7 Syndromes that Undermine Servant Leadership

stethoscopeI don't know any pastoral leaders who explicitly argue against the idea of servant leadership. It is after all the basis of legitimate leadership as described by Jesus. However, I do know leaders who are implicitly stuck in behavior that contradicts servant leadership in their organizations. If the behaviors that constrict or stifle expressions of servant leadership are made explicit they become much easier to overcome. Once we understand the implicit resistance the work needed to fix a trajectory of servant leadership in the organization is easier. I have identified seven syndromes evident in leaders who lose their way under the pressure of getting things done or keeping up with the growing demands inherent in effective in ministry.[1] Not only does keeping up have to do with the capacity of the leader to internally manage a growing complexity of challenges it also has to do with adjusting the organization's capacity to meet challenges and opportunity without losing the servant leader culture that caused it to grow in the first place.

Organizations must exercise flexibility to expand capacity, keep the correct controls so that its work remains focused, and engage the giftedness of the people who make up the organization. This means organizations must create mechanisms consistent with servant leadership to mobilize the spiritual gifts and abilities of new leaders constantly to meet their future opportunities with focus and discipline.

Without a means of fixing the trajectory of servant leadership in the organizational culture organizations face the challenge of supplanting their mission with structures. Seven common symptoms indicate that clarity in mission has broken down.

The vending machine syndrome – occurs when leaders create processes to avoid relationship as a way to coping with failed energy management. This syndrome robs vital personal relationships from both the leaders and the followers. When leaders fail to manage their energy and overextend themselves because they are not developing others they turn to processes and policies as a way to hide. One of the first questions I ask an organization when I consult with them is, are you policies bridges to your mission or barriers to personal interaction because you do not know how to discipline people or effectively control the mission? Hirsch describes the problem this way,

As we shall see, structures are absolutely necessary for cooperative human action as well as for maintaining some form of coherent social patterns.  However, it seems that over time the increasingly impersonal structures of the institution assume roles, responsibilities, and authority that legitimately belong to the whole people of God in their local and grassroots expressions.  It is at this point that things go awry.[2]

The manikin syndrome – occurs when leaders spend time rearranging and dressing up forms and structures that give nothing to the mission of the organization but give the impression of great activity.  Some leaders remind me of the retail workers I watched one morning racing about a department store moving and redressing manikins before their customers arrived.  The point can’t be the manikins! One of the signs of a loss of purpose is sometimes an increase in activity that seeks legitimacy by virtue of the amount of stuff the leader is doing. Jesus consistently pulled away from the crowds and the hubbub of popularity to reconnect with God and refocus his work so that the activity he did engage was fruitful to his mission.  Organizational leaders must do the same or end up with what Hendricks describes,

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with institutions.  But how easily they become the enemy of spiritual life!  In some cases we even have ecclesiastical structures with no spiritual life.[3]

Wrong script syndrome – is a condition that occurs when leaders adopt the latest church growth or discipleship craze without doing their own critical thinking about mission. Running from seminar to seminar to find the secret to success brings great success – to seminar presenters. We all tend to look for shortcuts but the danger to not doing the hard work of differentiating one’s own identity and calling is that we adopt a script and live like an actor in a play.  After a while the play becomes meaningless and a sense of aimlessness takes root – it is as though the leader is acting off the wrong script.  I have watched pastors, spouses, and congregational members wake up one morning and simply walk away from their families and friends because they have forgotten how to get access to their own identity and their own convictions and their own sense of purpose.  The same thing happens in entire organizations. Hirsch and Ford describe the results this way,

It is one of my deepest held beliefs that all of Jesus’ people contain the potential for world transformation in them.  Our problem is not that we don’t have the potential, but rather that we have forgotten how to access these potentials because we have been so deeply scripted to think of ourselves through more domesticated, non-missional manifestations of Christianity.[4]

Tunnel vision syndrome – occurs then leaders reacting to abuse or toxicity elsewhere decide to create a healthy environment but fail to see the lessons of history or the healthy diversity around them. They become the only healthy organization in their minds and cut themselves off from advice and wider connections that challenge the smugness that precedes their own fall. I had arranged for a series of interviews with pastors in the Portland area for a research project I was working on. One of them was an acquaintance I knew from a distance when I worked for our denominational mission department. After I left the department I worked in several denominations. As we sat down for the interview he said, “Ray, before we begin may I ask, do you have a covering?”  For those unfamiliar with this code language he meant to ask whether I had a system of accountability to which I was answerable. Then as now I am a part of a local congregation in which I have ongoing personal relationships, I keep up a group of personal advisors with whom I exercise vulnerable transparency and I have several layers of professional accountability determined by various certifications.

“Thanks for asking Reese,” I replied, “I do.”

“But,” he said with genuine concern, “guys like us born into this movement need to stay connected because we have a unique history.”   His suggestion was interesting.

“Do you mean to imply that accountability is only valid if it occurs within the purview of the movement you are a part of?” I queried.

“You have a history here,” he continued, “you need to be faithful to the family you were raised in, we need men like you.”

“Ah,” I said, “I see.  First, thank you for validating my contribution to the church. Second, you do know that I was not raised in the movement, I did not graduate from the movement’s college and I have no genetic family in the movement. I was raised Lutheran, baptized as an infant and I sometimes drink Luther’s favorite beverage when I study the scriptures.”  The wide-eyed expression surrounding his gaping mouth alerted me to the fact that he was unaware that I was one of “them” – those strangers somehow let into the organization and given credentials whose very existence threatened the “purity” (his earlier description not mine) of the denomination’s doctrine. I took the moment to transition to the interview I wanted to conduct.

