Servant First, Leader Second

Servant LeaderAs a teacher, I have run across ambitious students who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, they reply: “I want to be a CEO so I can fly in a private jet and have a mini-golf course in my bathroom.”  After laughing, I always mention something about the hard work of being a CEO and they just shrug.  It’s hard when you’re twelve (or even twenty) to imagine the reality of running a multi-million dollar corporation.  Coming out of the 1980s and 90s, there has been this romanticized CEO image that has pervaded American culture.  However, after the recent trend towards fraud and other white collar crimes in large and small companies has tarnished this image of private jets and mini-golf course sized bathrooms.  The heart of greed and unbridled capitalism has promoted a culture of dishonesty and unethical conduct in order to increase profits.  After our economy being seriously burned by the fallout of these decisions, there has been a counter movement (which BCWI is a part of) to bring integrity and honesty back to business, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it provides more financial viability.

A huge part of increasing integrity in the workplace is the development of leaders who display a servant attitude.  At BCWI, we have seen servant leadership in the leadership teams of the Best Christian Workplaces.

Servant leadership is best when the person is a servant who also leads those around him, instead of a leader who happens to serve once a month or year.  Having this attitude will do three things to increase a servant leader’s effectiveness: build trust and history with employees, provide critical information for the direction of the company, and maintain the right mindset.

Building History and Trust

Having a servant first, leader second mindset will build rapport and trust with employees. This is the first thing that Robert Greenleaf discusses, whose book on servant leadership is a pillar and foundation on which all other books on the subject are supported.  Greenleaf discusses good servant leadership in the introduction of his book by discussing the characters in the book Journey to the East.  A group of men travel to the East in search of spiritual enlightenment.  Along the way, their servant Leo disappears and the group disintegrates without him to hold them together.  The end of the story reveals Leo as the Leader of the Enlightened organization that they had journeyed to find.  Greenleaf uses this example to show how important it is for the greatest leader to be seen as a servant first, Leo had proven his character to the men through all of his smart decisions and solid actions.  Leo was a leader that these men could easily accept because of their history and the trust already developed.  Servant leaders need to be servants first because of the relationships that form because of this connection.  Like we learned from Robert Shaw in his book Trust in the Balance, trust requires a long track record of large and small events that build upon each other.  If the leaders of an organization are always serving their employees, then the employees know that the leaders have their best interest at heart and will trust and act on decisions faster and more completely.

Visible Presence

In addition to organizational trust, servant leadership also provides the best information about where the direction of the company should head.  Being involved with employees will show leadership exactly what is going on with their company: the areas for both potential and problems.  Being on the front lines with employees will also show the needs of the clients; this insight will allow employees to serve better and reach more recipients. Bill Robinson, the former President of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington (a Best Christian Workplace!), discusses servant leadership in his book Incarnate Leadership.  He writes about the tendency of leaders to separate from their employees.  Employees tend to put the leadership of their organization on pedestals, not intentionally but partly as a sign of respect.  Servant leaders gently refuse to be elevated in that way, they dwell among the people they are leading and make an effort to meet with as many employees as possible each week.  Robinson calls this the paradox of ‘leading from among’ instead of leading from ahead (35).

Some of the problems we see with organizations that we survey are with a detached leadership.  So often employees will tell us that the leadership had no idea what is really going on, or that the leadership passively allows unhelpful or unhealthy things to happen without really understanding or caring about the consequences.  One of the practices we recommend to keep contact between leadership and employees is ‘Managing by Walking Around’ or MBWA.  I wrote about it in a previous blog, and it applies here again.  Having a presence among employees makes a huge difference in the relationship.

A great example, which I’ve mentioned before, is from another BCW: Southland Christian Church.  Al interviewed the leadership team for a podcast on Positive Core Attributes.  Charlotte Ewing and Kurt Braun discussed how their Campus Development Director Gordon Walls demonstrates outstanding servant leadership.  He personally makes an effort to serve his staff, constantly being present among staff and asking “How are you doing?” and “What can I do to help?”  They discuss how this is not a ‘management plan’ but an attitude.

