- What Is Leadership?
- What is Leadership? Part 2: Initiating, Not Reacting
- What is Leadership, Part 3: What Is Most Needed and Important?
- What is Leadership, Part 4: Are You Willing to Serve?
- What is Leadership, Part 5: Are You Willing to Do What’s Hard?
- What is Leadership, Part 6: Why Do We Believe What We Do?
In the first post of this series, I used this definition of leadership: “seeing what is most needed or important in a given situation or relationship, and serving in light of that.” (even when it’s uncomfortable or unnatural to you) I chose the word “serve” very carefully, because I believe it’s the most important quality of true leadership. In fact, I’m comfortable stating that “the heart of leadership is the willingness to serve others.” But it’s a word that needs to be defined carefully.
When I’ve asked my peers what they think about leadership, I’ve been shocked how often I hear statements like, “Oh, who am I to say anything about leadership?” or “Leadership is not something I’ve really sought after, or needed to have. I’m not really that ambitious or driven.” I sensed an assumption that leadership is primarily about status, achievement, and expertise. I sensed that others felt that leadership was something people brag about if they have it. Or perhaps they are presumptuous to think they are a leader.
But I believe that leadership is not about thinking or acting like you’re better than other people… quite to the contrary, it’s an attitude of willingness to put others’ good (or the good of the whole) above our own needs.
Let’s be clear – serving is not just about doing things or working hard towards a goal; it’s about having the heart and character to do what’s best for a given situation or relationship, even if it’s not something that benefits us. And that requires more than just putting our heads down in busywork. It requires consistent reflection and evaluation, asking ourselves some hard questions.
For example, recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a “servant-speaker.” I might get invited to travel and speak at a conference, and think I am serving just by agreeing to go. But as I prepare for my talk (and the trip), am I thinking about what I can do to best serve the people there?
This is what I am currently learning to do. When I agree to speak, I try to do the following things:
- Ask the group I’m speaking to, or the organizers, to tell me about their audience and context. I want to know about their needs, and what I can bring to speak to those needs.
- Try to adapt my message, material, and even the format of my session to fit that. It might require more work to do that, and it might not be my best, polished material, but if it serves them better, that’s what I aspire to do.
In the past year as I’ve tried to approach things this way, I’ve found it challenging in a healthy way. When preparing for a talk at a recent conference, I knew that I had a few polished presentations with fun and engaging video clips. I knew they could be enough to get by, and bring energy to the room. The other option was to give the group time to engage one another, and reflect on application to their lives.
As I thought about it, I realized that the videos would create a reaction, but would it really be for them, or for me? What would be most empowering for the group? And I had to conclude in this situation, that giving space for discussion and reflection was preferable. But I had to die to the need to impress, or get the glory for my presentation. That was hard to do! And I had to do extra work thinking through new slides and questions to engage this particular audience. Who wants to work harder to get less positive feedback? But that’s part of the challenge of truly serving others — it should test us in those ways!
Are we willing to submit to God those things that are most comfortable and appealing to us, in order to best serve others?
Here’s another idea (which I got from my wife) if you’re asked to speak in a smaller group setting. Consider foregoing your talk altogether, and simply give space for people to bring up whatever questions and thoughts are most on their hearts, related to the topic you were asked to speak about. Engage in a discussion about culture, gender, or faith. I’ve tried this, and it was surprisingly refreshing for me, and for the group I was with!
I bring up the example of speaking, because traditionally, it’s a platform that elevates the speaker above his or her audience. And it can lead to the association that speaking, or writing, or other venues of asserting one’s voice are ultimately about glorifying self. And in this day and age of self-promotion and marketing, that is a big temptation. But it doesn’t have to be that way! As writers, we can be servants as well. We can use our voice and skills to platform others, and bring attention to causes that deserve attention. We can co-author or collaborate, so that attention doesn’t only go to ourselves.
In everything we do, we can challenge ourselves – whether it’s speaking or writing or organizational leadership – with the overarching question: “Am I truly serving others? Am I being a servant-speaker? A servant-writer? A servant-organizational leader?” Or am I just serving myself, my own agenda and needs?
So when we think about leadership, it’s really about more than skill or ability, but about character and heart. After all, there are plenty of people shrewd enough to notice important issues and situational differences. But what do they then choose to do about that?
What will we do, after we see what’s going on? That’s where our hearts are revealed. Do we have the character to not just think about what’s best, easiest, and most comfortable for ourselves — but others and the greater good? Are we willing to sacrifice and fight for the greater good, even when it doesn’t benefit us? I ask and challenge myself with these questions constantly. That’s because more than anything else, those questions reveal who I see and trust as leaders. Let me put it even more directly: no matter our title or position or experience, if we are not willing to serve in these ways, we are not qualified to be leaders.
That’s the standard I believe I must hold myself to, as a leader. Serving is fundamental to everything I believe about leadership.
If you want to discuss or engage more:
- When you think about speaking, writing, planning an event, leading an organization, or making decisions for your family: what does it look like to serve the greater good, compared to our own agenda?
- What have you learned about what it means to truly serve others? What must you sacrifice? What insights and experiences can you share?