The greatest among you shall be your servant. – Matthew 23:11
What do you think of when you think of leadership? Do you think of heroic military leaders? Do you think of charismatic politicians? Maybe you think of inspiring entrepreneurs and CEO’s. Many of you probably didn’t think of a servant. We often don’t think of a leader being focused on serving others, but when I really sit down and think about it, a leader MUST serve others.
I just took a class in my MBA that was titled “Servant Leadership” so I spent countless hours considering this topic. In the class it asked if I had considered Jesus as a leadership role model in my life. Honestly, I hadn’t really considered Jesus a role model in many ways. I thought Jesus was great as a role model for teaching the fruits of the spirit (Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control), but I never really considered his leadership in how I should behave professionally. After considering using Jesus as a role model, and supplementing that with secular sources on leadership I have come to conclusion that we must serve to be a leader.
The History of the term “Servant Leadership”
I may not have you convinced that we have to serve others in order to truly be a leader, however this is not a concept that I just made up out of thin air. The term servant leadership has been around since the 1970’s when it was coined by Robert Greenleaf. Greanleaf was reading a novel, Journey to the East, in which a many men are on a journey through geography and time (Duby, 2009). The Journey is going well when a servant, name Leo, is present. Leo had exhibited many positive characteristics but was thought of as just a servant by the members on the journey. Leo disappears at some point in the journey and the trip takes a turn for the worst as the group starts complaining and dissension starts among the group. They blame Leo for potentially taking items that they needed, however the truth is that the servant was the reason that the journey was successful in the first place.
This was the inspiration in Robert Greenleaf studying servant leadership. Larry Spears (2004) identified ten characteristics that are essential for a servant leader based on Robert Greenleaf’s writings. These characteristics are the following:
- growing people
- building community
This is a great lists of attributes given to us by Greenleaf’s writing, and you can find this list and explanations of the list in a variety of different sources with a quick search on the internet. But Greenleaf isn’t the only person to discuss servant leadership. The Library of Congress holds 180 different books that contain the words “leader” and “servant” in the title (Souyri, 2014). I’ve read many different books and articles to generate what a true leader looks like, as well as why you should be a servant leader.
Why should I be a servant leader?
Many of the articles I read recognize that business ethics are becoming more important by the day. One major scandal in a large corporation can cause major instability in the price of the stock. Facebook, for example, just lost 25% of it’s market cap in a matter of days due to untrustworthy activities. BP lost an estimated $50 billion as a result of negligence in the Gulf oil spill, not to mention 11 people were killed. These are both PR nightmares for the companies involved and both could have been completely avoided if management at each organization desired to serve others rather than gain an advantage for themselves.
Outside of avoiding losses, being a servant leader has many positive outcomes as well.
- Servant leadership increases positivity in an organization (Shipman, 2014).
- Servant leadership increases creativity in an organization (Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 2017).
- Servant leadership increases belief change rather than simple behavior change (Manalullaili, 2014).
- Servant leadership is a more acceptable approach to leadership to those who are following (Zhang, Lin, & Foo, 2012).
- Servant leadership will also encourage others to become servant leaders as well (Ljungholm, 2016).
These are just five of the positive attributes that servant leadership brings to the table in terms of scholarly research.
On top of this, Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, discusses how sustainable success in a business results primarily from having a servant leader as the CEO of an organization. Collins calls these leaders “Level 5” leaders, and he makes a strong case that putting others before their own self interest is the reason why companies have sustained success. While more self-serving charismatic leaders may develop short-term success, prolonged success requires a humble servant leader who is willing to plan for success even after they leave the organization. The book is practically a must read for anyone in a business environment (It has been a major inspiration to people like Jeff Bezos to Will Smith) and you can purchase it on Amazon by clicking the icon below.
Another book that discusses the necessity to have a desire to serve other in order to become a high performer, is High Performance Habits, by Brendan Burchard. In this book he explains how practically every high performer becomes a high performer for a specific individual or individuals. The reason I say this is because it is very difficult to perform at a high level in anything consistently for purely selfish reasons. You need to have a selfless reason to lead. Essentially you need to become a servant leader. While the whole book isn’t dedicated to that topic, it really is a great book for developing habits that will set you apart from others, and you can purchase the book from Amazon by clicking on the icon below:
These two books are not the only books that emphasize being a servant first and foremost, but they are two of my favorites and if you read them I’m sure you will be convinced that serving others is the correct way to truly become a leader.
What do you define as a servant leader?
Now after all my reading I have narrowed down the list to essentially four attributes that a servant leader requires above all else. I purposely kept the list short, because the brain gets easily overwhelmed if a list is over 3-5 items long. This is my major concern with the list that Spears developed from Greenleaf’s writings. Without further ado, here is my final four of servant leadership:
- You need to have a “why” – It’s not enough to just do something for the sake of doing it, a servant leader really needs to have a mission they can get behind and believe in. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you’re unlikely to really care about the mission. In examining many of the greatest entrepreneurs you can feel the passion they exhibit in what they’re doing because they understand the “why” in what they’re doing. Elon Musk is an inspiration to many because his “why” is so clear. He truly believe that he can help save the planet by creating greener technologies and by turning humanity into a multi-planetary species. It may be slightly crazy, but he certainly believes in his mission and that’s why he’s been able to bring so many talented employees on board with him.