All the servant leaders I have been around have a working grasp on church history and wide connections in the global church that help them avoid the pitfall of parochialism.  If we do not grasp our wider connection to history and the body of Christ outside our immediate tradition we will fail to develop true community at a local level.  Frazee describes the challenge this way,

“One peculiar thing about early Christianity was the way in which the intimate, close-knit life of the local groups was seen to be simultaneously part of a much larger, indeed ultimately worldwide, movement or entity.”…The principle of sharing a common purpose is not new; it is an ancient principle that must be rediscovered.  Its presence is simply not optional if you want true community.[5]

The disequilibrium paradox – occurs when leader’s actions resist the change they acknowledge they need to engage. Any time a group faces challenges that their current coping mechanisms are inadequate to address they face disequilibrium that causes them to lose confidence. Disequilibrium is manifest in anxiety, anger, panic and a rush to deny new realities in favor of turning the clock back to the way it was before. Change of any kind predicts the disequilibrium paradox. Jesus knew it well and modeled how to walk people past its gravitational pull to a new way of seeing. Jesus used a variety of communication methods to leverage learning including: narrative, interrogative, corrective, didactic and non-verbal. Leaders who want to move people past disequilibrium are wise to develop the same kind of diversity in communication and to exercise confident patience. Ford verifies the existence of this paradox and Regele and Schultz outline the needed response,

It’s not that churches deny the need to change – to move out into a transforming journey.  Church members frequently invoke the need for transformation when they hire new pastors or ministry leaders. But these same leaders face a paradox: The churches resist the very change they claim to need.[6]

What are the options? Simply, we can die because of our hidebound resistance to change, or we can die in order to live. As an institution, the American church must choose between these two.[7]

The Theory X syndrome – occurs when leaders view their followers as possessing an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if they can. Such leaders complain that people need to be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened with punishment to motivate them toward any adequate effort to achievement organizational objectives.[8] MacGreggor framed Theory X and made clear that he did not equate autocratic decisions with theory X, sometimes autocratic decisions carry a prophetic significance or are needed to bypass danger or give a call to action in the face of unseen hazard. Servant leadership works with the intrinsic motivations of people. The inadequacy of the Theory X syndrome is described by Easum this way,

Tightly controlled organizations and institutions will not do well in the Quantum Age.  The top-down oppressive approach of bureaucracy is on its way out.  In its place are emerging permission-giving networks. These networks are freeing and empowering people to explore their spiritual gifts individually and in teams on behalf of the Body of Christ.[9]

The Peter Principle syndrome – occurs when leaders realize that the growth of their organization has outstripped their capability to lead it. The danger of this syndrome is that it limits the leader's visible options to either resignation of fruitlessness or escapism. In many ways leaving or escaping is easier than learning and engaging the potential of expanding leadership capacity. The Peter Principle syndrome is only a problem when leaders either decide not to learn or cannot see the mentors around them they need to engage learning. The fact is every leader faces this syndrome more than once in their ministry. Corderio described his own encounter with the Peter Principle syndrome this way,

The church outgrew me in its first month. If it weren’t for the outstanding servant whom God brought to serve there, I am sure I would be locked away in a mental ward of a state institution by now.[10]

What do these seven syndromes have in common?  They all share the potential of derailing the organization’s mission by implementing a structure (implicitly or explicitly) that constricts or even contradicts the mission. Servant leadership recognizes the tension inherent in change and works to build and support an organizational culture and structure that engages its noble mission and purpose.  This was the call of Greenleaf as he saw the need in the corporate world,

…today is the urgent need, around the world, for leadership by strong ethical persons – those who by nature are disposed to be servants (in the sense of helping others to become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely themselves to be servants) and who therefore can help others to move in constructive directions.  Servant –leaders are healers in the sense of making whole by helping others to a larger and nobler vision and purpose than they would be likely to attain for themselves.[11]

When you look at your leadership or your organization what do you see? If these syndromes are chronic then it is time to reconsider the values from which the organization implicitly works and how to move toward a deliberate approach to servant leadership and clarity in mission and purpose.


[1] Leaders also lose their way when they have not differentiated their own identity from that of their profession. The failure to be a differentiated person leads to an abuse of organizational design because the organization becomes an extension of the leader’s sense of identity and the people connected to the organization are then effectively recruited to make sure the leader’s ego is continuously stroked. These leaders are overwhelmed trying to define their purpose and collapse under requests that they help the organization define its purpose because it is really all about them.  Consider for a moment the toxicity that results when the organization becomes the body of the leader and not an expression of the body of Christ.

[2] Alan Hirsch. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 23.

[3] William D. Hendricks. Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why Some People are Leaving the Church (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1993), 274.

[4] Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford. Right Here Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 30.

[5] Randy Frazee. The Connecting Church: Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2001), 56-7.

[6] Kevin G. Ford. Transforming Church: Bringing ou the Good to Get to Great (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2007), 3.

[7] Mike Regele with Mark Schulz. The Death of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1995), 19.

[8] MacGregor, 45-47.

[9] William M. Easum. Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers: Ministry Anytime Anywhere by Anyone (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 29.

[10] Wayne Cordeiro. Doing Church as a Team (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2001), 12.

[11] Robert K. Green leaf. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness