Christians of various denominations and theological convictions have embraced wholeheartedly the servant leadership concept.
Its popularity can be explained, in part, by the widespread impression that it has been taken directly from the Gospels.
After all, Jesus implored his disciples to be servants to others (see Matthew 23:11) and gave them an example by washing their feet (see John 13).
There is also anecdotal evidence that servant leadership is effective in delivering profits, as the oft-cited example of Southwest airlines supposedly confirms.
What can be better than leading like Jesus while reaping spiritual and financial benefits, thus bringing a powerful witness to those in the workplace who are not Christian?
Those who hold that servant leadership is inherently biblical may be surprised to learn that it did not originate from the Bible, but rather from the writings of Robert Greenleaf, a longtime AT&T executive and management consultant.
In building his theory, Greenleaf drew his inspiration from various sources, primarily from Herman Hesse’s novel, “Journey to the East,” whose main character, Leo, exemplifies the servant leader.
Greenleaf defines the servant leader as the one who feels the call first to serve and then to lead. He sets forth several characteristics exemplified by such leaders:
â— Listening, understanding and imagination (paired with language)
â— Withdrawal, acceptance and empathy
â— Intuitive knowledge beyond conscious rationality, foresight and awareness
â— Perception, persuasion and action (phrased as “one action at a time”)
â— Conceptualizing, healing and serving
Imagination, intuition, foresight, awareness, ability to persuade, perception, conceptualizing and ability to take action are important for any kind of leader, not just for the servant leader and the quality of serving is redundant.
Thus, we are left with listening, understanding, withdrawal, acceptance, empathy and healing. These qualities are distinctly therapeutic, and Greenleaf’s conception basically turns leaders into therapists.
A few years before Greenleaf penned his theory, Philip Rieff’s “The Triumph of the Therapeutic” predicted a seminal shift in which Western culture would be permeated with a therapeutic mindset.
“I believe” would transition into “I feel,” Rieff explained; the cultural ideal would become self-realization through endless self-exploration and catering to one’s desires.
Rieff’s book was prophetic; Greenleaf’s theory was a byproduct of that rush to shift into a therapeutic culture.
So, the question of whether servant leadership is inherently Christian hinges on another question: Can the therapeutic mindset of modern Western culture be integrated into Christian faith without fundamentally altering the latter?
It is exceedingly challenging to see how that could be accomplished.
In our age of short attention spans, leadership gurus – including Christian ones – feel the pressure to give simple, “bumper sticker” solutions to complex issues, such as the nature of leadership.
The simplicity of the servant leadership model seems to fit the bill.
While offering simple solutions to complex problems tends to rake in clients and finances, does it deliver effective solutions? To answer, let me offer an empirical, philosophical and theological perspective.
First, the empirical consideration.
After more than 40 years of books and workshops espousing servant leadership, is there evidence that the quality of leadership in this country has improved?
I have asked this question in numerous settings and, almost invariably, it has been met with laughter, signifying that the negative answer is rather obvious.
Second, the philosophical approach.
Life is complex and resistant to humanity’s attempts to fit it into simple paradigms.
H.L. Menken’s words, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong,” ring true of many efforts at populist oversimplification, including those in leadership theory.
A viable theology of leadership needs to have a sufficient complexity to enable it to deal with various intricate leadership issues presented by modern culture.
Last, but not least, the theological perspective.
Throughout church history, Christian leaders have staunchly resisted attempts to simplify theology by watering down, or even doing away with, its complexity – for example, the dual natures of Christ or the singularity and multiplicity of the Trinity.
This theological posture should serve as a warning to Christian leaders today when tempted to lift up a given dimension and make it the whole of leadership theory.
That holds true even in cases when the dimension being emphasized is a crucially important one, such as service.
Jesus’ example of serving others must to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and an authentic Christian theology of leadership must have a robust service dimension to it.
At the same time, Christians must not baptize a modern therapeutic mindset or circumvent the hard work needed for working out a viable theology of leadership that is capable of making a difference in the increasingly complex and interconnected world.
Andrey Shirin is director of transformational leadership and assistant professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Va. A longer version of this article first appeared on the John Leland Center’s blog, Theologically Speaking, and is used with permission.