Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

June 2005
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The Heart of the Matter

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

Abusive leaders are not called so because they beat the people or yell at them or call them names. Servant leaders are not called so because they serve their followers breakfast in bed every morning.

In spite of popular misconceptions, “servant leadership” does not mean that the leader “sweeps the floor” all the time. This distinction is clear from Jesus’ life and ministry: Jesus slept in the boat while the others rowed (Matt. 8:23-24), He broke the bread and the disciples distributed it to the multitudes (Matt. 14:19), He sent Peter fishing for the tax money (Matt. 17:27) and the disciples prepared for the Passover (Matt. 26:17-19). In addition, when Jesus washed His disciples’ feet in John 13, it was clearly quite an exceptional event (John 13:7-8).

The essence of abusiveness in leadership is using followers for the leader’s own interests.

…Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd…my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, (Ezek. 34:2-8)

For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. (Rom. 16:18)

I have no one else like him [i.e. Timothy], who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 2:20-21)

The essence of servant leadership is seeking what is best for the followers in the purposes of God, and not oneself.

…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 10:33)

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Cor. 4:5)

All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. (2 Cor. 4:15)

Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent you? I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not act in the same spirit and follow the same course? (2 Cor. 12:17-18)

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:7-8)

…I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. (Phil. 1:25-26)

But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. (Phil. 2:17)

For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. (1 Thess. 3:8)

Thus, an abusive leader may actually be quite nice toward the people, but be using them for his own agenda. For example, a pastor of a small church who is only using that church as a stepping-stone to “greater things,” is, by definition, an abusive leader. He is only using the people to serve his own interests. He has no long-term commitment to what is best for the people he leads.

The servant leader, however, serves God by serving others.

Who would you rather follow:


Which would you rather be:


Our next Letter will examine how to avoid being an abusive leadership.

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