If you want a picture of servant leadership, I would venture this: Consider the ladder. The modest, unassuming ladder is an ideal picture of the servant leader. Call it “servant laddership.”
The ladder does not exist for its own purpose, but only for someone else to take advantage of whatever height and strength it may possess. Neither does a servant pursue his own agenda. He has no other vision for his life. A true servant realizes his full potential only as he assists others in fulfilling their agenda. A servant leader understands that if he helps others to reach their goals in life, they will invariably help him reach his.
The ladder achieves its primary usefulness in allowing someone to use his rungs in a climb to the top. The climber does not have the ladder in mind; he needs to reach something totally apart from the ladder. In fact, he may need to extend his reach beyond the top of the ladder. A servant has no selfish motives. He does not insist that he become the focus of any work or project. The servant leader is only too happy to see someone utilize his abilities for their gain, even if it propels them far beyond his own status.
A good ladder is built with the strongest, yet lightest material available. It needs to be carried around with ease, yet support the heaviest loads. Likewise, a servant makes sure he is up to any task demanded of him and he never makes himself a burden to those who need him. The servant leader never exploits and robs people of their assets. Instead, he always wants people to look back and say, “I would never have gotten as far as I have were it not for my leader.”
The worst thing that can be said of a ladder is that it is rickety. It must be built right because its structural integrity is vital to the safety of its climber. A good servant leader understands that his own, personal integrity is key to the success of his followers. If he falls apart, he causes great harm or loss to others besides himself.
The ladder must provide secure footing for the climber so that it will not shift unexpectedly when the climber is in a vulnerable position. The servant leader seeks out the best possible circumstances, even when asked to do the most difficult jobs. There are some places he cannot go, not to disappoint his followers, but out of regard for their well being.
The ladder reaches the top first, but only to provide the pathway for the climber to reach the top. The servant leader does not compete with or become a lord over his followers. He is there to help people, whether they need his lowest or his highest rung.
The ladder reaches the top, but always remains securely planted on the ground. It does not matter how high it reaches if the reaching causes it to lose its footing. The servant leader does not become so enamored with his own success that he forgets his purpose in leadership. He realizes that his success is not an end in itself. It is only good as it relates to the success of his followers. No leader can claim success if his followers fail.
The ladder is stored until needed, never losing its strength or integrity while unused. In fact, after he does his job, he expects to be put back in the closet and kept out of the limelight. The servant leader keeps his feelings under strict control. He does not have to be used to maintain his integrity or value. His sense of worthiness does not depend on the appreciation or gratitude of others, even those he helps the most. He knows that the work of the climber is the ultimate purpose that is showcased, not the ladder that helped the climber do his job.
One final thing: even the ladder needs help sometimes. Those who are not capable of climbing, can always stand at the bottom and hold the ladder. The servant leader may find his job taxing from time to time. He will be eternally grateful for those who find their greatest usefulness in serving the servant. “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” Romans 16:1.
by J. Mark Jordan