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Servant leadership in a postmodern culture

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Divine Servant statue by Max Greiner on campus of Dallas Theological Seminary (Credit: Chiceaux Lynch via Flicker)

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is the most popular rendition of Jesus’ last meal before his crucifixion.  And one of the most inaccurate.

Leonardo pictures our Lord and his disciples all seated on one side of the table.  When last did your family eat a meal like that?  They are sitting in a Renaissance-era Italian hall, at an Italian dining table.  Leonardo sought to contemporize Jesus by bringing him into the artist’s own time.  But he gave us a picture that is far from the biblical narrative.

When Jesus and his disciples met on Maundy Thursday, they ate around a U-shaped table that sat 18 inches from the floor.  They rested on their left elbows, while using their right arms to eat.  Their bodies lay on the ground, angled away from the table.

The men remained in such a configuration when Jesus shocked them all.  John the apostle, Jesus’ best friend and eyewitness to the event, tells us what came next:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper.  He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:3-5).

This was an act of service so demeaning that no Jew could be made to do it.  By washing the dirty, smelly feet of the men who would deny him, betray him, and abandon him, Jesus set an example of servant leadership that endures to this day.

Then he instructed us to follow his example:

You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you (vs. 13-15).

If Jesus would serve us, and if he would call us to serve each other, servant leadership must be the most significant form of leadership.  What does such a leadership philosophy entail?  How does it work in our postmodern culture?

Understanding our times

When David became king, a massive army rallied to his side.  1 Chronicles 12 details their forces, listing the number of men and their military qualifications by tribe.  And so we learn that the tribe of Simeon sent 7,100 “mighty men of valor” (v. 25).  The tribe of Zebulun sent 50,000 “seasoned troops, equipped for battle with all the weapons of war” (v. 33).  The tribe of Naphtali sent 37,000 “men armed with shield and spear.”  The roster describes each contingent by its military capacities, with one exception: “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all the kinsmen under their command” (v. 32).

Without “men who had understanding of the times,” all the military power in the nation would be ineffective.  Such people of discernment are essential for leadership, then and today.  How can we be “men of Issachar”?

How we got here

Here’s the briefest overview of Western culture I can construct.

We begin with the patristic era (A.D. 100-500), a time when biblical truth and church authority came into alignment and were unquestioned.  The medieval era (A.D. 500-1500) saw the Roman Catholic Church rise to unrivaled dominance in Western Europe.  The Reformation (beginning A.D. 1517) shook the foundations of the medieval worldview; the Renaissance and Enlightenment framed the Modern Era (A.D. 1500-1960), a time when human reason supplanted church authority.

Beginning around 1960 in America, the “postmodern” worldview took shape.  Its roots are found in 18th century Europe, where Immanuel Kant convinced the culture that “truth” results when our subjective minds interpret our subjective sense experiences.  As a result, we cannot know the “thing-in-itself,” but only our perception of it.

This assertion influenced Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that language is the expression of the “will to power” of those who use it, rather than an objective reflection of reality.  Postmodern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty were catalysts for the continued “postmodern” development.  In their view, truth claims are personal and subjective; the best we can achieve is what is best for the majority.  Tolerance is our most important characteristic and goal.

What does this evolution in worldview mean for the ethics of leadership?  Clearly it challenges our understanding of both terms and their significance today.

In the postmodern view, “ethics” are personal, subjective, and relative.  There is no such thing as absolute truth.  You have no right to force your beliefs on me.  So long as we are sincere in our beliefs and tolerant of the beliefs of others, we’ll get along.  No objective ethics can be posited or defended.

“Leadership” is equally subjective as a term and category.  Since the “will to power” is the basic drive in human nature, leadership all too easily becomes an expression of this power motive.  To defend an objective view of leadership ethics, we must defend the notion of objective truth.

How should biblical leaders respond?

A philosophical reply

Consider this philosophical assertion: the postmodern rejection of objective truth contains within itself the fissures which may lead to its collapse.  In brief, if no objective truth exists, how can I accept this assertion as objectively true?  According to postmoderns, no statement possesses independent and objective truth.  And yet the preceding statement is held to be independently and objectively true.  This seems a bit like the ancient skeptics (ca. 500 BC) who claimed, “There is no such thing as certainty and we’re sure of it.”

