At a time when authenticity is increasingly sought, particularly among those who offer themselves to serve in public life, I am often asked about the characteristics comprising genuine leadership that is focused on the needs of others. Several such traits are highlighted in our recently published eBook, SHARPEN: Seven Tools for Successful Leadership, which is now available for your consideration. (Sign up for our weekly Saturday Sharpening email to receive your copy.)
Distilled to its essence, the SHARPEN principles represent several aspects of what it means to be a servant leader. Although it may seem counterintuitive, servant leadership – truly sacrificing one’s needs, wants, interests, or even life for the good of others – is something we should revere. Indeed, it represents the most noble act a person can perform. After all, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
One of the best ways to understand the meaning of servant leadership is to seek and hold up those who through their lives have modeled its attributes. Here are a few exemplars:
- In 458 B.C., Cincinnatus, Rome’s most distinguished former general, famously left his plow standing in the field on a small farm to return to public service only when Roman senators prevailed upon him to deal with an existential crisis for the nascent republic. Having defeated the Aequians, who were threatening to invade, he promptly gave up the absolute powers he had been granted as dictator and 15 days later was back on his farm.
- In the late 18th century, George Washington acted similarly. Having been recalled from retirement, he lead the army that secured independence for the United States, defeating the world’s strongest military force in a bloody eight year conflict. At the peak of his power and influence, he freely resigned his commission at Annapolis and returned home to his Virginia farm.
- Servant leadership – often to the point of sacrificing one’s life – is the hallmark of Medal of Honor recipients, men who have engaged in extraordinarily selfless behavior in combat on behalf of those serving with them. The citation of each recipient states that he has earned the Nation’s highest award for valor “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”
- And of course there is the only sinless example of servant leadership, “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), who died for the sinful rebellion of all mankind, so deep is God’s love for each of us.
As we consider how to sharpen our leadership abilities and have a positive influence on those with whom we interact each day, either by choice or by chance, let us endeavor to exhibit the characteristics of servant leaders – among others: listening more than talking, giving without expectation of receiving anything in return, and putting others’ interests first. With each act of selflessness, we can make the world a more civil, loving, and remarkably authentic place.