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Strong Servant Leader

This is the second in a four part series on the four passages in the book of Isaiah that have been dubbed “The Servant Songs.” Ironically enough, the “servant” is truly a leader. In fact, they were a whole community of Leaders, as the passages were originally intended to speak about the people of Israel. 

Our gentle servant leader of last week was kind and compassionate, dealt with conflict with honesty and respect, and lifted people up when they were down (didn’t “crush the bruised reed” or “quench the wavering flame”). This same leader God has given a mouth like a sharp sword and made them into a sharpened arrow. It's an odd follow-up to the Gentle Servant in that it almost sounds contradictory. It seems to suggest that the servant leader has a sharp tongue, which we equate with criticism and nastiness.

But, if we work with the metaphor a bit more, we recall that a sword slices and cuts through things, and an arrow is intended to hit its mark. Putting that together with a gentle leader, I believe we have someone who is kind and respectful, but holds fast to the truth they hold in their hearts.  They are able to cut through the crap in our selves and in our world so that we can find clarity to move forward. As Jack Kornfield notes in The Wise Heart, "True strength... brings clarity, like a sword that cuts through illusion."

This leader I am referring to as the Strong Servant Leader because they will not be walked all over. And when it comes to matters of justice, they aren’t going away. They can be cursed or made fun of or thrown in prison, but they aren’t going away. They continue to lead with dignity, not stooping to the level of others who would bring them down. They have a deep inner strength fueled by a strong sense of personal and communal integrity. Their goal is to live life true to who they are and true to what they believe in. They not only talk the talk, but the walk the walk – consistently.

It is in our highest spiritual interest to live with gentleness and integrity in whatever setting we find ourselves. This means that our outsides are in line with the deep truth of our souls which is that we are one with the Divine.

Examples of gentle, strong servant leaders include Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Ellen Degeneres, Nelson Mandela, Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt, and so many others - famous and not so famous.

While Mother Teresa is the epitome of the gentle servant leader, she was also very strong in her convictions and her cause. After she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa “convinced the organizers of the Nobel Committee to cancel the customary awards banquet and, instead, give the money they saved to those who really needed a meal. I believe this amazing gesture garnered much trust in her because itshowed people that she was truly incorruptible! In response, author Navin Chawla writes, "there was an outpouring of emotion, which brought in its wake considerably more than was saved from forgoing the banquet. Ordinary people all over Norway, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, including little children who gave of their pocket money, collected another 36,000 pounds.”

An online article form the Wall Street Journal shared this interesting list: "Because Servant Leaders possess the character strength of integrity, they strongly believe the following statements:

  • it is more important to say what I believe than to be popular;
  • things tend to work out when I tell the truth;
  • I would never lie just to get something I want from someone;
  • my life is guided and given meaning by my values;
  • I always follow through on my commitments, even when it costs me;
  • I dislike phonies who pretend to be what they are not;
  • and, it is important to be open and honest about my feelings."

There is no doubt about it, trust is strengthened when a servant seader demonstrates this type of integrity.

I’m going back a really long way, but Abraham Lincoln was known for his honesty, his integrity and his faith. From the time he was young he was known for his honesty. “According to one story, whenever he realized he had shortchanged a customer by a few pennies, he would close the shop and deliver the correct change-regardless of how far he had to walk.”

When he became a lawyer he earned a reputation of honesty, integrity and impartiality in a profession where many felt that lawyers were, he said, “necessarily dishonest.”

His advice to potential lawyers was: "Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave."

And once he became President and found himself in the midst of an awful Civil War, he famously said, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” (

The strong servant leader is one who may feel like everything they’ve done has been for nothing, like they’ve beat their head on walls for long periods of time. But eventually, Isaiah says, they came to realize their “cause was with Yahweh” and because they were on God’s side (so to speak) they became a light to the nations.

Perhaps this seems out of reach or not applicable as we talk about these famous leaders… but I tell you that each of us can be gentle, strong leaders in our families, our communities, and with our friends.

The integrity of a strong leader begins as one has integrity with oneself. It requires some self-reflection to determine what we believe, what is important to us and how we want to live our lives.

There were a few years after I discovered I was gay that I hid that part of me because it would mean losing my job, my home, my insurance, and my family as I knew it. I needed time to try and work my way through the mess before all hell broke loose. But it was a miserable time. I couldn’t hide from myself. I had always tried to live as honestly and openly as I could. I found out rather quickly that there is a cost to our souls when we live out of integrity with ourselves.

It seems to me that when we align ourselves with the Divine, the Holy One makes of our mouths a sharp sword to cut through the layers of illusions, baggage, ego, fears and so much more, so that we can live with integrity as strong, gentle people and leaders.