- Servant Leadership, Core Principles
- Can we Really Lead Like Jesus?
- Biblically-Based Resources on Servant Leadership
- Corporate Models of Servant Leadership
- Kenneth Blanchard on Servant Leadership
Servant Leadership, Core Principles
The core principles of servant leadership is that leaders serve others. The literature expresses this in at least two ways. The first is found in biblically-based materials on key figures such as Jesus and Paul as the exemplars of servant leadership. The second is from leadership studies, where servant leadership is related to the empowering and transformational theories emphasizing “serving first vs. leading first.” Some authors highlight Biblical characters, especially Jesus, as embodying the principles. For example, Robert Greenleaf describes Jesus as the archetype leader.
Can we Really Lead Like Jesus?
This is certainly an important dimension of leadership. But let’s begin with a question. Can we really lead like Jesus?
Certainly we should follow Jesus in our leadership as in any other area of life. On the other hand, looking to Jesus as a model of corporate leadership, whether religious or secular, has its difficulties. Four observations.
First, we must separate the essential characteristics of Jesus from the methods he used. For example, must we assume that since Jesus chose twelve, focused on three, and had a special relationship with one, that we should do the same? And if we do this, are we really leading like Jesus or are we simply following common sense principles of mentoring and coaching which Jesus also adopted? The latter makes more sense to me. Behind his method, however, are Jesus’ essential characteristics reflected in his relationship with his followers. These would include his devotion to their development in understanding the will of God, and his sensitivity, availability, and creative commitment to their unique needs. These are essential characteristics of Christ that are more universally applicable, while the specific methods may not be as inseparable to our call follow him.
Second, and more important, we must not trivialize Jesus’ life by assuming we are following him when emulating his style without also embodying his mission. Jesus had a unique identity, mission, and person that can never be duplicated in the life of any other leader.
- His unique role as the Son of God sent to overcome sin, establish justice, and reconcile the world to God’s original intent are not the same issues typically measured in corporate effectiveness.
- In the “divine reversal” expressed in his Nazareth Manifesto (Luke 4:18-19), Jesus inverts the world’s power scale, but leaders of business and industry circulate where power exerts itself in complex ways.
- Jesus operated with a clear divine mandate for his life, not a collaboratively derived vision that required input and buy-in of stakeholders and key participants.
- Features such as the “messianic secret” in the Gospel of Mark and “the hour” in the Gospel of John show that Jesus operated on a divinely predetermined time frame that is very unlike the issues of opportunity and profit that drive most businesses.
- Only Jesus could truly speak “as one with authority,” and therefore lead with the gravitas as one who came from God.
This suggests that it may not the best appropriation of Jesus to see him as the prototype of a corporate leader, sales executive, etc. The contours of his life and leadership cannot be viewed separately from his uniqueness that no other human being shares. His purpose was not to show us how to lead, achieve corporate outcomes, or create large scale change. Certainly Jesus led well, and he also had many characteristics that are found in good salespeople, motivators, etc. Yet his character, though flawless, did not always “win friends and influence people,” and was at times quite polarizing. Also, to the extent that Jesus teaches self-sacrifice and servanthood, he does so without interest in the “return” he will experience as a result. Lead like Jesus? Yes, but it is important to do so in a way that does not trivialize his life by extracting his habits and practices for our own purposes.
Third, nonetheless, these factors do not excuse us from “leading like Jesus.” If indeed our lives are constantly being shaped into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18), certainly this should be reflected in our leadership. In this respect, Jesus’ essential character is a vast and teeming sea from which to draw, though with the realization that we should not extract his characteristics to accomplish something other than what he would do if he were in our shoes.
Fourth, Jesus’ style of leadership cannot be separated from the mission of God he came to accomplish. If that mission dominates every dimension of our lives and work, including our economics and sense of justice, then perhaps more of Jesus’ uniqueness should show in how we lead, whether in churches, schools, or corporations. Yet most literature on Jesus’ leadership is not preoccupied with the Missio Dei, but assumes the legitimacy of standard corporate ends and means and then selects aspects of Jesus’ style that are helpful toward those goals. If we look to Jesus faithfully, however, his life should shape not only the means but also the ends.
Biblically-Based Resources on Servant Leadership
As indicated above, much of the literature on servant leadership looks closely at the life of Jesus as the chief servant. A growing batch of literature sees the Apostle Paul as exemplar, and I have placed them here as well. The following do a good job of extracting not only Jesus’ (or Paul’s) style of leadership, but also his missional aims. Others are not focused on Jesus or Paul specifically, but mine from scripture important principles of servant leadership. I have listed them alphabetically, as each has its special value.
