The crucifixion was right around the corner, but even after three years of hands-on teaching, coaching and mentoring, the disciples are still clueless about human relations and leadership. Just the other day they had even been arguing over who is the “greatest disciple.”
On the night of The Last Supper, Peter and John walked into the upper room, expecting as is tradition, that their host would provide soap, water, and towels for guests to wash their feet. The host was also supposed to provide a servant to do the washing. Recognize that in those days everyone wore sandals, (no Nike yet), and feet were covered with caked-on dirt and donkey droppings.
The water was there. The towel was there. The servant assigned the awful task of washing their feet was not there. Peter and John both avoided looking at the bowl of water. (Whoever looks first does the washing.) Then their leader arrived, and seeing the stalemate between Peter, John and now all of the other disciples, Christ got up and started washing everyone’s feet. Here is his example and advice to them on how to be a great leader:
"You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45)
There are some profound and interesting parallels between Christian lessons from the Easter story and my business school’s lessons on leadership. In particular the philosophy and practice of “servant-leadership,” not an oxymoron, flips the organizational chart upside down, placing the leader at the base of the chart whose job it is to serve successive layers of employees all the way up to those at the top who are on the front line serving the customer.
Modern servant leadership concepts formally started with a Robert Greenleaf publication "The Servant as Leader" in 1970 and has since been the mantra of authors such as Stephen Covey, Peter Block, Peter Senge, Max De Pree, Margaret Wheatley, Ken Blanchard, (me), and others. Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines and Bruce Kennedy of Alaska Airlines were servant leaders who were loved by their employees and created unique organizations that made money. Frank Borman of Eastern Airlines and Frank Lorenzo of Texas Air were certainly not servant leaders and they flew their airlines into bankruptcy.
A true servant leader is a steward of the organization’s resources (human, financial and otherwise) and serves others while staying focused on achieving results in line with the organization's values and integrity. Servant leadership, (unlike other leadership approaches having a top-down hierarchical style), emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power.
This kind of leader is a servant first, who then makes the conscious decision to lead in order to better serve others, not to increase his or her own power. The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement.
Greenleaf writes that the 10 characteristics of a servant leader are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. I wonder what kind of grade you and I would get if those we lead gave us 1 (low) to 10 (high) points for our execution of each characteristic?
While the roots of servant leadership in the west date back 20 centuries (we will eventually get back to the Easter connection), In approximately 600 B.C., the Chinese sage Lao Tzu wrote The Tao Te Ching, a strategic treatise on servant leadership:
The greatest leader forgets herself
And attends to the development of others.”
I encourage all of us who are responsible for leading others to adopt the servant leadership model of getting things done. Hire people with heart and potential, not those with the best credentials, (consider the resumes of the 12 disciples).
Think about the servant leadership principles taught to us by Christ from the very first Easter. Endure the betrayal of false friends. Forgive your followers when they fall asleep on the job. Don’t be seduced by palm branches thrown down before you. Standup for what is right, not what is convenient. Forgive your enemies and return good to those that hurt you, while staying focused on your mission and goals. Then, as a servant leader who “washes the feet of those you serve,” you will create an unstoppable organization filled with the leaders you helped grow and your legacy will long outlive your life.
Happy Easter 2020.
Charlie Dexter is a professor of applied business emeritus at the UAF Community and Technical College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is brought to you as a public service by the UAF Department of Applied Business.