Book Review: “The Servant” by James C. Hunter

James C. Hunter’s book The Servant is an exceptional lesson in leadership wrapped in a narrative that is entertaining and easy to read. Hunter subtitles his book “A simple story about the true essence of leadership” and I believe that this is an apt description, but the text offers so much more. In this book James Hunter weaves together fiction with genuine leadership principles to generate a story that is not only compelling but instructional. For this review I will offer a summary of the text, a breakdown of the main characters, elaborate a bit on the main ideas the author is trying to get across, and finally offer my own critique of the work and what it meant to me.

Plot Summary

The Servant is a story that follows John Daily, a businessman, husband and father on a short journey of discovery and growth. John, by all outward appearances has it all together, he has a top notch education, a great job, a beautiful family, a wonderful home and lots of toys. However, all is not as it seems. John is struggling with the union and his superiors at work, his marriage is in trouble, and his kids are pulling away and rebelling. In short, his world is in danger of collapse and he is oblivious to his part in all of it. He is reluctantly convinced by his pastor and his wife to go on a one week retreat at a monastery.

John’s experience in one short week at the monastery is profound and life changing. Each day at the monastery John and five other individuals from various walks of life (a nurse, a soldier, a pastor, a college basketball coach and a school principal) spend several hours learning about leadership. Their instructor is a monk named Simeon. Simeon is no stranger to leadership, as prior to coming to the monastery Simeon was known by his birth name Len Hoffman. Len Hoffman was a legendary business man who not only made millions in his own businesses, but also took several failing business back from the brink of failure and planted them firmly in success. Likewise, the lessons that Simeon teaches John will allow him to take his life from the brink of collapse and allow him to become the leader everyone around him needs him to be. On the last day, when John’s wife picks him up from the monastery there is certainly a sense that his life will never be the same.

Main Ideas

The title of the book gives a hint to the main lesson that James Hunter is trying to portray and that is the skill of being a servant leader. To some, and even a few of the characters in the book, the term servant leader comes across as an oxymoron. Simeon, however, quickly and aptly explains otherwise through the discussions and wisdom shared amongst the characters in the book. Through this interplay we are introduced to some fantastic definitions surrounding the nature of leadership:

  • Leadership: the skill of influencing people to work enthusiastically toward goals identified as being for the common good. (pg. 28)
  • Power: The ability to force or coerce someone to do your will, even if they would choose not to, because of your position or might (pg. 30)
  • Authority: The skill of getting people to willingly do your will because of your personal influence. (pg. 30)

With these definitions Simeon and his pupils begin to shape the character and direction of their insights on leadership. The lesson here is that authority is not given but rather earned; and, true leadership involves gaining influence not through coercion but through gaining authority.

He even goes on to describe a paradigm shift in what the leadership style should look like:

Leadership Model

Figure 1- Leadership Model (pg. 89)

The leadership model in Figure 1 flies in the face of conventional leadership. As Hunter (2012) says:

Leadership begins with the will, which is our unique ability as human beings to align our intentions with our actions and choose our behavior. With the proper will, we can choose to love, the verb, which is about identifying and meeting the legitimate needs, not wants, of those we lead. When we meet the needs of others we will, by definition, be called upon to serve and even sacrifice. When we serve and sacrifice for others, we build authority or influence…And when we build authority with people, then we have earned the right to be called a leader. (pgs. 89-90)

Within the above quote, love is identified as a verb, and much is said about service and sacrifice. These are the cornerstone of Hunter’s leadership model, and both are expounded in great detail in the book. Additionally, through the original story and through the new edition introduction, Hunter offers practical application and skill development insights. Ultimately, Hunter expounds the Golden Rule into an entire leadership ethos.

Critique and Personal Impact

The Servant was an extremely easy and enjoyable read. Hunter’s style and storytelling ability is exceptional, if a bit simplistic. I have read similar stories before, and even wondered halfway through the first page if I had read this book before. Quickly, however, I discovered that this was a new story with a two thousand year old foundation. The identification of Jesus’ leadership style so elegantly and simply broken down made me realize just how well Hunter understood and believed what he was trying to teach. Additionally the instruction within a story allowed me to draw closer to the lesson and internalize so much easier. The truth contained within this story could easily be fit on a handful of pages and handed out to everyone. The addition of characters and an emotional connection just makes it so much richer.

Hunter’s idea of servant leadership or others-centered leadership isn’t new, and that is what makes it so beautiful.  We, as a society, have gotten to the point that so many believe that power and authority are the same thing.  In our hearts we know differently; I know differently. It took me a couple days to understand why this book affected me so greatly, my internal ideas surrounding leadership were conflicted. Much like the character Greg in the book, I viewed leadership as a power play, and exercised authority that I hadn’t earned.  Over the last few years, however, my internal understanding of leadership had shifted to one that is more Christ-like. More like the one that Hunter describes in this book.

The issue for me was that I was conflicted, my heart said I should lead one way, but the military culture, and my past attempts at leadership said I should lead another. In fact, I had always considered myself a horrible leader because I had not natural ability to skillfully wield power.  What I was good at was loving people, even those that I didn’t really like. For much of my life I considered this a weakness. All of this was troubling for me because I am called to be a leader in service to God. How could I be a leader for God if I wasn’t any good at leading? So how and why did this book affect me? It allowed me to see that the parts of me I was trying to suppress in my leadership roles were precisely the ones I should be using the most. I now know that I am equipped and capable of being a leader.  I can also now see that I am already leading more people than I realized. People I never realized that I had influence over, I now see that I do. I am already a leader, and in many senses a good one; I just need to focus more on developing the right skills.

Conclusion

James C. Hunter has written a gem of a book, and I can certainly see why he has sold over three million copies. The truths contained in The Servant are relevant, timeless and easy to understand.  Even more, the book is inspiring and encouraging. In short, The Servant is a masterpiece on leadership that has become an instant classic. The story is not only packed with incredible leadership thoughts and principles but it is also an incredible read.

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