A Closer Look at Servant-Leadership

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2006 edition of In Touch magazine. For reprint permission contact Tim Geddert.

By Tim Geddert, Lori James and Ron Toews

The first followers of Jesus assumed that leadership meant power and glory, positions of honor. One day two of them explicitly requested positions of authority at Jesus' left and right. Jesus used the occasion to clarify to the disciples that greatness is not defined as “lording it over others” but as serving others, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. . .” (Mark 10:45). Jesus modeled the style of leadership he taught when he washed the disciples' feet and called them to play the servant role for others (John 13:12-17).

If the term “servant-leadership” had been born in reflection on the nature of Christian ministry, that should not have surprised us. In fact, however, the term originated elsewhere.

The term “servant-leadership” finds its genesis in the North American marketplace of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Earlier pressures in the marketplace were met by tighter management, more demands on employees, stronger unions, more clearly defined jobs, and stiffer regulations, all of which resulted in greater output and a greater share of the global marketplace. These measures, however, were no longer having their intended effect. Mechanistic systems and hierarchical institutions were not thriving. Dissatisfaction with traditional command-and-control leadership was rampant.

Robert Greenleaf and George McGregor Burns, among others, suggested the need for a new kind of leadership that would place greater value on autonomy and human dignity. The personal integration of higher order complex values was needed, creating environments with self-initiating and self-responsible leaders and followers. The phrase that eventually came to mark the paradigm shift was “servant-leadership.”

Servant-leadership, as Greenleaf and others defined it, involves interdependent governance by teams of peers who reach shared decisions based on agreed-upon values. Servant-leaders transform independence into interdependence, so that working within narrow silos of responsibility gives way to working in interdisciplinary environments. Servant-leaders understand that trust and appropriate intimacy encourage synergy and inspiration. This model became common place in many organizations.

Not just a type of leadership
While the phrase “servant leadership” found its way into the vocabulary of the Christian community, it is not widely understood. It is typically thought of as nothing more than a particular style of leadership—that is, at points one is or ought to be a (non-servant) leader, whereas at other points one is or ought to be a servant leader; the context determines the requisite kind of leadership. Christian leaders often make the mistake of dropping the hyphen, making servant an adjective, not a noun. The result of this error gives license to two kinds of leadership: one a dominant, get-things-done kind of leadership, and the other a submissive, passive, acquiescing leadership.

However, inherent in the phrase servant-leadership is an understanding that presents the words as connected, with equal weight. Put this way, servant-leadership is a culture-shaping belief that invites relationships, community, interdependence, caring, and risk-taking. It creates environments unfettered by rigid formal structures, distributing power, authority, and accountability.
Servant-leadership is more that just an attitude; it is a form of radical discipleship, a choice to be made in terms of how we live our lives based on the model of Jesus Christ in relationship both to God and others. In other words, it is a pervasive mindset that guides one in terms of how they live all aspects of their lives, regardless of whether or not they are in a formal leadership role.

What does it look like?
In a community-based environment, servant-leaders investigate, listen, and guide community members. They promote commitment and are conscious of community surroundings such as values-based factors of the past, present, and future. The structures of a servant-leadership environment are non-hierarchical, warm, inclusive, and instrumental; “we” and “us” is the norm, not “I” or “my.” Ownership of the organization’s mission, vision and values by everyone in the organization promotes responsibility and accountability. Communication is open and honest, and is marked by a sincere desire to understand colleagues. A commitment to employee competence is achieved through an institutional commitment to lifelong learning. Conflict is invited and expected in servant-leadership environments, with a view to continual personal and organizational improvement.

The preceding paragraph could apply in any social or business setting. Yet in the Christian church additional factors come into play. The primary focus of servant-leadership involves the equipping of God’s people “for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). Thus Christ, the head of the Church, and the entire church body is served in the act of providing leadership.

Servant-leadership is conscious of the fact that all people in the church (leaders no less than all other participants) stand at a level place at the foot of the cross. Jesus is Lord of the Church; we submit mutually to Jesus' Lordship just as Jesus modeled submission to his Father. Servant-leadership from a biblical perspective models relationships that are free from abuse of power, free from coercion, and are based in mutual respect for the other.

The servant-leader does not view him/herself as the final authority, the one with all the answers. Rather a leader has the ability to ask thought-provoking questions, and to encourage followers' growth through the discovery process of seeking out answers and solutions to their problems/questions.

Servant-leaders of the church do not demand compliance or motivate through guilt. They model service in the body and they aim to practice kindness and patience as they motivate and encourage others. Positions of leadership involve the granting of authority and thus also influence and power. Servant-leaders recognize that they have been entrusted with authority by Christ and by the church, and that this authority can be removed if it is used for personal benefit or practiced in a way that harms others.

The servant-leader models radical followership in his/her relationship with God to those whom he/she is leading. Thus, the leader does not flaunt his/her position or authority, but rather seeks to invest him/herself into the lives of other followers in radical discipleship so that as a community, they may be challenged to grow to be more like Christ.

One way to identify servant-leaders is by their ability and willingness to demonstrate a significant investment into the lives of those who are following their leadership, in the form of mentoring, discipleship, and education. Another way to identify servant-leaders is when their goals and agendas are not concerned about personal gain, success, notoriety, or public recognition.

Servant-leadership will not always look the same. Its form will vary according to the context in which it is practiced; the personalities, experience and giftedness of the leaders; and the needs of the Christian community.

While leadership skills can be taught, choosing to live one’s life as a servant-leader cannot be forced or coerced. In the end, as Max DePree says, servant-leadership is a calling to “design, build, and serve inclusive communities by liberating human spirit and potential” ("Servant-Leadership: Three Things Necessary," Focus on Leadership (Wiley and Sons, 2001)).

Tim Geddert, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. Lori James is registrar. Ron Toews is assistant professor of leadership studies at the Langley, B.C. campus.