Everyone has heard the saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I’m guessing you have known someone who claimed to value servant leadership. Perhaps they criticized leaders who were power hungry, or maybe they loved talking about the importance of humility in leadership.
But then they actually came to some power themselves…and their love for servant leadership mysteriously disappeared.
Maybe they received a promotion at work, maybe they became the president of your HOA, or maybe they became a leader in your church. Whatever their position, as soon as they got a taste of power, it went to their heads. They started putting themselves first, and started treating others like they were inferior.
Today I want to talk about how to prevent that from happening. If you ever receive a position of responsibility or power, or even if you’re in one now, how can you make sure you grow as a servant leader? How do you avoid the corruptive nature of power? How do you lead with humility?
And so we’ll look at four strategies and examples of humility in leadership from the lives of Nehemiah and Jesus.
Let’s get started.
1) Fear God
Nehemiah was a great leader during a time of difficulty for the people of Israel. He was surrounded by nobles who exploited the poor to build their own wealth. Not only did Nehemiah resist the temptation to do so, he actually called out the nobility for their sin and demanded they change their ways. Instead of taking from the poor, Nehemiah contributed the food from his daily allowance to the people.
Why was Nehemiah able to resist the temptations of power and greed when other nobles could not?
We can find the answer in Nehemiah 5:15, which says,
“The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.”
There it is – Nehemiah feared the Lord. He knew that no matter how powerful he became as a leader, God was always going to be far greater than himself. Nehemiah also knew that a righteous God was always watching, and this God loved His people. You wouldn’t taunt a bear cub when the Mama bear is watching, nor would you take advantage of people made in God’s image when you know He is watching.
It’s just harder to let power get to your head when you know that someone with infinite power is watching over you.
And so, for us today, the same is true. God is just as powerful, just as personal, and just as protective of His people. If you are given the responsibility of leading His flock, protecting them, or shepherding them, then you must maintain humility in leadership. The best way to do that, is to fear God and remember that no matter how powerful you become, you are ultimately still His servant.
2) Remember that people are created in God’s image
Our sinful nature makes it easier to feel superior to others. “These people don’t work as hard as me” or “they should be grateful for everything I do for them” or “I don’t have time for the likes of you.”
The disciples make this very mistake when some children attempt to visit Jesus in Mark 10:13-16,
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
Notice how the disciples actually rebuke the children. Imagine you see your favorite celebrity. You’re nervous but can’t pass up the opportunity so you approach this celebrity. Just as you’re getting close, a couple of bodyguards block the way and say, “sorry, you can’t talk to this person.”
This is exactly what the disciples are doing – they think Jesus is too important to be bothered by children. So they attempt to block it. Fortunately, Jesus knows what is happening and actually gets indignant with his disciples. “Let the children come to me!”
Jesus knew that every person, no matter their size or age or race or culture, was created in God’s image. Each had inherent value, and he came to offer them salvation. He would not deny anyone who came to him, for he loves them.
In the same way, we must remember that all people are created in God’s image. Do you want Jesus to get indignant with you? Of course not!
So remember to treat others with dignity, not as second class citizens who rarely merit our attention. The people you lead in your company or community or church may be flawed and will certainly make mistakes, but they are created by God and therefore your equal. You must remember that if you hope to stay humble as a leader.
3) Look to Christ’s example of Humility in Leadership
I can think of no better example of humble, servant leadership than Jesus himself. Let’s look at Philippians 2:3-11, which says,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
If anyone had a right to let the power get to his head, it was Jesus. If anyone had a right to demand his authority be respected, to demand people appreciate him and do his bidding, then it was Jesus.
In the days of Jesus, the prevalent Greek and Roman belief system championed power above all else. Their gods would conquer people, murder others, and take whatever woman or man they wanted. Their soldiers would march through the streets demonstrating their pomp and power. Their religious beliefs reflected the ideals of their society – the strong have a right to take what they want.
And then this Jewish carpenter comes on the scene. He didn’t look like it, but he was stronger than anyone else in history. He could have forced the entire world into submission, he could have burned entire cities to the ground with the snap of his finger.
