The Meaning of Servant Leadership


Servant Leadership is a fashionable idea. Who isn’t in favor of good leadership accompanied by a servant attitude? Everything about that sounds good. The trouble is the term Servant Leadership is frequently treated loosely and easily misinterpreted. Examples of misuse include faulty justification for low performance or exaggerated people-pleasing behaviors. John 12:43, Ephesians 6:6, along with other passages warn against pleasing people as your top priority.

So Servant Leadership cannot mean that the role of the leader is to merely make everyone happy or allow employees to become the number one concern. There’s great danger when organizations drift like that into a self-serving state. Sadly, this can happen in Christian organizations under the pretense of being caring. That would be a serious distortion. Servant Leadership does not equate to low performance. Practiced correctly, Servant Leadership brings out the best in everyone. Servant Leadership is a powerful, important theory that merits careful definition and sound practice. Look back at the origin of the term. While it is a timeless concept, the name came from Robert Greenleaf in an essay he first published in 1970 entitled “The Servant as Leader.” I took training from the Greenleaf Center during the time I was leading Opportunity International and wholeheartedly embraced the philosophy ever since.

A true Servant Leader will coach, nurture, and in every way possible develop staff so they can make an excellent contribution in their work and feel good about themselves in the process. At times, reassigning or even outplacing an employee who doesn’t fit a task or isn’t performing is doing them a service. Certainly a change like that requires gracious handling, but don’t shrink from the responsibility when it is necessary. Keeping a problem employee in place damages the mission and rarely helps the worker in the long run.

Jesus is the source for the Biblical basis for Servant Leadership in Mark 10:42-45. He said, “It should not be so among you,” as He described ego-saturated domineering practices. Dogmatism, manipulation and any other form of dysfunctional relating is incompatible with Servant Leadership.

In the essay mentioned earlier, Greenleaf wrote this summary,

“The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

In the seminar I took with the Greenleaf Center, they told how ordinary conduct is often the opposite of Servant Leadership. Too often organizations tolerate sloppy and ill-defined practices, while at the same time trying to control people. In fact, the better policy is to control the “things” while releasing people. Control things like budgets and processes, but encourage people toward internally motivation, creativity and personal achievement.

Habits of Servant Leadership include: active listening, empathy, healing (fostering emotional and spiritual health), awareness, honest persuasion, conceptualization (helping people dream), foresight (a Servant Leader regularly looks into the future to anticipate situations), stewardship, encouraging personal growth and building community.

The instructor at my Greenleaf seminar made a pithy comment that has stayed with me for years. He said, “The main job of a Servant Leader is to raise up more Servant Leaders.” I want that. It becomes a virtuous cycle that develops people, creates a healthy culture and accomplishes the mission while at the same time producing more Servant Leaders. 

© Eric Thurman 2015