What Is a Servant-Leader at Home?

3 Indispensable Characteristics of a Servant-Leader | All Truth is God's TruthAll organizations have a hierarchy. It’s impossible to function well without one. But being a leader isn’t the same as being a dictator. The best role model is Jesus Christ, not Joseph Stalin.

Although it’s a challenge to exercise authority while maintaining a spirit of humility, that is what being a godly leader entails. Jesus washed his disciples feet, then died on their behalf. Husbands are called to love their wives in the same self-sacrificing way:

  • “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.” (Ephesians 5:25-26)
  • “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
  • “Have this 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, taking the form of a bond-servant….” (Philippians 2:5-7)

The best leaders exhibit several qualities: They are transparent; they expect as much or more of themselves as of those they’re attempting to lead; and they put the good of the organization (or, in the case of a husband-leader, the good of the family) ahead of their own interests or any personal gain.

Let’s look at each of these three qualities in closer detail:

  1. First and foremost, a servant-leader is transparent.
  2. Transparency implies there are no hidden agendas. Everyone is on the same team, working toward the same goals, and those goals are clearly defined and understood. Transparency means honesty, fairness, forthrightness, and above all, accountability.

    Transparency with a spouse can be difficult. Some things are hard to talk about with anybody, let alone with someone we care about, someone of the opposite gender, someone whose admiration and respect we so deeply crave.

    A good rule of thumb is, if you’d be uncomfortable discussing it afterward with your wife, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

    Of course, personality differences can make even innocent discussions more difficult than they should be — I dreaded telling my sentimental wife when I recently traded in an old Ford truck she loved for two small economy cars, even though it made good financial sense to do so — but that isn’t what I’m talking about here.

    When it comes to being transparent with our children, that can be hard, too, but it is important that they know our weaknesses as well as our strengths, our failures as well as our victories. Because our kids share our humanity as well as our genes, their weaknesses will often mirror our own, and they’ll benefit from hearing how we’ve overcome various struggles. There is no need to go into great detail about your failings, but don’t pretend you are without faults.

    A servant-leader is quick to accept blame, apologize, and ask forgiveness whenever the situation warrants it. And he understands the importance of maintaining a clear conscience and therefore strives to behave in a way—both publicly and privately—that is honorable, dependable, and above reproach.

  3. Second, a servant-leader is not above the law.
  4. Nor does he consider himself above the law. The US Congress provides a classic example of the opposite of this principle, routinely passing bad legislation from which the lawmakers themselves are exempt.

    With a true servant-leader there is no such hypocrisy. The rules are applied equally to all. He expects as much or more of himself as of the people he leads, for he knows that as their leader, he will incur a stricter judgment.

    The father who smokes two packs a day, but warns his kids to never take up the habit? He isn’t doing himself, his children, or his health any favors.

    I may not struggle with hypocrisy in such an obvious way as this, yet I sometimes expect things of my wife and children that I am unwilling or unable to do myself:

    • I want them to hear me out, although I often interrupt.
    • I expect them to be patient and thoughtful and self-controlled, even when I haven’t been.
    • I would like for them to look their best, even if I skip shaving or look a little shabby myself.
    • I want them to control their emotions and refrain from pouting, crying, or acting moody in any way, yet sometimes I fail to control the temper that provokes such moodiness, sulkiness, and tears.

    And I do these things, despite the fact that Scripture repeatedly warns against such behavior:

    • “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.” (Romans 12:9)
    • “[Love] does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth….” (1 Corinthians 13:5-6)
    • “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)

    The take-home message? We need to be and do the things we want our wives and children to be and do. We should expect as much or more of ourselves as we do of them. We must lead by example.

  5. Third, a servant-leader thinks of others first.
  6. He puts the good of the organization ahead of his own needs or personal advantage. He leads selflessly and sacrificially. He considers the interests of others as more important than his own. (Philippians 2:3-4)

    I’ve known both styles of leaders: Those who use the organization to serve themselves, and those who use themselves to serve the organization.

    Although I’ve crossed paths with a few embezzlers over the years, embezzlement is not the only way to steal from a company. It’s just the most obvious way. Many people manipulate vacation schedules, work assignments, and tax credits to their own benefit. They are always watching out for number one, always looking for loopholes. Whatever will garner the best perks or put the most money in their pocket with the least amount of effort is what they will do, every time — whether it’s ethical or not.

    A servant-leader is the opposite. He does what is best for those he serves, even when it requires great personal sacrifice to do so. For the family man, this may mean driving mini-vans instead of sports cars, going on family vacations instead of golfing excursions, living in a modest home in suburbia instead of a high-rise apartment in the city, or getting braces for Junior instead of that new flat-screen TV.

The term “servant-leader” is what Buddhists would call a koan — a seemingly contradictory statement that forces a person to stop and think more deeply about a subject, so as to bring about an even greater enlightenment.

Yet leaders should serve those they lead. The only reason servant-leadership seems like a koan or an oxymoron to our society today is because we have grown so accustomed to leaders who abuse their power and use it to benefit themselves, often to the detriment of the people they are supposed to represent.

Plato felt that those who most desire to rule are least suited to do so, because they invariably have ulterior motives. His solution was that leaders be conscripted into service the way soldiers are drafted into the military.

In a sense, the Biblical command for husbands to be leaders in their homes is exactly that — men being conscripted by God to serve their wives and children.

Unfortunately, most men are not natural leaders, nor do they naturally love their wives in the self-sacrificing, Christ-like way God commands. If these things came naturally, there’d be no need for the associated directives in Scripture. Commands in Scripture almost always run counter to our natural inclinations and underscore our need for the supernatural intervention of a loving Savior!

Do you long for your wife to shower you with respect and admiration? Do you wish she would follow your lead without arguing or questioning your every decision?

You will never get the results you are looking for by being harsh and demanding. Even if you were to gain her cooperation, it would be given begrudgingly. That isn’t what godly servant-leadership looks like.

If you want your wife to follow your lead, then you must walk in a way that is worthy of respect. Lead in a way that inspires your family to follow.

Lead prayerfully. Lead gently. Guide them with humility, understanding, patience, faithfulness, temperance, and love.

As a husband, the responsibility falls to you for taking the lead in improving your marriage. Don’t blame your wife for your own failures in this area. You must work to earn her trust and confidence.

Prove yourself to be a man of integrity, a person who thinks things through — not a man who is shortsighted or rash or vindictive.

It is a sobering proposition to be the spiritual head of one’s home, to be held accountable before God for the spiritual health and welfare of one’s family.

We should shoulder this responsibility with an attitude of meekness. Inwardly, our focus should not be, “Alright!! I get to call the shots!” Rather, we should be thinking, “God has entrusted this responsibility to me, and I don’t want to flub it up.”

Such a heavy responsibility calls for a posture of prayer. Pray that God will enable you to relate to your wife and children as a wise servant-leader should: Love wholeheartedly. Love sacrificially. Love unconditionally. Love extravagantly. Consistently shower your wife with that brand of love, and chances are, it will eventually win her over. She’ll then happily follow you to the ends of the earth.

But what if it doesn’t? What if she won’t?

Then you’ve got to keep loving.

Love her, because God has commanded you to love her — not because of what you stand to gain from doing so. Love her and keep loving her, because you want to be obedient to Him.

He will receive the glory from your doing so. And that is the only success that will matter in the end.


This post first appeared on All Truth is God’s Truth. To read more, check out my novel:
The Prodigy Project by Doug Flanders, MD