Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Challenge of Servant Leadership

Written by: on April 7, 2021

What happens when a good person finds themselves in a situation where the expectations of the leadership position they occupy do not match their leadership style? For one, you get the Jimmy Carter Presidential Administration. Carter’s “Serving” strategy, as described by Simon Walker[1], may be an idealistic and honorable way to lead, and can be effective in certain situations, but it relies heavily on the responsibility and maturity of both the leader and of those who are being led.

Walker defines the Serving (RWX) strategy as responsive, back stage leadership. The attributes of this kind of leader are: “Low profile. Pays attention to what the situation needs. Responsive and reactive. Responds to the needs, issues, and concerns of others. Flexible and accommodating. May be led rather than leading.”[2]

Generally speaking, this is not the preferred style US American voters look for in their Commander in Chief. Despite Carter’s unlikely election, which was more a referendum on the incumbent, the nation did not ultimately respond to Carter’s serving style, especially as it faced domestic and international challenges. And when Carter himself had to adapt his style and become more “commanding,” he proved ineffective.

Organizations across the spectrum have stories of seasons when the style of a leader did not match the culture and the chaos this can create. When a leader with a serving style presides over a team that is used to more directive and decisive leadership, the organization can find itself confused and at a loss for how to move forward. Or when a commanding leader takes the reigns of a more collaborative culture, the shift can be disorienting and difficult to overcome.

One of Carter’s strengths was in his ability to relate to people. He intentionally sought out counsel and advice among a large network of people who could help him better relate to what people were experiencing. A word for this is “empathy.” However, as Edwin Friedman illustrates, focusing one’s leadership on feelings can actually decrease responsibility and cause society to regress.[3] “The great myth here is that feeling deeply for others increases their ability to mature and survive.”[4]

Friedman says that the differentiated leader’s most helpful way to show empathy or attend to people’s feelings is to focus on a “sense of wholeness and coherent organization” and to become “immune” in the sense of “preservation of an organism’s integrity.”[5] Part of Carter’s problem was that in letting the feelings of the electorate guide his leadership, he made decisions that actually created greater anxiety and decreased confidence.

The idea of the servant leader is one that we often talk about in the church, one that we lift up as a model of Jesus’ leadership. This style can be effective, especially as we understand whether or not a leader’s primary motivation is to be in charge of people or to serve people. Modern western society tends to reward the more dominant style of leadership, but still seems to respect and appreciate actions that appear to be based in servanthood.

Perhaps the lesson for any leader is found in Walker’s summary of example of the Serving style of leadership in action. Even more front stage leaders can develop routines and behaviors that help them be more in tune with where their people are. They can pitch in and help in places, thereby gaining a different perspective, a greater appreciation, and building good will.[6] At the end of the day, the Carter Era demonstrates the risks US presidents take when they operate from a less commanding style. But servant leadership and servanthood can be effective styles when leader and followers alike can be trusted with shared responsibility, maturity, and commitment.

[1] Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 230ff.

[2] Ibid, 192.

[3] Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve,” (New York: Church Publishing, 2017,) 143.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 166-7.

[6] Think “Undercover Boss.”

About the Author

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

11 responses to “The Challenge of Servant Leadership”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    Good insights here, John. I’ve never thought about servant leadership in terms of the maturity of the followers. It makes sense, though. If the followers don’t understand the implications of servant leadership, it can be lost on them as they wrestle with their leaders. If they don’t have a mature understanding of it, they can get into the habit of take take take without any sort of give. This can also cause the leader to continuously give without fulfilling their own needs as well. It’s a delicate balance.

    • John McLarty says:

      It is a delicate balance. But if the goal of leadership is to help others become more mature and responsible, then a leader must keep putting the ball in their hands, even when they don’t want it or don’t do well with it. The biggest problem is that I don’t see much evidence that people truly want to be more mature and responsible. They want leaders who will make them happy, do the work for them, and make the tough decisions. They don’t do well with words like sacrifice, servanthood, and responsibility.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    As I read your post, I kept thinking about the importance of vision casting. When a leader is elected, hired, or steps into a new role- how important is communicating vision to the followers? Jesus did this in countless ways, both through word and deed. It took him three years of vision casting with his disciples- and even then, post ascension, they were still figuring things out. Indeed, 2K years later, we are still trying to figure out how to follow Jesus well.

    I wonder how the Carter era would be different if he’d been more effective in casting vision? Maybe that’s a lesson he learned during those years, because it seems he’s been a highly effective leader post-presidency? Or maybe that effectiveness has as much to do with role, timing, and mission?