A second philosophical critique of postmodernism centers in its rejection of objective ethics.  Since all ethics are purely pragmatic and contextual, no ethical position can be judged or rejected by those outside its culture.

If this is so, how are we to view events such as the Holocaust?  Within the interpretive culture of the Third Reich, Auschwitz and Dachau were pragmatically necessary and purposeful.  And yet they stand as the quintessential rejection of the tolerance and inclusion so valued by postmoderns.  The postmodern must choose between his insistence on inclusion and his rejection of intolerance.  Logically, he cannot have both.

The postmodern rejection of objective authority thus rests upon illogical and mutually contradictory foundational principles.  This “apagogic” apologetic (defending one’s position by exposing the weaknesses of its opponents) may prove effective with postmoderns who value logical consistency.

A pragmatic response

Now consider a pragmatic reply.  Here the postmodern rejection of modernity is in our favor.  The chief obstacle to faith posed by modernity was its insistence on empirical proof and scientific verification.  The postmodern rejects such a materialist worldview, insisting that all truth claims are equally (though relatively) valid.

The result is a renewed interest in spirituality unprecedented in a century.  While this contemporary spirituality is unfortunately embracing of all alternatives, at least Christianity can function as one of these options.

How can we make an appeal for biblical authority in such a marketplace of spiritual competitors?  By reversing the “modern” strategy.  In modernity we told our culture, “Christianity is true; it is therefore relevant and attractive.”  We invited nonbelievers to accept the faith on the basis of its biblical, objective merits.  “The Bible says” was all the authority our truth claims required.

In the postmodern culture we must use exactly the opposite strategy: our faith must be attractive; then it may be relevant; then it might be true (at least for its followers).  If we can show the postmodern seeker for spiritual meaning that Christianity is attractive, interesting, and appealing, he will likely be willing to explore its relevance for his life.  When he sees its relevance for us, he may decide to try it for himself.  And when it “works,” he will decide that it is true for him.  He will then affirm the authority of the Scriptures, not in order to come to faith but because he has.

A return to the first century

Can such an approach be effective?  If we jettison our “truth first” approach to biblical authority and begin by appealing to our culture on the basis of attractive relevance, will we abandon our biblical heritage?  No—we will return to it.

We live in a postmodern, post-denominational, post-Christian culture.  The first Christians lived in a pre-modern, pre-denominational, pre-Christian world.  They had no hope of taking the gospel to the “ends of the earth” by beginning their appeal to the Gentiles with biblical authority.  The larger Greek world shared the postmodern skepticism of any absolute truth claim, let alone those made on the basis of Hebrew scriptures or a Jewish carpenter’s teachings.  And so the apostolic Christians built their evangelistic efforts on personal relevance and practical ministry.ii  The result was the beginning of the most powerful, popular, and far-reaching religious movement in history.

I am convinced that we are now living in a culture more like that of the apostolic Christians than any we have seen since their day.  They had no buildings or institutions to which they could invite a skeptical world, and so they went to that world with the gospel.  They had no objective authority base from which to work, so they demonstrated the authority of the Scriptures by their attractive, personal relevance.  We now live in a day when nonbelievers will not come to our buildings to listen to our appeals on the basis of Scriptural authority.  But when we show them the pragmatic value of biblical truth in our lives, ministries, and community, we will gain a hearing.

Postmodernity offers us a compelling opportunity to “remember our future.”  To remember the biblical strategies upon which the Christian movement was founded, and to rebuild our ministries on their foundation.  To move into our postmodern future on the basis of our premodern heritage.

Servant leadership in a postmodern context

What are the practical implications of a culture which questions an objective understanding of “ethics” and “leadership”?  My assertion is this: effective leadership today must be transformational rather than positional.  Positional leaders assume an authority derived from their title or place within the organization.  Postmodern culture questions all such assumed or inherent authority claims.

Transformational leaders, by contrast, earn the right to lead by enabling the organization to achieve its mutually-agreed upon measures of success.  Such leaders empower and encourage those they lead, transforming the organization with a culture of community.  This approach best offers sustained success in our post-modern worldview.

In other words, we need to learn how to wash the feet of our followers before we can lead them.  How is such transformational leadership achieved?

