The Upside-down Leader


By: Shannon Lee

Three years ago I found out that on my very best day, I was not leading like the man I say I follow…this man, Jesus.

I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember and here I was looking at an assessment tool – a tool that has been validated for over 18 years, mind you…and it essentially told me that even when I’m having my best day with zero conflict, I still viewed the world in terms of winning or losing.

This works great for sports! But not so much if you want to lead like Jesus.

So what did this mean? Well, even on days when I’m at the top of my game I wasn’t consistently exemplifying











You know…core attributes of Jesus; core attributes of Servant Leadership.

Talk about a cold bucket of water in the face! There was a serious disconnect between what I said I believed and how I actually showed up in the world.  While I believe all of us fall short from time to time in our leadership and perfection is an illusion, I knew I had to do better.

This began my quest to become the kind of leader who EMBODIES Joy, Peace and Compassion, one who OPERATES with Wisdom, Service and Cooperation, from a HEART of Reconciliation, Non-judgment and Humility. Leading others from the perspective of service is my heart’s desire.

I soon discovered the vast amount of published information on Servant Leadership in addition to its oldest roots in the Bible. I consumed and learned and made some progress. I learned so many of us have all these misconceptions about Servant Leadership. Those were things like:

  • Servant Leadership is just people-pleasing
  • You can’t serve people and lead them at the same time.
  • Servant Leadership isn’t tough-minded so Servant Leaders can’t make tough decisions.
  • You can’t correct or fire poor-performing employees and be a Servant Leader.
  • Servant Leaders are ‘soft’ and therefore get taken advantage of.
  • And on and on and on…

But what I found in the ACTUAL research and represented by the life of Jesus was that none of these were true. In fact, in most cases the truth was the complete opposite of the statements above.

The resistance I felt to Servant Leadership was essentially resistance to embodying the mind of Christ. And how did I know I was resistant to Servant Leadership? Because of the way I was showing up in the world! Our actions speak for themselves.

Please know I am not referring to “works” in and of themselves. I am referring to actually exemplifying what I say and thought I believed. Saying I believe in Jesus and saying I want to lead like Him are completely different than ACTUALLY DOING IT. And the scary part was, I didn’t even know.

I had to come to terms with this as a leader.

Once I discovered the nuts and bolts of TRUE servant leadership, I realized all sorts of ways I resisted leading like Jesus. These discoveries gave way to the creation of a leadership model inspired by Servant Leadership…inspired by the life of Jesus. And what’s more, these discoveries ultimately gave way to Relā’s mission: Better Leaders, Better World.

But don’t companies already try to create better leaders through all of their leadership development programs.

Yep. In fact, we (in the US) spend just under 14 billion…BILLION…a year on leadership development (Leadership Development Factbook 2012) yet at the same time, we are told that the United States is in a leadership crisis.

But here’s the thing…learning to act like a better leader and learning to EMBODY something are totally different scenarios. The first approach provides tactics and some strategies, maybe even how-to’s, tips, tricks and watch-outs. Don’t get me wrong, these are important.

But if mindset remains the same, ultimately behavior will return to the status quo. Check out what McKinsey says from his January 2014 report:

“Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behavior. But although most companies recognize that this also means adjusting underlying mind-sets, too often these organizations are reluctant to address the root causes of why leaders act the way they do. Doing so can be uncomfortable for participants, program trainers, mentors, and bosses—but if there isn’t a significant degree of discomfort, the chances are that the behavior won’t change.”

This is why we don’t change our mindsets. I really hurts! It’s uncomfortable!

Did we think just by naming the name of Christ we all of a sudden know how to servant lead like Him? What kind of transformation are we Christian leaders willing to undergo to EMBODY His way of leading? How much discomfort can we withstand to become AWARE of what we do, ACCEPT it must change and then take ACTION?

I think I have a way out, one that might work for you.

  1. Learn

We must be willing to really learn about the attributes of Servant Leadership from a Biblical and academic perspective. Many great Christian men and women have studied this topic and created a tremendous foundation to be learned from. In this process, commit to laying down the myths and assumptions that hold us back from truly leading like Jesus.

  1. Identify

Once we have a basis for understanding what true Servant Leadership is, we can then detect where our mindsets and actions don’t line up. This is where we get brutally honest with ourselves and with God. Here is where we discover all the ways we resist thinking and leading like Jesus.

  1. Challenge

Challenging old thought patterns, beliefs and behaviors cause a lot of discomfort because this requires work – effort against RESISTANCE. It takes time, contemplation, prayer and sometimes, struggle. Eventually, we become willing to accept that maybe what we used to think about leadership just isn’t working.

  1. Change

Now we are ready for action. Here we practice new mindsets and ideas with intention, keeping in mind that progress, not perfection, is the goal. With a heart submitted to God and gritty determination, we can begin to allow our new mindset to take root and embody the kind of leader we want to be…the kind of leader who leads like Jesus.

There’s so much more to share so we’ve developed an entire training program around these principles called CARE to Lead. If you care about showing up in true Servant Leadership…if you care about learning to lead more like Jesus, consider taking part in a CARE to Lead training or workshop.  Contact me at to learn more.


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