- Listen – I purposefully left this item general because I think listening covers so much ground in terms of servant leadership. Being able to listen means that you can take direction from those who may be lower on the social ladder or directly reporting to you. Not only does this generate better ideas and creativity in an organization, but it also develops a better leader because you will be able to listen to negative feedback as well. On top of making you and the organization better, it will also increase the confidence in those around you, and they will enjoy your presence more. This is an absolute no-brainer and it’s a skill we all should constantly be working on.
- Develop Others – This attribute is present in every servant leader. Jim Collins discusses how succession planning and developing talent around the CEO is one of the most critical aspects to sustained success in the organization, and it makes sense. If a leader isn’t focused on developing others, as soon as he/she is gone, the organization crumbles. Not only is it not better for the organization, employees, or shareholders, it’s not better for the leader either. Developing others will lower the amount of stress you feel as others will grow to the point that they can take items off of your plate, rather than one leader trying to bare the entire load.
- Show Humility – Humility combines some of the listening and developing others. It’s hard to do either of those two things when you don’t have humility, so humility is really the glue that holds a servant leader together. Humility enables a leader to find something bigger than themselves and it also allows them to serve others by listening and developing them. Without humility it’s impossible to truly become a servant leader.
There are certainly other attributes that should be on the list above, but as I said, I wanted to keep it relatively simple, and I bet if you focus on just this list, almost everything in your life will fall into place.
Why you should consider Jesus as your leadership role-model
When I first started consider using Jesus as a role model in more than just spiritual matters, I was surprised at how much Jesus was applicable to leading in a business environment as well. Since I’ve already defined what I believe a leader to be, let’s take a look at what Jesus has done in all four of those categories.
- Why – First of all, Jesus clearly had the most powerful “why” that any of us could possibly imagine. Nothing that Jesus did was for his own benefit. He came down from heaven as a human, and suffered greatly for it. As we celebrate Good Friday, it’s readily apparent how and why Jesus did what he did. He came here entirely for his mission of saving humanity and because the Father had a plan. I literally cannot think of a stronger “why” than the one that Jesus exhibited throughout scripture, whether or not you are religious.
- Listen – This is one of my favorite aspects of Jesus as a leader. Jesus didn’t simply listen with complete gentleness to every single person he encountered. He didn’t respond to everyone in exactly the same way. He listened with the intention in turning everyone into a servant leader. An example of this is how he attempted to empower those who demonstrated humility to grow them, yet those who demonstrated pride he was harsh with. The Pharisees often needed correction in how they demonstrated humility and Jesus attempted to do this. He said exactly what he needed to say and did exactly what he needed to do with each individual, which is ultimately the point of truly listening.
- Developing Others– This is another attribute that Jesus may have demonstrated more clearly than any other leader throughout history. On an intimate level, Jesus taught 12 disciples. He spent literally all of his time with these individuals in an effort to grow them in their faith. As Jim Collins discussed the importance of succession planning, Jesus knew this better than anyone. Jesus was not only leaving an organization, but he knew that he’d be leaving earth in his bodily form. Training individuals was practically the whole focus of why he was here (outside of him dying on the cross). His disciples became some of the most influential people of all time and most of them were so devout that they died for him. He certainly developed amazing leader on a micro level. On a macro level, Jesus has inspired more people than any other individual in the history of humanity. The term “Christian” is often said to mean “little Christ”. Considering that Christianity is the world’s largest religion and that Jesus has more followers than any other individual ever, I would say that he was they most successful person to develop others.
- Humility – Jesus was only on this earth because the Father sent him, and he exhibited humility in how he served. He even washed the dirty feet of those who followed him. While washing others feet seems difficult and somewhat repulsive to many, I don’t believe that anything can demonstrated humility more than being willing to be tortured and crucified on a cross for those that are supposed to be following you. He was the absolute perfect role-model in terms of humility and his teachings encourage humility throughout scripture.
When I set out to figure out which attributes are most important in a leader, I did not have Jesus as the example in my mind. I simply developed the attributes that I thought were important to become a successful leader and compared that to what Jesus had done. Jesus ultimately demonstrated the four attributes better than anyone I can think of. Perhaps it’s because I have been influenced by my faith throughout my life, or perhaps it’s because Jesus is the most exceptional leader of all time. I hope that I have made a compelling case for why you should focus on, not only developing your leadership attributes (why, listening, developing others, and humility), but also consider using Jesus as your role-model in developing these characteristics.
Thanks for reading and remember to have a great Easter weekend!
Collins, J. C. (2009). Good to great: why some companies make the leap … and others dont. New York, NY: Collins.
Duby, D. G. (2009). The greatest commandment: The foundation for biblical servant leadership. Liberty Business Review, 7, 52-57. Available at:
Ljungholm, D. P. (2016). effective servant leadership behavior in organizations. Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations, 15, 239.
Manalullaili, M. (2014). servant leadership. Wardah, 15(2), 215-222.
Servant leadership and followership creativity. (2017). Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 38(2), 178-193. 10.1108/LODJ-02-2015-0019
Shipman, N. V. (2014). Servant leadership and hope. Academic Forum. Conference. Proceedings, , 78.
Souyri, É. (2014). Servant leadership. Revue Française d’études Américaines, 141(4), 171-183. 10.3917/rfea.141.0171
Spears, L. (2004). Practicing servant-leadership. Leader to Leader, 2004(34), 7-11. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/218344443?accountid=12085
Zhang, Y., Lin, T., & Foo, S. F. (2012). Servant leadership: A preferred style of school leadership in singapore. Chinese Management Studies, 6(2), 370;384;-383. 10.1108/17506141211236794