    • John McLarty says:

      I agree that Jesus did do this well, at least with a handful of people in whom he was heavily invested. Carter inherited a mess, much like other presidents I’ve studied this term, but his strategy was not effective in uniting people or in fixing the problems. As I wrote in a previous post, Reagan’s style shared many of the same characteristics as Teddy Roosevelt which gave the appearance of someone more capable of dealing with the issues. If Carter was intentionally aware that he was deploying the “serving” strategy, then perhaps his biggest mistake was overestimating the willingness of the people to collaborate and take responsibility.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    Interesting insights! Carter was president when I was finishing High School. I think a portion of his leadership style was more trying to maneuver a very frustrating time in America that it was from his spiritual convictions. The removal of soldiers for Vietnam, Watergate and the impeachment of Nixon as well as the short 3 year presidency of Ford left the economy and people in a shambles. Inflation was high and American confidence was low. I think you are correct people expected a stronger leader to guide them out of hard economical times. Maybe that was why Reagan was so popular. I wonder if there is a difference in the way servant leadership is conveyed that can be seen as more affective? Jesus was a true servant leader, humble yet confident, meek but strong. People admired and followed Him while leaders felt threatened by Him.

    • John McLarty says:

      There’s no doubt Carter stepped into a mess. But I think his “serving” strategy overestimated the people’s willingness and capacity to collaborate and take responsibility for solving the nation’s problems. Jesus’ example of servant leadership is inspiring, but even so, his “success” really happened after his ascension when the apostles took up the work and began the movement into all the world. Maybe the greatest strength of the “servant” leader is the ability and confidence to accept that results may come much later, even after one’s leadership term, and perhaps life, is over.

  4. Jer Swigart says:

    I pioneered a church in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004. I was an activating apostolic leader who lived on the edges with my faith and leadership. My style and that of the team I built drew a particular kind of person to our church. We sought Jesus, trained hard, transcended barriers and boundaries, and watched as God restored souls and relationships.

    As the years went by and as the community matured, my leadership needed to pivot. In response to what the spirit was doing within the church, I had to adapt. It was healthy. The stuff of transformation.

    At the decade mark, the need for deeper roots emerged. Our team began to sense our deficiencies in shepherding. We needed leadership that would take us deeper and that would tend more acutely to the souls of the people.

    My sense, as well as that of our elders, was that this season was not about further adapting of my leadership style to meet the current need. It was time for transition. My best leadership was behind me and we needed a different kind of leader.

    John, from your view, how do we know when a moment calls for leadership adaptation or the transition of the leader?

    • John McLarty says:

      I had a similar experience earlier in my career with a church plant. I don’t think I was as intentional or self-aware as you described, but I definitely reached a point where I sensed it would be better both for me and for the church to have new experiences. The church went through an adjustment period, but it was gratifying to see how the leadership there stepped up and moved on. I know of other leaders who seem much more able at “reinventing” themselves or their styles as necessary. I didn’t know enough back then to do that. I feel like I’ve grown in the years since, but through experiences I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed. That’s a long way of saying I really don’t know!

      • Jer Swigart says:

        I often wonder if it’s healthy for leaders to “reinvent” themselves. Grow, season, and mature? Yes. But “reinvent”?

        My fascination with Strengths Finder, Enneagram, and MBTI have led to a hunch that we’re wired a particular way and for a particular reason. Try as I did to “reinvent” myself as more of a shepheridng leader, I couldn’t do it. The skin didn’t fit my frame. We addressed this by growing our team with more pastoral personnel and ultimately concluded that for the sake of the church’s ongoing formation, she needed a different type of directional leader.

        Sometimes I wonder if the call to “reinvent” is tied to unhealthy attachments between the congregation and its leader and the leader and his/her ego.

  5. Shawn Cramer says:

    Friedman’s assessment of empathy was helpful for me. If you recall, he’ll trace the recent arrival of the word in the English lexicon. I don’t fully agree with him, but I think you mined out his main point about leaning others in a place of inactivity based on emotions.

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    Thank you for drawing some clarity and connection with Friedman’s ’empathy’. I have struggled to figure ‘his’ out.

    Friedman says that the differentiated leader’s most helpful way to show empathy or attend to people’s feelings is to focus on a “sense of wholeness and coherent organization” and to become “immune” in the sense of “preservation of an organism’s integrity.”

    This helps.

    For the leader to be able to adjust slightly, coming in, in order to meet the people ‘where they’re at’ is important for transition, a healthy beginning. Could the servant-leader be slightly more apt to be sensitive at transition/change/adjustment time?

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