The Message Trust international CEO, Andy Hawthorne, often recounts a story about Salvation Army founder, William Booth. During a period when the burgeoning global organisation was particularly strapped for cash, Booth had limited resources with which to send his regular telegram to the Salvation Army ‘troops’ around the world. As sending a telegram was charged by the letter, Booth sent a message that encapsulated the foundational purpose of the movement – OTHERS.
Focusing on others is a critical hallmark of Christ-centred servant leadership. In Grab a Towel, I write that servant leaders put people before projects, programmes and profit. Servant leadership both focuses on loving God and loving people. The two are intrinsically linked.
This past week I was on a leadership retreat and was once again challenged in this area. Do I genuinely put people first in my own life and calling?
You see, there is an insidious threat to Christian leaders that looks like we’re putting people first, but it is actually the antithesis of servant leadership. Rather than putting people first, we succumb to the disease of being a people -pleaser.
The people-pleasers’ existence and purpose is wrapped up in what people think of us. The orientation of a people pleaser is self-centred, rather than other-centred. As someone who is prone to being a people-pleaser, I realise that it comes with a parallel track… that of being an affirmation addict. Again, rather than living to serve, we live for the applause. Instead of focusing on God and serving others out of love, we become addicted to affirmative words and actions from those we are influencing. We crave for other people to love and accept us, fuelling our own ego and using other people to make us feel good about ourselves. As mentioned, this is the very antithesis to the example of Christ who lay aside his status, rights and entitlement to be worshipped, in order to show us the love of God.
I believe it is almost impossible for leaders who are people-pleasers and/or affirmation addicts to genuinely put people first. The heart that longs for affirmation is in danger of becoming a toxic environment that contaminates it from genuinely being able to love and serve other people.
So what is the remedy? It’s impossible to give an exhaustive list… but here are some pointers I find helpful in order to detox my heart.
I would suggest the first step is some introspection – the kind of opportunity that I had this week. Taking time out is sometimes the only way to allow God to assess the condition of our heart. We can only love other people if we are willing to ask some hard questions of ourselves. Deep questions about our ultimate motivations and sense of well-being – do we lead in order to fulfill our own needs and inadequacies – or are we genuinely seeking to love others? Alongside this introspection, we need to confess and repent – firstly to God, and quite possibly to some people that have been hurt by our toxicity.
The next step is to come back to Christ and remind ourselves of his affirmation of us: he loved me enough to die for me. He values me, considers me his friend, and is pleased with me. When my toxic heart takes me away from this sense of security in Him, then I need to ask Jesus to do some heart surgery… to remove my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. I find that when I invite him to do this, he does it with a love and tenderness that brings me to a point of restoration.
A further step is to remind yourself that, as a Christ-centred servant leader, this is not about how strong your determination is, exerting your will-power, or a matter of self-motivation. Rather, it’s all about submission to the Holy Spirit. God knows that, left to our own, we cannot faithfully love Him or others. He has, therefore, provided us with the inner-power necessary to genuinely overcome our people-pleasing orientation and our affirmation addiction through filling us with his Holy Spirit. The good news is that the Holy Spirit is still the empowering personality that enables 21st century servant leaders to love people with the love of Christ.
The final prompting I had this past week was a reminder of the key role that listening plays to be an effective servant leader. Christ-centred servant leaders take genuine interest in other people. The discipline of listening opens up our hearts to hearing the soul-cry of other people. This fuels our love, empathy, prayers and ability to serve. Listening is therefore a critical ingredient if we are to put people before projects, programmes and profit… to genuinely grab a towel and serve others!