Time for Servant Leadership

In this time of economic shrinkage, it is tempting for employers to believe that any remaining employees should consider themselves “damn lucky to have a job” (as one of my former law partners used to say). This attitude can lead to subtle exploitation of employees who will do almost anything to keep their paychecks coming each month.

My 22 years of experience in employment law lead me to believe there is a better way to treat employees, even in poor economic times, or maybe particularly in poor economic times. That management style is frequently called “servant leadership.”

The few servant leaders that I know in Texas Panhandle businesses rarely have to worry about lawsuits filed by former employees, because even job terminations are performed with grace by servant leaders.  Meanwhile, many other local companies are seeing an increase in employment litigation.

Servant leadership has been preached in the secular business world for almost 40 years, beginning with an essay by Robert K. Greenleaf which advocated teamwork, ethics, and care of one’s employees. Greenleaf and his disciples identified certain characteristics of a servant leaders, including listening, empathy, stewardship, a belief in the inherent value of employees, and a commitment to building community. Many companies, such as Southwest Airlines, have discovered that this kind of servant leadership creates fulfilled employees who will go the extra mile for the company and for its customers.

For those of us who are Christians, we know that this concept of servant leadership is much older than 40 years. It was modeled for us 2000 years ago by the greatest leader of all, Jesus Christ. Jesus demonstrated true servant leadership after the Last Supper, when he washed the feet of his disciples.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

John 13:12-17.

As an employer, you can do so much more than hire, discipline and fire your employees. You can encourage them, inspire them, hear them, heal them and lead them by the example you set. Look up the phrase “one another” in the New Testament and you will find the best management instructions ever published:

  • Be devoted to one another.
  • Honor one another.
  • Live in harmony with one another.
  • Accept one another.
  • Serve one another in love.
  • Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
  • Be kind and compassionate toward one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you.
  • Submit to one another.
  • Encourage one another and build each other up.
  • Spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
  • Offer hospitality to one another.
  • Have fellowship with one another.

What does that look like in practical terms? Ask your new employee and his family to your home for dinner. Find out about his life, his needs, his dreams and then look for ways to help him fulfill them.

Arrange for your company to build a house for Habitat or to sort canned goods at the High Plains Food Bank together, and make sure you are the first one there and the last to leave. Organize the company softball team, provide the t-shirts, and if you don’t play with them, at least be there for the games and be the loudest cheerleader in the stands. Build a healthy community and your employees will work to improve it. Employees who are led by a servant will never want to disappoint you or leave the company that has become a family to them.

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