- John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership – Shows how humility translates into leadership, primarily by making the humble life persuasive and attractive by the weight of character.
- Leighton Ford, Transforming Leadership: Jesus’ Way of Creating Vision, Shaping Values, and Change — Written by an experienced mentor of Christian leaders. Reflects on the principles of spiritual leadership as reflected in the life of Jesus.
- Bill Hybels, When Leadership and Discipleship Collide — A brief but substantive book on how real discipleship often calls for a reversal of accepted leadership principles.
- Robert McKenna, Dying to Lead: Sacrificial Leadership in a Self-Centered World — An excellent treatment of servant leadership, especially in helping leaders come to terms with the sacrifice inherent in the work of developing others.
- Calvin Miller, The Empowered Leader: 10 Keys to Servant Leadership — Miller places the principles of servant leadership into a framework of ten keys.
- Stacy Rinehart, Upside Down: The Paradox of Servant Leadership. NavPress, 1998 —A good discussion of servant leadership as it empowers people, over against power-based systems and structures that abuse and limit others.
- C. Gene Wilkes, Jesus on Leadership: Discovering the Secrets of Servant Leadership — A convicting reflection emerging out of Wilkes’ experience of being humbled into leading like Jesus.
- Walter C. Wright, Relational Leadership: A Biblical Model for Influence and Service — Wright applies a biblical theology of leadership to common leadership tasks and relationships. A nice feature is his treatment of lesser-known biblical characters such as Philemon, Tychicus, and Onesimus.
Corporate Models of Servant Leadership
It is important to distinguish biblically-based materials from those that discuss servant leadership as an approach under the empowering and transformational philosophies. Certainly these theories have points of continuity with Jesus’ life and leadership, and it is fine to point these out, as Robert Greenleaf did in designating Jesus as the archetype leader. Yet, just as it is not the purpose of Jesus’ life to show us how to lead organizations, it is not necessarily the purpose of servant leadership theorists to show us how to lead like Jesus. This is not to suggest that either invalidates the other, but simply that they are not necessarily tied together.
That said, there is much to commend in servant leadership theory. The essential tenets of servant leadership are that caring for persons is the rock upon which a good society is built, that the servant-leader is servant first not leader first, and that all leadership should be done so that those served grow as persons. The classic expressions are by Robert Greenleaf and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. The following list includes his and others’ works.
- Robert K. Greenleaf and Larry C. Spears, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, 25th Anniversary Edition — The long-recognized standard on the subject. It is primarily addressed to non-profit boards, but has enjoyed wide use in all corporate circles.
- James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick, The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership: Practicing the Wisdom of Leading by Serving – The authors summarize the seven pillars and present a path toward developing these characteristics. Excellent for self development or leadership training/coaching.
- James C. Hunter, The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership — Conveys the principles of servant leadership through the story of an executive who faces humbling realities about himself.
- James C. Hunter, The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader – A follow up to Hunter’s first volume, The Servant. It is an organized presentation on what The Servant presents in story form. He also expands the definition and discusses how servant leadership relates to other currencies of influence such as management, power and authority, motivation, etc.
- Bill Hybels, Descending Into Greatness — Hybels includes first-hand accounts of financial executives, physicians, professional athletes and others who have followed the downward path of servant leadership.
Kenneth Blanchard on Servant Leadership
Ken Blanchard weighs in on the servant leadership discussion. If you do a search on these books, it becomes confusing on which to purchase. Perhaps the guide below will help.
For those who like the trademark Blanchard story/parable format:
- Kenneth Blanchard, Bill Hybels and Phil Hodges, Leadership by the Book: Tools to Transform Your Workplace — Blanchard’s most substantive parable on servant leadership.
- Kenneth Blanchard, Mark Miller and John Maxwell, The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do — A parable of how a young female manager comes to terms with servant leadership.
- Ken Jennings, John Stahl-Wert and Kenneth Blanchard, The Serving Leader: Five Powerful Actions that Will Transform Your Team, Your Business, and Your Community — The story of a young leader’s journey into learning and practicing five tenets of servant leadership.
For those who prefer more than the story format and want a substantive discussion from Blanchard on servant leadership:
- Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges, Lead Like Jesus: Lessons from the Greatest Leadership Role Model of All Time
For those who want a very brief, devotional delivery on servant leadership:
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