Servant Leader Principle #4 – Awareness

Servant leaders are tuned into the needs of others. They are also aware of their own need for growth.

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership
Awareness is a Sisyphean task…

Awareness is truly a difficult concept to understand in the servant leader role. It takes on two different facets:

  • The internal view of the servant leader (internal awareness)
  • Awareness of the brokenness, or the task that needs to be done (external awareness)

Let’s tackle each separately, then combine them into a set of behaviors and attitudes later.

Internal Awareness

General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Awareness helps one in understanding issues involving ethics, power, and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position.

Larry Spears Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders

Awareness for the servant leader starts with an internal look, most often starting with the basic questions of life:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • Where am I going?
  • How will I get there?
  • What does success look like?
  • What are my morals, and where do I get them?

This is not to say that the servant leader has all the answers – rather that there is a continuing process of asking and answering them, of a movement between resolution and disturbance.

By having these basic questions in a semi-solid state, the servant leader can look out for more areas, detecting the gaps below the issues presented, to look beyond the face value. By exercising their questioning mindset frequently internally, it also sets up the servant leader to bring this mindset externally.

External Awareness

As Greenleaf (1977/2002) observed: “Awareness is not a giver of solace—it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. They are not seekers after solace. They have their own inner serenity”

Larry Spears Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders

Coming from the basis of settled/unsettled questions, the servant leader can expand past themselves into seeing the brokenness and gaps in the others; the people being served. This brings a desire to heal, and then to act – driving the discontent with current reality.

Many of the servant leaders I know have a keen observational way about them, like they have another, higher sense of what is happening. This comes from being able to listen with empathy, as they set aside themselves.

Sometimes this awareness points at the blindness of others, including blindness to their own impacts, deception, or other self-serving actions. This puts the servant leader in the mode of calling out uncomfortable truths . Servant leaders are not afraid of conflict, rather they use it to provoke movement toward healing.

Jesus using Awareness

In Matthew 16:13-28, Jesus leads the disciples, especially Peter, in a discussion of who Jesus really is. Upon Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, Peter is commended, even told that he is a Rock. I imagine Peter feeling quite fulfilled by this, even a bit puffed up.

Next, though, Jesus describes how it is necessary to sacrifice Himself, die, and be raised on the third day. Peter, takes Jesus by the hand, protests, even saying, “Impossible, Master! That can never be!”

The next verse is quite telling, showing the way a servant leader can forcefully provoke awareness:

But Jesus didn’t swerve. “Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works.”

Matthew 16:23 The Message

I imagine Peter was swimming -first he is called a Rock, then he’s called Satan. Jesus, aware of Peter’s expectations, drives a wedge and a stake right through them. Peter’s desires were running contrary to the servant – the self-sacrificial posture required, even to suffering.

Putting Awareness together

Identifying the issues and bringing them into sharp relief is the point of awareness, even the internal awareness of the servant leader. It starts with a discontent, even a disturbance identified. Provoking themselves and others toward empathy and healing is rarely an easy task, but tools like keen observation and brave (even difficult) communication and needed and useful.

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