Mindset of Humility

Lastly, having a servant first attitude will help leadership maintain the right mindset.  Robinson also talks about the idea of ‘bending the light,’ reflecting glory back onto God or other people and not absorbing it like so many leaders tend to.  Oftentimes, being the leader of an organization can go to people’s heads, (this has happened to me in much smaller roles, I can’t imagine what being president of an organization would do to me).  Being a servant leader helps keep pride and arrogance in check by remaining focused on the reason why leaders are in their position: to serve and equip their employees so their employees can serve the clients in the best possible way.  Being a leader is not about the fancy car or the big house, but about the responsibility for the community and the organization one leads.  Humility is crucial in order to maintain that mindset.  Robinson is quick to point out that humility absolutely does not mean timidity, leaders can be humble but aggressive, which is the magic combination to move a company forward.

A Biblical Model for Organizational Values

In a recent discussion with leaders in a Christian ministry the comment was made, “we need to begin living the values we have written down.” It was a telling statement, and unfortunately all too common. As fallen people, we all need reminders of the strongly held shared beliefs that guide our behavior in the workplace.


Strongly held beliefs evidenced by outward behaviors. throughout an organization that help form its culture.

Creating organizational values is a key step in building a healthy culture. For any organization, a logical question arises: is there a biblical basis for building virtue-based values statements? At a recent Christian Leadership Alliance conference workshop, Dr. Richard Biery presented a Biblical concept from Micah 6:8 that guides us in establishing meaningful values in a workplace, Christian or not. You can listen to the original lecture on our podcast page.

Richard tells us to look at Micah 6:8 not as a list, but as a more complex integrated system. By understanding how the three characteristics mentioned in Micah 6:8 relate to each other, a very clear picture begins to emerge. But first, let’s look at what the verse actually says:

“God has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8 (NIV)

Each of the key requirements has a special and unique meaning for us to examine as we explore a model to evaluate our personal and organizational value system.

1. Act justly: looking at what justice is in a cultural setting, it translates into “doing what is right” and personal integrity. To act justly in today’s world would include speaking and acting honestly, seeking truth, pursing excellence (which is integrity in action) and being diligent to act fairly.

2. To love mercy: The mercy is translated from the Hebrew word, ‘chesed’ is a complex word, but in summary it means ‘loving kindness.’ NH Snaith discusses the meaning of this word in his article simply entitled “Chesed” from A Theological Word Book of the Bible by Alan Richardson. Snaith suggests that “the word is used only in cases where there is some recognized tie between the parties concerned.” God created a covenant with Israel, so his ‘chesed’ for Israel takes place in the context of a formal relationship.

However, the word also takes on one more meaning: “the continual waywardness of Israel has made it inevitable that, if God is never going to let Israel go, then his relation to his people must in the main be one of loving-kindness, mercy, and goodness, all of it entirely undeserved. For this reason the predominant use of the word comes to include mercy and forgiveness as a main constituent in God’s determined faithfulness.” So, NIV scholars translate ‘chesed’ as mercy because that’s what God continually showed to Israel, but it translates more like “loving-kindness to people that I am in a covenant with whether or not they hold up their end of the covenant.” Another way to consider the meaning is the use of the term ‘committed love.’ This committed love in the workplace looks like being thoughtful, treating others with courtesy and respect, and kindness.

3. Walk Humbly With God: Having humility in the workplace requires putting other people first, listening, asking for and giving forgiveness, having an attitude of gratefulness and being teachable (open to learning).

When we put these three traits as points on a triangle, we can see how they interact with each other. Each interaction point is a key aspect of Christian culture in an organization. If one of these aspects were missing, then the culture could turn toxic. Let’s look at these aspects and examine how they fit into the workplace.

Justice + Mercy= Trustworthiness

The combination of integrity from doing justice and the committed love of mercy is trustworthiness and transparency. You need both integrity and love for trustworthiness to work. An example of what integrity without committed love looks like is the IRS. When an IRS agent comes to examine your finances, you know he’s going to do an accurate, thorough and honest job. But he’s not on your side; there is no mercy or kindness coming from him. You don’t trust him despite having integrity because the committed love isn’t there to inspire trust. On the other hand, committed love without integrity is also untrustworthy. Even if you know that a coworker is going to treat you with kindness and respect but you don’t trust them to do the right thing, or be honest, or do their work with excellence, then you don’t trust them either.

Leadership Visibility and Trust: Similar to the IRS agent example, a leader of an organization that is holed-up in their office, or absent because of travel, has difficulty building a trusting relationship with their staff. As we explore the reasons behind low levels of trust between senior leaders and staff in Christian organizations we find visibility to be an important criterion. Personal connection is required for an individual to feel kindness or respect from a leader. In fact, we have often listened to staff that feel disrespected because their leader is absent from the workplace on a prolonged basis. They feel the leader has no interest in them as individuals.

