Buzzwords have a habit of being accepted and becoming common currency in the most unlikely of environments. We live in a global village where ideas and fashions cross the continents so easily through the airwaves. Fashionable words created in America soon find themselves on the African streets and vocabulary before people understand what they mean: “Hi! What’s up?” “I’m cool!” Sometimes, one hears crudities whose origins are ill understood.

‘Servant Leadership!’—Another fashionably spiritual expression? It sounds a note of humility and spirituality. But do the words really go together in the African context? Can we actually speak of servant-hood and leadership in the same breath? Can you imagine a chief who also sees himself as a servant of his people? If such a composite being is to walk and live and indeed lead in the African context, what needs to happen? What would he or she look like?

Our default African programming on leadership—the chief mentality

In the African context the chief is a good and natural picture of a leader. Whether we like it or not this picture has infiltrated the idea of leadership in every sphere of life. The Zambian church has certainly not escaped as I will try to show in this article. As a result we might claim one thing and yet find ourselves acting in a way that comes naturally from our cultural view of leadership.

Acting out of this chief mentality means that the leader often is not willing to be questioned, let alone challenged. Let us look at some examples of this. He may hide behind verses about submission, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority…” Heb 13:17). He would want to browbeat others into bowing to his will, or threatening others not to touch “the anointed one” (referring to himself) with such words as “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm” (1 Chronicles 16:22).

However, what is causing all this is the idea of leadership derived from the image of the chief who should be respected and obeyed without question. This goes much deeper in us as Africans than we might care to admit. This idea of leadership is an insidious challenge to servant leadership.

Our African view of servant-hood

Servant-hood is often seen as subservience. We seem hardly aware that when we speak of civil servants we are supposed to be referring to people whose role it is to serve. Instead it has simply become a term referring to government employees who may be neither civil nor committed to serving others! Likewise, when we think of ministers, whether in church or government, we do not associate the title with service—which is what the word means—but with big bosses. We tend rather to associate the term ‘servant’ with domestic employees whose rank is regarded as low. 

How our followers make things worse

It is not always the case that the leader, especially in church, starts off by lording it over people or seeking to be treated like a chief. In many instances, it is the people who think it appropriate to treat leaders with excessive respect. If the leader does not recognise the trend and nip it in the bud, he gets used to it and it becomes the normal way of relating to those among whom he is supposed to serve. We do not seem to realise that we have the option of graciously refusing inappropriate exaltation, like the apostles and angels in Scripture (Acts 14:10–15, Rev. 19:10; 22:9). Instead, we begin to enjoy being treated like little chiefs and, before long, we start getting offended if the treatment is not given to us.

Servant leadership must be a countercultural choice

We live in a cultural context. Our default programming is to respond to leadership like the traditional chief. If we would be servant leaders we must listen to another voice—a voice that challenges the status quo—and obey it (Matt 20:25–26; Mark 10:42). We must demonstrate that obedience by deliberately refusing to conform to the pattern of our cultural setting in our attitudes and behaviours and by teaching our people that we are their servants even as we lead them.

What will it look like in practice?

Here are a few simple suggestions for starters:

  1. When we are given honours that do not belong to us, let us not be quiet. Let us refuse them. When we are treated with the exaggerated respect that might more naturally go to our chiefs, let us refuse them.
  2. Let us encourage our people to hold us accountable. They ought to ask questions of us. We should, therefore, give them the assurance that their action will not be taken as a sign of disrespect, but rather as the way in which our people will grow to own whatever direction we are leading them in, as they are helped to understand where we are going.
  3. Let us be willing to do menial tasks naturally without making it look as if we are performing a ceremonial ritual like a president laying a foundation stone or planting a tree.
  4. Let us be careful about the numerous titles that have become part of our free market environment. We read, “…But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers” (Matt 23:8). Most titles these days seem to speak more of rank than are descriptive of what we are supposed to be doing. It speaks volumes to the people we lead when we get offended because people have got our title wrong. The hunger for titles is likely to militate against servant leadership.
  5. When it comes to the exercise of discipline, let us not wink at the faults of leaders while treating ordinary people with undue harshness. If anything, it is those of us who are leaders who ought to be judged more severely. In James 3:1 we find these words: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

The challenge of servant leadership in our African context

We are not going to be servant leaders by merely repeating the right slogans. In the final analysis, we shall need to recognise that we are naturally wired to respond and act in a certain way, but the Bible tells us “…not to conform…to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed through the renewal of (our) mind(s)” (Rom 12:2f).

Servant leadership starts with how we think of our roles as leaders. The gifts we are given are for serving others for the glory of God. The positions we hold provide opportunities for that service. We need to recognise that we serve in a context which views leadership in a way that is very different from our Lord’s expectations of us. It is his voice we must heed, not the prevailing fashions.

The pressures are even greater when we are surrounded by so many Christian leaders who relish the exalted titles, who enjoy the trappings of self importance, and intimidate those who would call them to account. It is relatively easy to refuse to conform to the pattern of the world, but when so many in the Christian family enjoy being “little chiefs”, it will be much harder to strike out alone. We have to be willing to be in a lonely minority if we would follow our Master’s voice.

Our Lord is very explicit about his leadership philosophy. He tells us that he came to serve and not to be served (Matt 20:28). His washing of the disciples’ feet was not a religious ritual, but a demonstration of his actual philosophy of life, which he enjoins his followers to emulate (John 13:4, 5, 13–17).

The default programming of the disciples was not much different from ours, and the Lord was constantly struggling with their tendency to seek prominence among their peers. He used children to teach them a different attitude (Matt 18:1–3; Mark 9:33–35). He modelled servant-hood in his ministry and called upon those who called him “master” to imitate him and to expect no better treatment from the world than the master received. “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also” (John 15:20).

Our gifts from the exalted Lord are for the building up of the church, his body. They are ministry gifts—gifts for serving, for equipping servants to fulfil their tasks (Eph 4:7, 12).

Our African reality is that much in our culture will seek to squeeze us into the chief mentality mould. The truth is that many succumb; and as we seek to be servant leaders, we can expect to find ourselves among many ‘chiefs’. It will feel quite comfortable. It will seem normal for us to have our little chiefdoms. The challenge of servant leadership in our context lies in this default position that Jesus speaks against. Is anyone listening to his voice?