Leadership Approaches – Servant Leadership

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Part of the following ministry resources: Christian Leadership, Empowerment, Transformational 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

For those who prefer more than the story format and want a substantive discussion from Blanchard on servant leadership:

For those who want a very brief, devotional delivery on servant leadership:

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