Some Thoughts On Servant Leadership

At a Chi Alpha conference in St. Louis I just heard Dick Schroeder use an interesting phrase to compliment someone — “he puts ‘us’ before ‘me’.” Here are some off-the-cuff and unpolished thoughts inspired by that phrase:

“Us before me.” What a beautiful phrase to describe servant leadership.

“Us” puts the leadership into servanthood: “us before me” leads to the overall good of the group whereas “you before me” can lead to the detriment of the group.

To be clear, the Bible does command us to “in humility consider others better than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Doesn’t this lead directly to “you before me”?

Yes. It does. But the practical question for me as a leader is how to be self-sacrificial in a way that honors my obligations to those I am serving. And I have learned that there is a healthy way to prioritize others and a destructive way to prioritize others.

To serve as fully as possible there is a certain amount of self-maintenance that must take place. Boundaries must be established and maintained. Recreation and sabbaticals must be incorporated. Growth and learning have to take place.

All of these things are self-serving. They require us to say no to others and yes to ourselves. At times, we wind up saying “me before you today because I want to be able to serve you tomorrow”.

But at the same time, all of these things flow from a mature understanding of “you before me” — putting our followers’ long-term good above their short-term desires. For an organization, a leader who says “us before me” builds strength. A leader who naively/hyperspiritually says “you before me” leads the organization to implosion (and likely to high leadership turnover).

Clearly, there is the potential for “us before me” to become a pretext for putting “me before you.” The antidote is to keep expanding our definition of “us”. Whenever we begin to suspect that our “us” is too comfortable, we need to redefine the group we are serving in a larger way, and continue to put “us before me.”

And so a big thanks to Dick Schroeder for giving me my new favorite phrase: “us before me”. It will probably be my favorite for at least a week. 😉

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