Maundy Thursday: Servant Leadership
By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell
In the late 1960s, there was a senior executive at AT&T named Robert Greenleaf, who was increasingly dissatisfied with the conventional, authoritarian models of leadership that were so pervasive among corporations and institutions in the United States. So he spent the next several years researching different management styles and organizational structures, and he discovered that in fact, most top-down control-oriented systems don’t actually work very well. Attempts to compel compliance by those in power only elicited frustration and resistance from employees, and procedures and guidelines that were intended to streamline efficiency instead ended up preventing the natural flow of collaboration and creativity that leads to high-quality productivity.
In a groundbreaking essay, Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” as a way of describing what he found to be the most effective form of leadership, which seemed paradoxically to come not from a desire to lead, but from a desire to serve. The most successful leaders were the ones who put serving others first—including employees, customers, colleagues, and the larger community. This quality of leadership instills trust and calls forth the best in people, allowing creativity and freedom to flourish in an environment of relational awareness, empathy, and authenticity.
In 1977, Greenleaf wrote an influential book entitled Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, in which he optimistically observed that:
A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving of one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.
In today’s Gospel reading we see that this is not really a “new moral principle” at all. It is, in fact, a very old principle. And it’s a principle that lies at the very heart of Christianity.
The image of Jesus kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet during his last dinner with them is perhaps one of the most memorable and iconic examples of this principle of servant leadership. But of course the entirety of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching was meant to point the disciples towards that same foundational truth: that true power lies not in coercion or control, or achievement and success, but in kenosis – “self-emptying.” This is the word Paul uses in his letter to the Philippians when he implores them to “have the same attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself (εκενωσεν), taking the form of a servant.” (2:5-7)
I would argue that this “servant leadership” that Jesus embodies and calls forth in us is perhaps the most important, and yet the least understood and appreciated aspect of his entire ministry. The theology of a God who “empties himself” has been explicated and debated at length for centuries. But we have focused so much of our attention on questions about Jesus, trying to nail down the particulars of his divine constitution, that we have managed to conveniently avoid the whole matter of how we might go about practicing kenosis in our own lives. Thus, “servant leadership” as a lived moral principle has become so rare in our church institutions, and so against the grain of our so-called “Christian” culture, that when it is re-discovered by Greenleaf in the secular context of organizational management theory, it is thought to be a wholly new idea.
But as the late Episcopal bishop Bennett J. Sims observed after stumbling across Greenleaf’s work, we don’t believe that this paradox of servant leadership is true simply because Jesus taught it. Rather, we believe that Jesus taught it because it is true. If we truly understand Jesus to be the self-disclosure of God to humanity, then we should not be surprised to find those patterns and teachings that he revealed to us woven into the fabric of our everyday lives in the way things actually work.
This path of kenosis and servanthood is the key to understanding the true God of Christianity, who contrary to popular conception is not a remote, white-bearded, iron-fisted man who sits upon a throne in the clouds. That’s Zeus, the God of the Greeks. The Christian God is an active, self-emptying Love who chose to be born into human poverty and suffering, and who welcomed death in a humiliating scene of torture and despair in order to reveal to us a different kind of power, and a deeper kind of hope than anyone had ever dared to imagine. This is not a God who raises up the powers that be in this world; but rather, this is a God who casts the mighty down from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly. This is not a God who wants us to measure our success in terms of what we have gained, but measures in terms of what we have given away.
Of course, it’s incredibly difficult to live into such a radically countercultural paradigm, and if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we do not live this path of kenosis most of the time. Even many sincerely devoted Christians will spend much of their time asleep, caught up in an unconscious acquiescence to the dominant value system, which would have us define our value and the value of others in terms of what power, prestige, and possessions we have acquired.
This is why I love Peter. We call Peter the “rock” of the church. Roman Catholics recognize him as the first pope. In the Gospels he is usually listed as first among the disciples, and he often acts as a spokesperson for the twelve. And yet over and over again, Peter is depicted as the one who most flagrantly and unabashedly doesn’t get it. He strongly believed Jesus to be the “Messiah,” who would usher in the “Kingdom of God.” But it’s clear that throughout the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry, he had no idea what that actually meant.
This scene at the last supper is particularly comical. When Jesus approaches Peter to wash his feet, he is horrified. “You will never wash my feet!” he yells. It is reminiscent of that moment in Matthew 16:22, when Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to be killed, and Peter pulls him aside to yell at him saying, “No! That shall never happen to you!”
Peter, like most of us, cannot fully fathom the concept of a self-emptying Messiah – a true “servant leader.” All of Peter’s notions of power and success—everything he thinks he knows about what it means to be a “king”—are based on those same conventional top-down models of leadership that most of our human institutions (even the “democratic” ones!) still organize themselves around today. Peter, like many of us, does not have the “eyes to see” what Jesus is really up to, or the “ears to hear” what he is plainly saying. Even when Jesus insists that he must wash Peter’s feet in order for him to have a share in the kingdom, Peter hears this not as a demonstration of what real power looks like, but as an observation of how dirty he is. He exclaims eagerly, “then not just my feet but my hands and face too!” desperately hoping to be made clean enough to be worthy of entry into the Kingdom. You can almost hear the facepalm of Jesus as he reminds Peter that people who have already taken baths don’t require any additional cleansing.
This is what it looks like when we try to put new wine into old wineskins. So often we hear only what we expect or want to hear, interpreting words from within the context of what we think we know. Usually it takes something pretty major to burst those old containers. For Peter, it was the death and resurrection of Jesus. Only in the context of a hope that was deep enough to embrace life beyond death did the pieces of the puzzle start to really fit together, and Peter was finally able to make that paradigm shift which enabled him to live out his own path of kenosis faithfully and courageously.
On this eve of crucifixion, perhaps many of us would like to skip Good Friday. Perhaps like Peter, we still want to believe on some level in a salvation that would let us somehow avoid that whole dying-to-self thing. And yet, this is the pattern that has been woven into the cosmos. This is the practice that enables a different kind of power to emerge. This is the unexpected entry point into new and abundant life: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Kristen Leigh Mitchell is Assistant Director of The Servant Leadership School at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is also a freelance writer, theologian, consultant, and indie folk singer-songwriter with an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she focused her studies in music and art, theology of culture, Biblical interpretation, early church history, and ecumenical worship.