To meet the need to build trust and transparency through relationships, leaders have employed a tactic known in many circles as “Manage by Wandering Around” (MBWA). The following are a few tips to guide leaders who are interested in building trust.

• Appear relaxed as you make your rounds. Employees will reflect your feelings and actions.
• Remain open and responsive to questions and concerns.
• Observe and listen and let everyone see you do it.
• Make certain your visits are spontaneous and unplanned.
• Talk with employees about their passions — whether family, hobbies, vacations, or sports.
• Ask for suggestions to improve operations, service, ministry, etc.
• Try to spend an equal amount of time in all areas of the organization.
• Catch your employees doing something right and recognize them publicly.
• Convey the image of a coach — not an inspector.
• Encourage your employees to show you how the real work of the organization gets done.

MBWA works best when you are genuinely interested in employees and in their work and when they see you as there to listen. It sometimes requires follow-up. When you can’t answer an employee’s questions on the spot, get back to them with an answer within 48 hours.

So, in the workplace we need to act with both integrity and committed love. In doing so, we will become trustworthy and invest our trust into our coworkers, leading to a more effective and healthy workplace. Trust helps decisions be made and executed faster, cutting down on time, money, and the emotional energy it takes to bring suspicious people onto your side. Trustworthiness also enables people to give wise and constructive feedback, helping you to pursue excellence in your work and correct mistakes when wrong. “Speaking truth in love” is an attribute that Best Christian Workplaces use effectively.

Mercy + Humility= Servant Leadership

The combination of committed love and humility is an abundance mentality and servant leadership. This attitude can be described as ‘generous thinking’: not just getting a bigger piece of the pie, but making the pie bigger so everyone can have more. Having committed love with humility brings sincere caring about both your work and the people you work with. It also enables servant leadership, putting others before yourself with that committed love. Part of this servant leadership is openness and transparency, enabled because of humility. Once one’s ego is out of the way, then people can work together and be open about ideas, feedback, and progress.

A great example of servant leadership is from a Best Christian Workplace: Southland Christian Church. In their interview for BCWI’s podcast on Positive Core Attributes, Kurt Braun, Charlotte Ewing and Gordon Walls (the leadership team at SCC) discussed how they demonstrate and promote Christian culture at their workplace. Kurt began describing how Gordon models servant leadership by MBWA, not only to engage with his employees but also ask what he can do for them. Kurt says that Gordon is constantly asking the questions: “How are you doing?” and “What can I do to help?” This demonstrates genuine chesed for employees and also demonstrates how the SCC leadership team wants their managers to demonstrate concern for those who work under them.

Humility + Justice = Meekness

The final combination of humility and integrity is meekness. The term meek has taken on a new meaning in the evolution of the English language, so looking back to the Greek will help understand what this idea means. The Greek work that meekness is translated from is proutes. They used this word to describe incredibly powerful and highly trained warhorses riding into battle. They were extremely strong, but disciplined, self restrained, and completely submissive to their riders. The old English use of the term also brings across this idea: incredible strength that is restrained to the point of gentleness. We look for meekness in our Superheroes: strength that follows a higher ideal or power and is a team player. This idea is really important for senior leadership because of the guard against arrogance. Arrogance leads to entitlement, and entitlement leads to embezzlement and greed. Having good leaders who are humble and have integrity are surefire ways to hedge against corporate scandal.

Another aspect of meekness is teachability. Someone who is humble and also seeks truth will always be open to learning what others can offer. This curiosity will lead to new innovation and promote an innovative attitude in other employees.

Heart of the System is Courage and Grace

This system of integrity, committed love, and humility which leads to trustworthiness, servant leadership, and meekness is crucial in a workplace to bring out the best potential of employees. Having a Micah 6:8 mentality will create a workplace that respects each employee, builds trust, loves, encourages, and unleashes the creative talent and productivity in each person to further God’s kingdom. However, this does not mean that it will be easy, or that your workplace will be a ‘pie in the sky’ utopia with no conflict and everyone in perfect harmony. Acting with integrity is hard work. Loving people is hard work. Being humble is hard work. There will be conflict and hurt relationships and tumbling off the straight and narrow. That’s why at the heart of this system is the courage God instills in us to do this work and the grace for us and each other to make mistakes. Hopefully you find this as helpful as we have in creating a Christian culture in the workplace. You can find more information about this idea on Richard Biery and the BroadBaker Group’s website: or visit the podcast of his lecture here.