In looking over previous entries on the topic of serving and leadership (you can review them all in the category “Serving vs. Leadership” in the sidebar) I realized I’ve never actually compared the actual definitions of these terms. In considering whether it’s even possible to have a concept such as “servant leadership,” it seems important to understand what those words really mean. Merriam-Webster online defines the word “Leader”:
“a person who leads: as a: guide, conductor, (1): a person who directs a military force or unit (2): a person who has commanding authority or influence (1): the principal officer of a British political party (2): a party member chosen to manage party activities in a legislative body (3): such a party member presiding over the whole legislative body when the party constitutes a majority (1): conductor (2): a first or principal performer of a group.”
I note that a leader has “commanding authority or influence.” The Cambridge Dictionary includes this:”the person or people in charge of an organization.” So it’s fair to say that a leader is someone “in charge,” “in command,” and with “authority.”
Merriam Webster’s definition of “Servant”: “one that serves others [a public servant]; especially : one that performs duties about the person or home of a master or personal employer.” The definition of “Serve” provides additional perspective: “from Latin servire to be a slave. 6: to wait on customers, [and] to furnish or supply with something needed or desired, to answer the needs of.”
So the thing that jumps out at me in considering the concept of “servant leadership” is that the simple definition of a “servant” is someone who performs duties for a master. Suggesting you can be both a slave and a master at the same time, is incoherent. Let’s be honest. We want to be leaders, and develop leaders because they “command authority or influence” and that is an incredibly valuable commodity in today’s world. Especially when your goal is to command influence for the Kingdom. But we also recognize the inherent contradiction with the example of Jesus, who could have commanded all the authority and influence of Heaven, yet chose to serve by washing feet and giving up his life for others. (And gave up his life literally, not just figuratively.)
The gift of leadership is just one of the many equal gifts all of us have been given. We should esteem them all equally. And use them all to serve – to “wait on” others – as a slave for a master.