Servant Leaders

What makes a person a good leader? According to Our Lord, a good leader is a good servant.

“Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” ~ Mark 10: 42-44


In this passage, from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples how they should lead. They are to lead as He does, through service.

“For 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: 45

“The greatest among you must be your servant.” ~ Matthew 23:11

Serving others was central to the teachings of Jesus.

What kind of servant leader am I? Am I selfish, more concerned with my own interests, my own power? Or am I a leader that serves others with love the way Jesus has called me to do?

Many people enter into positions of leadership for the wrong reasons. Many see their position as one of power. This is a way for them to have authority over others and to set forth their own agendas. The idea of serving is far from view. Helping others reach their potential never enters their thoughts. They often become disillusioned in their role as leader, and those they rule over soon come to resent them since their skills at leading are so poor.

The leadership that Christ proposes does not mean placing oneself above others, rather it means placing oneself lower than others. A good leader will also be adept in seeking to uplift others and bringing them to the fullness of their potential and to the fullness of a relationship with Christ.

 In a Christian context St. Paul reveals the encouragement a leader should bring to the community: “I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.”  ~ Ephesians 4: 1-3

 Leadership is difficult work.

The expectations of a leader are high. They are often the first to be ridiculed and replaced, especially when things do not turn out as planned.

I would like to look at a few of our Carmelite saints and how they modeled servant leadership.

St. Teresa proposed the virtues of Mary, the Virgin, as a model for imitation. Mary, as the first Christian, the first disciple of Christ, centered her life in total adherence to the humanity of Christ and she lived in communion with him even to the foot of the cross. Her contemplative gaze, poverty and humility are paramount among the virtues that St. Teresa proposes for us to imitate.

St. Teresa modeled these herself especially when she was appointed Prioress of the Incarnation in 1571. The nuns at this convent were upset, to say the least, that St. Teresa was to be their leader. Knowing this, and not wanting the position herself, she placed a statue of Mary in the first place in the choir. In this way she helped the religious of this community to foster their devotion, love and respect on Mary. By doing this St. Teresa was expressing her own poverty and humility as a leader. In addition, this gesture helped the nuns to grow in their imitation of Mary. St. Teresa later affectionately wrote in a letter to Maria de Mendoza . “My ‘Prioress’ (the Virgin Mary) is doing wonders.”


A good leader won’t be impelled to tell people how to do things. A servant leader will tell others what to do and then let them do it. St Therese and her “little way” is a good example of this aspect of a servant leader. Saying, “rather than aspiring to doing great deeds, do many small deeds with great love.” 

One day the superior had asked a sister in the community to help another sister who was working outside with a tree. There were three sisters present and the superior said that the first one to remove her apron would be the one to do this task. St. Therese knew this was a desired task and wanted very much to do it. However, she realized that another sister also wanted to do it. Therefore, St. Therese took off her apron slowly so that the other sister would remove hers first and be chosen to do the task. This was her way of service to her sister and a way of showing love for her sister and for God.

St. Therese would follow the lead and the needs of others, and she would acknowledge, recognize and promote their efforts. A leader that can do this is someone who can humbly tell others what to do and then can step back and let them surprise her with the results.

St. John of the Cross offers further guidance on having a servant attitude. In his Counsels to a Religious on How to Reach Perfection he advises that we undertake the tasks we have been assigned with the intention of pleasing only God. Sometimes we will be asked to do something we would rather not because we may find it requires more of ourselves than we would like to give or because it was not “our” idea.

“Never set your eyes on the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the work at hand as a motive for doing it or failing to do it, but on doing it for God. Thus you must undertake all things, agreeable or disagreeable, for the sole purpose of pleasing God through them.” (Third Counsel)

Then in his fourth counsel he tells us to do our work in a detached way. We “should do everything in the world as finished. Thus, when (for not being able to avoid it) you have to deal with some matter, do so in as detached a way as you would if it did not exist.” We should, however, do the task well.

 “execute your tasks in such a way that no fault is committed; for neighbor, God, nor obedience wants you to commit a fault.”

Whatever we do should be done with the desire for God to please him and with our heart fixed on him. Then, with this counsel in mind, when the time comes to step down and let someone else take over, we can do so simply and humbly.

 For the servant leader this passage from 1 Peter is a description that fits all who lead the church – pope, bishops, priests, and lay people with pastoral responsibility. The best leaders are those who lead by example, the way Christ did with his apostles.

 “Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”       (1 Peter 5: 2-4)