What do you think of when you hear the word “gentleness”?
I tend to think of two things: my dad and servant leadership.
What’s so gentle about my dad? Well, if I’m being honest, my dad doesn’t look like a gentle man. He’s large and traditionally quite masculine. He has the kind of strength in his hands that can only come from a lifetime of manual labor. And my dad is a fiercely protective husband, father, and friend.
But at the same time my dad is utterly kind. And while he has all the physical strength that many people spend their valuable time and money at the gym trying to obtain, he only ever uses it to provide for his family or to protect those he loves. My dad is a wonderful example of my working definition of the idea of biblical gentleness: power that is is used under control for the benefit of others.
And this same idea is idealized in the leadership style that has grown in popularity in recent years called “servant leadership.” There are a number of conceptions of this style of leading others. Here are a few that stand out in my opinion:
- Robert Greenleaf, the person who coined the phrase “servant leadership,” says that a servant leader “is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…the servant-first [efforts] to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served” (SOURCE).
- James Hunter, a popular leadership author and business consultant, says “[t]he role of the leader is to identify and meet needs. We’re not here to do what people want—but we are here to do what people need” (SOURCE).
- The CEO of Popeye’s Chicken, Cheryl Bachelder, says her idea of a leader includes being “courageous enough to take the people to a daring destination, yet humble enough to selflessly serve others on the journey. The dynamic tension between daring and serving creates the conditions for superior performance. This is a Dare-to-Serve Leader” (Dare to Serve, 3).
So it appears to me that my working definition of biblical gentleness (power that is used under control for the benefit of others) meshes really well with the definitions of servant leadership which are offered by some of the thought leaders on the topic.
And if you’re like me, and I suspect that you are!, then it may be surprising to think that an effective leader needs to be gentle. I think we generally think of leaders, especially business leaders and managers, as aggressive, selfish, and cold. But anecdotal evidence, as well as some hard research, seems to point to the effectiveness of servant leadership, that is, gentleness in leadership.
Imitating Jesus’ Gentleness
The Apostle Paul encourages those who are connected to Jesus to imitate him in their attitudes (Philippians 2.5) and one word that defines Jesus very well is “gentle.” Jesus uses this word of himself in Matthew 11.29: “I am gentle and humble in heart.”
But how do we do this? As followers of Jesus, how do we develop gentleness in our lives? Can we try harder, is that the answer? Well, take the gentleness challenge: for one week try to be more gentle. Record how it went and share your results with the world!
Here’s how it went for me: I started last Monday. Things went pretty well for a few hours. Then my son, Myron, woke up from a nap and cried loudly. I was working on something important and didn’t really want to stop at that moment to go see what he needed. So I sighed heavily and tramped upstairs very ungently.
Later that day I was driving home from the store and was behind someone at a red light. I needed to to turn right and they hadn’t moved all the way over, thus preventing me from being able to turn. I wanted to yell at them and let them know how stupid and selfish they were, but I resisted — not because I was trying to be gentle, but because my son was in the car with me.
Then later that night I dumped the stress of my day on my wife in a very ungentle way, burdening her with all my drama without taking a minute to think that she may have had a stressful day too.
So I didn’t make it through one day. I need help to imitate the gentleness of Jesus!
So what’s the solution?
It’s not trying harder, knowing more, or anything else like that. Nope. Instead, Paul says in Galatians 5 that being connected to the Spirit is the answer. As we live in step with the Spirit, the gentleness of Jesus is developed in us. This is what Paul means when he calls gentleness an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. Gentleness is one manifestation of a Spirit-synced life.
So instead of trying to be more gentle, let’s invest our time and energy toward furthering an intimate connection to the Spirit through worship, Christian community, and serving the mission of Jesus to reconcile all things to himself! In so doing, God will generate gentleness in us through his Spirit, the same gentleness that Jesus’ demonstrated in his human life!
What do you think? How do you define gentleness? How can gentleness be developed in us? Let me know in the comments below!