in a positive way toward our critics, the Bible tells us that every follower of Jesus has the Holy Spirit. He promises to give us everything we need to relate in wise and healthy ways toward our critics. The Apostle Paul reminded us of this when he wrote these words.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you (Rom. 8.9, NIV)

Related posts:

[1] Marcuson, Leaders Who Last, kindleKloc. 1117.

Gratitude: The Brain’s Amazing Fertilizer

I live in Canada and we celebrated Thanksgiving in October while the U.S. celebrates Thanksgiving in November. Although a few other countries celebrate similar holidays, Canada and the U.S. make a big deal of it. Many people in both countries approach Thanksgiving with a desire to be more grateful, at least on those holidays. It’s great that we highlight gratefulness through a holiday, but did you know that gratitude is actually good for your brain and your body? Consider what science has discovered about this amazing brain fertilizer.

gratitude 3


  1. Can give you more energy. In one research study participants kept a daily journal listing what they were grateful for. Another group recorded what annoyed them. Those who kept a ‘gratefulness’ journal had more energy and enthusiasm and were happier than the other group (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
  2. Can help you become more other-centered. In a study by the same researchers, participants also daily journaled what they were grateful for. In addition to similar results to the above cited study, they discovered an interesting side effect. Those in the ‘grateful’ group reported that they were more inclined to help others with a personal problem. They became what is called more “pro-social” (Emmons, 2006).
  3. Can help you sleep better. Our brains and bodies need adequate sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains can’t consolidate our experiences from the day into our long term memory. So, without refreshing sleep, our memory and cognitive function suffers. A Chinese study discovered that not only did gratitude improve sleep, but decreased depression and indirectly lowered anxiety (Korb, 2012). So, start and end your day with a grateful heart for more rejuvenating sleep.
  4. Can make you physically feel better. When we are grateful, we activate brain regions associated with the feel good transmitter, dopamine.  Gratefulness also increases the mood neurotransmitter serotonin and the trust hormone, oxytocin. When dopamine is released, it evokes a “do that again” response. So, a grateful heart can feed on itself and help us want to repeat it. Its called the ‘virtuous cycle.’ We simply have to start the process by choosing to be grateful.
  5. Can help you become less materialistic. Several studies have shown that people with higher levels of gratitude are more likely to have lower than average traits of materialism (McCullough, 2002).This finding reminds of Jesus’ words, In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20.35)
  6. Can help combat negativity and the negative emotions that follow. Because our brain has five times more negative circuits than positive ones, we naturally tend to focus on the negative. It’s called the brain’s ‘negativity bias.’ When we are grateful it forces our brain to think about the positive. The Apostle Paul understood this when he wrote Phil. 4.8. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

Not only does science speak to gratefulness, it also fills the pages of Scripture.

  • 1Th. 5.16   Be joyful always;  17 pray continually;  18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
  • Psa. 100.3 Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.  4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
  • Col. 3.16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God

If you want to learn even more about gratitude, watch this TEDx talk on The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance and read the book, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

An old saying about gratitude goes like this.

If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.

Don’t forget the language of gratitude today!


Related posts:


  • Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2), pp.377–389.
  • Emmons, Gratitude and prosocial behavior: An experimental test of gratitude [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 26 November 2014].
  • McCullough, Michael E. (2002) Savoring Life, Past and Present: Explaining what hope and gratitude share in common, Psychological Inquiry

6 Dangers of Self-appointed Leaders

Malcolm Webber is one of my favorite leaders of leaders. With a PhD and over 20 books on leadership to his credit, he insightfully describes the dangers of a self-appointed leader in his book Healthy Leaders. He draws insight from a self-appointed leader named Korah described in the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapters 16-17. I’ve paraphrased these dangers below and contrasted them with 6 qualities of true God-appointed leaders.

Fashion man pointing at himself

Self-appointed leaders…

  1. resist existing spiritual authority (Nm 16.2).
  2. … criticize and question existing leaders (Nm 16.1).
  3. … accuse other leaders of what they themselves are guilty (Nm 16.3).
  4. aren’t satisfied with the positions they hold. They push for greater authority and position (Nm 16.10).
  5. murmur against leadership that God has appointed (Nm 16.11).
  6. ultimately face God’s judgement (Nm 16.31-35).

God-appointed leaders…

  1. willing submit to existing authority (Daniel’s repeated examples).
  2. when issues and questions arise, they appropriately appeal up the chain of command and go to their leaders in private and in person (Mt 18.15)
  3. avoid a judgmental spirit (Mt 7.1-5)
  4. wait on God to promote them (Paul and Moses spent years in obscurity before rising to significant leadership)
  5. only speak well of their leaders whether to their faces, behind their backs, or in the presence of others (Eph 4.29).
  6. lead with the eternal goal in mind to hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt 25.21).

Of these two lists, which one most characterizes your leadership? If the first list does, what changes do you need to make so that list two most characterizes you?

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7 Questions Leaders Should ask Themselves Every Morning

Mornings are the most crucial part of our day. And how we begin them sets the tone for the rest of the day. Insightful leaders understand this truth and mentally prepare themselves when they get up. Drew Canole, founder of says, “How you start your day is how you start your life.”

Consider asking yourself these 7 questions within the first 10 minutes of your morning.

  1. If I could only get one thing done today, what would it be?
  2. Have I set aside quiet time with God to pray, reflect, and read His Word?
  3. Is there any unconfessed sin in my life that I should confess?
  4. Are there any relational issues with others that need rectifying?
  5. Am I eating a healthy breakfast with plenty of protein and healthy carbs?
  6. Am I focusing on the positive, good things in life and ministry or do my thoughts immediately turn negative?
  7. Do I have a consistent routine like getting up at the same time, eating at the same time, taking a shower at the same time, etc. or is each morning dramatically different?

What we do first thing in the morning will dramatically affect the rest of your day. The Psalmist offers great advice with these words.

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. (Ps 143.8, NIV)

How do you prepare for your morning?

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