“Anyone who wants to be a leader must first be the servant. If you choose to lead, you must serve.” National leadership consultant, author, and speaker, James C. Hunter, quoted these words from Jesus to summarize his presentation on “Living as a Servant Leader: The True Essence of Leadership.” Speaking at the Academy for Leadership Excellence 2011 National Leader Series on Tuesday, May 3, held at North Ridge Country Club, North Raleigh, Hunter’s presentation received overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews including comments such as:

Loved it, very logical. Great speaker! Thank you for sponsoring the program. I really enjoyed it! I hope to attend another program in the future.

The author of A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership and The Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader which have sold over 3.5 million copies worldwide and have been translated into two dozen languages, Hunter’s presentation was educational, inspirational, and dynamic. His closing challenge to the 160 who attended this leadership conference was, “Of those who attend leadership conferences, only ten percent actually put into practice the principles they had been taught at such events! Decide right here, right now, that you will be among that ten percent!”

Similar to what Jim Collins calls a “Level Five Leader,” living as a servant leader means that a leader leads by influence and character rather than by coercion or power. Servant leadership is a values and relational-based approach to leadership. It sets aside its own wants and needs in seeking the greater good of others. As both Collins and Hunter might say, servant leadership is about checking your ego at the door and helping those entrusted to your leadership to be the best they can be. Said Hunter, “Remember, the ultimate test of leadership is whether people are better off when the leader leaves than when he or she got there.

Hunter’s definition of a servant leader is “the skill of influencing people enthusiastically to work together towards goals for the common good, with character that inspires confidence. Having power over people is one thing. Having authority with people is quite another.” As with Jesus, servant leadership is rooted in moral authority. “Leadership is about doing the right thing. Character is about doing the right thing. Loving others is about doing the right thing. Again, leadership and character development are one.”

The leadership vision of servant leadership turns the organizational structure of a company, church, or organization upside down. The first step is to get the right people on board and then, as a team, determine the mission and values, as well as setting standards and accountability. The leadership style of servant leaders engages the hearts and minds; it gets the job done while simultaneously building relationships. Key is the “earning of trust.” Said Hunter, “when people begin to serve others and behave in healthy ways, they begin to see themselves differently and gain confidence as a result. The process begins with improving yourself a little each day.”

For Hunter, servant leadership is about leading with love. He cited 1 Corinthians 13 as the core values for guiding this leadership paradigm:

Patience: To show self control.

Kindness: To give others attention, appreciation, encouragement, common courtesy.

Humility: To be authentic, not boastful, arrogant or puffed-up.

Respectful: To treat others as important people.

Selflessness: To meet the legitimate needs of others.

Forgiveness: To give up resentment when wronged.

Honesty: To be free from deceptive behavior.

Commitment: To stick to the choice(s) you have made.

Hunter made it clear that being a servant leader is not about being a wimp, but quite the opposite. Indeed, being an effective servant leader includes holding people accountable, for how else can they learn and grow? Hunter used the phrase “hugging and spanking” to image what he meant. “Far and away the biggest gap we find in leadership skills is failing to confront people with problems and situations as they arise, and hold them accountable,” he said. “We discipline (train) because we care about people, because we want them to be the best they can be.” This includes not only making sure we have the right people on the bus, but also getting the wrong people off the bus.” Here Hunter cited Richard Green, president of the lip care company Blistex, who flatly stated, “It is immoral not to fire those who can’t do the job.”

As one participant commented, the servant leadership insights shared by Hunter applied to all of life. Indeed, in his illustrations Hunter not only referred to living as a servant leader in the workplace, but also as a spouse, a parent, and in all areas of life. References such as being humble; being willing to listen to other points of view; and accepting the fact that nobody is perfect. And above all, the leadership maxim that leadership is always to be learned because there are no born leaders, resonated with the audience of mostly business, corporate, and educational, as well as church community leaders. A highlight was the panel of community leaders who responded to Hunter’s presentation and how its insights applied to their “ground level” leadership experiences.

Perhaps an illustration from the recent wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton might summarize the central theme of the day. When the royal couple had finished all of the festivities – the wedding at Westminster Abbey, the waving to the crowd from the balcony of his grandmother’s home, the romantic kiss and the rest – the royal couple finally emerged from Buckingham Palace and climbed into a dark green open Aston Martin. Tied to the back bumper were the traditional tin cans, but mounted on the front fender of the sports coupe was a big red letter “L.” In Britain, all new drivers are required to attach an “L” sign to the front of their car to alert other drivers that they are still learners, they are just beginners. When it comes to driving a car, these novices still had much to learn.

The same is true when it comes to being an effective servant leader – whether in business, school, church, volunteer organizations, or as a parent, spouse, or in any other area within our lives – none of us has arrived, none of us has it all together. As leaders, there still remains much that is to be learned, whether about being transparent, being vulnerable, moving our intentions into actions by harnessing our will, or becoming a member of that ten percent to which Hunter referred. All of us are still learning and growing, especially when it comes to being Christ-centered servant leaders.

Indeed, this is one reason why the Academy for Leadership Excellence exists, so that through its various leadership learning tracks, we might learn and become more effective leaders. This is especially true of church leaders, for the level of the effectiveness of a church leader largely determines the quality of the effectiveness of the ministries and missions he or she leads. But, as Hunter asserted, it all begins with self-leadership because if a leader cannot lead him or her self, how can he or she lead others?

The next Academy National Leadership Series will be held on September 20, at a location to be announced. National Leader Series speaker will be Rick Rusaw, lead pastor of Bridge-Life Christian Church Colorado. The author of The Externally Focused Church and Quest: Becoming the Best Church for the Community, Rick will speak on the topic, “Leading an Externally Focused Church.” He will share how his church made this journey, including changing budget priorities as well as shifts in staff, and ask the searching question, “Would the church you lead be greatly missed by your community if it were no longer there?” The Academy will partner with the Bishop’s Day Apart in this event.