The Power Paradox in Servant-Leadership

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One of the learning goals for SBC students is servant-leadership. The emphasis is on leading by serving others humbly, while serving by leading others courageously. We need courage to lead and humility to serve. But paradoxically, while we as leaders are given the power to make meaningful changes that affect others, we as servants are expected to be vulnerable and take meaningful risks to serve others. Power is Necessary How then may we become servant-leaders in a world governed by power of all kinds? First, we need to accept that power is necessary. Power enables us to fulfil our duties in our families, societies, religious communities, educational institutes, civil organisations, private companies, public sectors, and so on, as well as in our interpersonal relationships, whether between male and female, husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, supervisor and subordinate, and so on. Power allows us to effect changes for others.

Power is Necessary

How then may we become servant-leaders in a world governed by power of all kinds? First, we need to accept that power is necessary.

Power has an ultimate source

Second, we need to understand the ultimate source of power. In the creation story, we read:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Gen 1:26 NIV)

Scripture testifies that the ruling powers in all realms, whether principalities in heaven or governments on earth, ultimately come from God. He gives authority to various agents in the creation to rule—that is, to guide, manage, improve, and build entities—so as to perfect this creation. We see in the sovereignty of the Holy Son the foundation of all powers:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:15–17 NIV)

Power makes a difference

Third, we need to realize that power’s function is to make a difference in every facet of human living. Power is given by God so that leaders make meaningful changes that affect others and take meaningful risks for others as servants. Jesus reminds his disciples while they are tussling for position:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42–45 NIV)

At both individual and communal levels, power’s purposes are to establish welfare, enhance relationships, help talents flourish, create opportunities, and lift up the underprivileged. But paradoxically again, power may be useful yet harmful, authoritative yet oppressive, and enriching yet depriving, as has been experienced by both individuals and communities.

How to overcome the power paradox

Lastly, to overcome this ‘power paradox’ in servant-leadership, we need to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Discipleship must take on the paradoxes of leadership and servanthood, power and vulnerability, greatness and humility, as well as authority and sacrifice.

Perhaps we may find it puzzling that there are power struggles that could shatter human relations and organisational structures—what lies beneath them? Paul exhorts the Philippian church that is dealing with power issues, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5 NIV). Any power struggle actually stems from our mindset or heart.

When the heart is fixed, the power issues are resolved. But how may a heart be fixed? It is by embracing the alternative story of Jesus Christ, who shows us that invulnerability—in self-emptying, obedience, suffering, and sacrifice—he accomplishes the ultimate purpose of his authority, that is, to be exalted above all names and acknowledged as the Lord above all authorities, so as to glorify God the Father (Phil 2:6–11).

How to become a servant-leader

A servant-leader makes the kenosis-story of Jesus Christ theirs. A Christ-centred mindset restores a broken heart, and a restored heart will eventually overcome the shadows of fear and hatred. With such a mindset, we accomplish the tasks of leadership by serving others with our vulnerable actions. In this way, a servant-leader overcomes the power paradox by leading courageously to serve the interests of others, while serving humbly to empower others for the greater good.

May God cause our students to become servant-leaders. Please pray for us and support us in accomplishing this important task.

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