Servant Leadership in the Trenches of the Workplace

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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“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.”

Luke 22:26

Before leaving Luke 22:24-27 and its discussion of leadership, I thought I might share with you an example of how I have sought to be a servant leader in the trenches of the workplace. I want to focus on what it means to be a servant leader when an employee in your charge is not meeting expectations in his or her work.

Early in my career, I failed miserably at servant leadership in these situations. My first management job was overseeing a small tutoring and test-preparation business in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was responsible, among other things, for hiring and supervising a part-time staff of about fifteen people, most of whom were teachers in our program. I remember observing one of my teachers who was not doing a good job. Yet I was afraid of confronting her with her shortcomings, because she was an intimidating person. So I said nothing and hoped she would improve on her own. When this didn’t happen, I realized that I would have to let her go. But I was petrified of a potential scene with this strong-willed woman. So, as someone who dreads conflict, I sent her a letter, letting her know that her services were no longer needed.

When this teacher received my letter, she raced to my office. Banging loudly on my door, she demanded to speak with me. When I opened the door, she proceeded to tell me in blunt language that I was a coward for not talking to her directly. The very scene I had tried to avoid happened right there on my porch, in full view of my office mates. Of course, even at the time, I knew she was right. I had not done the honorable thing by sending a letter. Servant leadership required that I risk the discomfort of a face-to-face confrontation.

The memory of that encounter has stuck with me ever since. Though I still dislike conflict, and though I hate to have blunt, painful conversations with those who report to me, I have learned to have these discussions, at least some of the time. Part of what motivates me is the conviction that, as a leader, I am called to serve those whom I supervise. This means that I have the responsibility to tell them when they are not measuring up. It means I have to deal with the possibility, even the likelihood, of being disliked by someone who reports to me, at least for a while. Not my favorite thing, let me tell you.

I have also become convinced that if someone is really in the wrong position, if that person really cannot thrive in a particular job, then my role as a servant leader is to help that person move on. I know this can sound harsh and self-serving. But, I truly believe that I am not serving someone well, or the organization that employs us, if I allow a person I supervise to get away with consistent underperformance. People need to have the opportunity to flourish in their work and sometimes this means they need to find another job. And sometimes this means that I, as their servant leader, need to deliver the bad news that their services are no longer required. (Ugh!)

As a servant leader who seeks to imitate Christ, I am called to speak the truth in love. There is no excuse for “lording it over” someone who isn’t measuring up, even if that person is being let go. I admit it’s hard to find the right balance between exercising authority and exhibiting genuine humility and concern. But this is exactly the tension in which we live as servant leaders. In this difficult context, I am encouraged by something Dan Roloff has said, and with this I close: “The heart of servant leadership is the struggle between two apparently opposite terms....If there is no tension between serving and leading, it isn't servant leadership.”

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How might you live as a servant leader in your workplace? In your home? In your community service? In your church? Is the Spirit of God speaking to you about ways you need to be a servant leader today?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, I’m tempted to tell you that being a servant leader isn’t easy. But, of course, you know this. You know how hard it was to serve your own disciples, not to mention the crowds that followed you. And then, in the end, your servant took the form of your sacrifice on the cross. You knew the difficulty of servant leadership in a way that exceeds anything I have ever experienced. I’m glad you get it.

I ask you, my Lord, to help me to honor you in my leadership. Show me what it means to lead with confidence and humility. Help me to see how I can genuinely serve those whom I am called to lead. May my leadership imitate yours and glorify you. Amen.

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