Reflections on Servant Leadership from Howard E. Butt, Jr.
“But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves.”
When I was in college, I was profoundly impressed by a book called Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. In this book, published in 1977, Robert K. Greenleaf advocated leadership based on serving others. He was responsible for popularizing the concept of “servant leadership.”
Four years earlier, another book anticipated Greenleaf’s notions of leadership. The Velvet Covered Brick: Christian Leadership in an Age of Rebellion may not have used the phrase “servant leadership,” but it promoted this notion of leadership, grounding it in the very nature of God. Howard E. Butt, Jr., author of The Velvet Covered Brick and founder of Laity Lodge, called leaders to serve others in the way of Jesus.
For over fifty years, even before he wrote The Velvet Covered Brick, Howard Butt has been a passionate advocate of servant leadership based on the triune character of God. During this time, he has written and spoken on the theme hundreds of times. My colleague at The High Calling, Dan Roloff, helped me gather some quotations on servant leadership by Howard and others. I’d like to share them with you here.
“The Trinity is three persons in relationship, not one person in relationship with two others. The Trinity exists in relationship. Similarly, we find our identities within relationship. We have no leadership apart from relationships because we have no identity without relationships.”
“When talking about leadership, it is easy to think we’re talking about other leaders, bigger leaders, more influential leaders. But the challenge is not out there. It’s inside us.”
“The concept of servant leadership, which is a biblical concept, has two perils. One is that the servanthood of the leader renders him passive and impotent. On the other hand, leadership can become authoritarian, insensitive, and tyrannical. The challenge is to find the balance between strong leadership and servant leadership. No one leads until someone serves.”
“Servant leadership can become an opportunity to abdicate responsibility. People don’t know when to claim their leadership. The internal conversation sounds like this, 'I know I’m the best suited to lead in this instance, but if nobody asks me I’ll just serve everybody by practicing servant leadership.' That’s one of my favorite internal conversations. When individual leaders refuse to lead, the group suffers. We don’t serve anyone by denying our leadership responsibilities.”
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: As you think about putting servant leadership into practice, what are some of the challenges you face? Have you ever worked for or with someone you would consider a servant leader? What did you learn from this person?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, thank you for those who have modeled servant leadership in my life, beginning with my parents and continuing to the present day as I imitate the example of Howard Butt. Thank you also,for those who have thought deeply about servant leadership, not just in the abstract, but also in the practical demands of real-life situations.
Help me, dear Lord, not to dismiss your teaching on servant leadership because it is hard or unpopular. Rather, may I embrace your call, and with wise elders to guide me, live my life as a servant leader.
All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, because you not only taught about servant leadership, but also demonstrated its essence through your death on the cross. Amen.