Choose servant leadership

First, our postmodern culture requires leadership built on relationship and servanthood.  Bernard Swain describes the four types of leadership:

  • Sovereign: the leader determines both the vision and its implementation
  • Parallel: the leader serves the organization as it seeks and fulfills its vision collectively
  • Mutual: the leader serves as a member of a team which shares its duties and responsibilities
  • Semi-mutual: the leader defines the vision and direction of the organization, then serves its members as they achieve that vision through their own initiatives and efforts.

Our context requires and rewards a semi-mutual leadership style.  Effective leaders know and define their passion and that of their organization, then serve and empower its members to fulfill that vision in a collective and collaborative spirit.

Oswald Sanders, in his now-classic Spiritual Leadership, claims that “true greatness, true leadership, is found in giving yourself in service to others, not in coaxing or inducing others to serve you.”  Max DePree, the former CEO of Herman Miller and author of bestselling leadership literature, defines leadership:

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  The last is to say thank you.  In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.  That sums up the progress of an artful leader.

Would those you lead say that you serve them, or that they serve you?

Know your strengths

A collaborative servant leadership style builds mutuality and community.  It requires that leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, and be enthusiastic about delegating responsibility and authority to those who complement and supplement their gifts.  Peter Drucker, often called the “father of modern leadership theory,” distinguished four personalities needed for the tasks of top management:

  • The “thought” person
  • The “action” person
  • The “people” person
  • The “front” person.

Drucker believed that these four temperaments are almost never found in a single person and warned, “the one-man top management job is a major reason why businesses fail to grow.”

A servant leader in postmodern context will celebrate the gifts and passions of those he or she serves in the organization.  Who are you empowering and encouraging as they join you in fulfilling your organization’s vision?

Choose personal integrity

The leader’s personal character is foundational to success in a culture which disparages positional authority.  Sanders quotes the great military leader Bernard Montgomery: “Leadership is the capacity and will to rally men and women to a common purpose, and the character which inspires confidence.”  The second is essential to the first.

Warren Bennis is the University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California.  In 1976 he warned us about the “unconscious conspiracy” in every organization to maintain the status-quo for the future benefits of current participants.  The solution is for leaders to empower their followers to fulfill the organization’s collective vision for the benefit of its members and customers.

To do so, leaders must embody four critical competencies:

  • Management of attention
  • Management of meaning
  • Management of trust
  • Management of self.

In a culture which depreciates leadership by position, it is essential that we earn the right to lead by virtue of our personal character.  We cannot ask people to do what we are unwilling to do, or go further than we are willing to lead.  What the leader is, the organization becomes.

DePree cites Mahatma Gandhi’s list of the seven sins in the world:

  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Knowledge without character
  • Commerce without morality
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice
  • Politics without principle.

Because character is so central to effective leadership today, spiritual formation is now indispensible for leaders.  If the members of your organization were as committed to personal integrity as you are, would that be good for your colleagues and customers?

Conclusion

My argument is that the postmodern context challenges positional leadership assumptions, requiring leaders to transform their organization through service, community and integrity.  Such leaders enable and empower their followers to achieve mutual goals in an environment of sustained success.

When Allied armies advanced on the North African port of Eritrea during World War II, the fleeing Axis forces did an ingenious thing.  They loaded barges with concrete and sank them across the mouth of the harbor, making it impossible for the approaching troops to enter.

But the Allies hit on an even more inventive solution.  They emptied several gigantic oil tanks, the kind which hold one hundred thousand barrels of oil and more, and sealed them watertight.  They attached chains to each of them.  Then at low tide their divers attached the other ends of the chains to the barges sitting on the bottom of the harbor.  And when the tides rose, their power was so great that they lifted the sealed oil tanks and the cement-filled barges with them.  It was then an easy task to dispose of the barges and reopen the harbor.

This power of the tides inspired Shakespeare to pen these immortal words:


There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyages of their life<
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures
(Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene II).

If we embrace the challenge of servant leadership in the postmodern tides of our day as transformational leaders who serve, build community and lead by example, we will “take the current when it serves” and become the most effective leaders we can be.  We will wash feet so that we may wash souls.  And God will use our service for his eternal glory.

May it be so for each of us today.