But instead, he chose to wash his disciple’s feet. He humbled himself, he took on the form of a servant, and he healed us by submitting himself to death on a cross.
Jesus has already humbled himself, and he did it for you. When you remember that, then it should be much easier to humble yourself and serve others. The choice to serve does not mean that you are weak – Jesus proves that. If anything, choosing to serve demonstrates incredible strength.
The more time you spend with Jesus, the more you will become like him. Spend time with Jesus, and ask him to sanctify you so that you can be more of a servant.
4) Empower Others to Lead and Serve
Nehemiah and Jesus both did something important in the way they led. They did not do everything for their people.
Nehemiah didn’t tell everyone to go enjoy some time off while he himself built the wall. Instead, he brought them tools and assigned them jobs and empowered the people to build the walls themselves. By enlisting so many people (and with God’s help), they were able to complete the wall in record time.
In the same way, Jesus could have done all his ministry on his own. But instead, he enlisted a few disciples and trained them. He taught them and empowered them to share the good news of his kingdom. These men were not accomplished scholars or famous leaders – they were fishermen and tax collectors, but Jesus chose them anyway.
Empowering your people helps you stay humble for multiple reasons. First, it is a way to serve others. When you teach or train or disciple or mentor, you share your knowledge and expertise. Many people choose to hold this knowledge tightly for fear that they will lose their power, but great leaders know that by multiplying themselves they can have a greater impact.
Second, this helps you stay humble because you will see some of your people grow to outperform you. For instance, I used to create videos for a local church. I would post the occasional video to youtube and hope it would become a viral hit, but never really pulled it off. I had a couple student interns, however, who I taught everything I knew about video. They both had major viral hits while in high school and it was actually cool to see them outshine my work.
One of the greatest acts of humility a leader can do is to empower his or her people. Invite them in to share in the work, for there is much work to be done. At times, you will have to make sacrifices and spend extra time in training, but by equipping your team to do the work set before you, you will set them up for success for years to come.
5) Surround yourself with the right people
One of the greatest mistakes a leader can make is to surround themselves with “yes men.” If the people in your life always agree with you and support every decision, it’s going to be tough to stay humble.
You always feel right, and therefore it becomes easy to dismiss the people who tell you that you’re wrong.
The truth is, you won’t always be right, and you will make mistakes. That’s ok, as long as you can recognize the mistakes and learn from them. Surrounding yourself with the right people means there are people who love you and will hold you accountable. They may be friends from work, church, or your community. This accountability is key to maintaining humility in leadership.
And if one of those people comes to you and challenges your actions, do not dismiss them. If the person loves you, then trust their love and their intent and take a legitimate look at your actions. You may need to repent, you may need to change, or you may not. But listen, and seek the counsel of others you trust.
In 1 Kings 12, Rehoboam fails at this spectacularly. Rehoboam was the son of King Solomon, and his father did not finish his time as king well. Solomon pushed the people too hard, demanding taxes and labor to finish his pet projects. The people came to Rehoboam and asked him to relax the demands, and Rehoboam asked for time to take counsel. This was the counsel he received in 1 Kings 12:6-11
Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” But he abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him. And he said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put on us’?” And the young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us,’ thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs. And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’”
Unfortunately, Rehoboam chose to follow some bad advice. He should have listened to the old men and chosen to serve his people, but instead he decided to be tougher than his father had been.
As you can imagine, this did not go well for Rehoboam. The people revolted, and the Kingdom of Israel broke into two separate countries and was never the same.
So don’t be like Rehoboam. Surround yourself with people who you can trust to tell you the truth, even when the truth hurts. Humility in leadership requires people who will help you stay humble, so seek those people out and ask them to help.
Humility in leadership is not always easy. When others give you power, it’s hard to not think more highly about yourself.
These 5 strategies can help you to stay humble, however: Fear God, remember that God’s people are His children, look to Christ, equip and empower others to do the work, and surround yourself with the right people.
Making these things a lifelong practice will help you to be more humble, and they will make you a more effective leader.
Your turn: do you have any strategies for growing or maintaining humility in leadership?