There are several leadership styles that fill business articles and books, but only one is encouraged in Scripture. And that's the concept known as servant leadership.
What is servant leadership? The beautiful thing about it is that it’s not easily represented in a definition or easy-to-scan list of characteristics. It’s fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
You can look at other servant leadership examples in the Bible, like Moses, Esther, and Peter. And you can learn about servant leadership principles from Robert Greenleaf, who founded the modern servant leadership movement in the 1970s.
But the simple and powerful truth is that to understand what servant leadership truly is and its life-changing influence, you’ll need to start with Jesus.
What Is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership is defined biblically:
Then He [Jesus] came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”
Mark 9:33-35 NKJV
Leaders must serve others. It’s at the heart of what servant leadership is. For Jesus to express and live that out is striking in at least two ways.
The first is that the Creator served creation. Jesus created all things (see John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, and Hebrews 1:2) and then became human to suffer and die for humanity. He could have put an end to it. For instance, consider what Jesus told Peter before His arrest: “do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 25:53). Yet, He didn’t come to exhibit His power over others.
That leads to the second notable point: What He came to do — the Lord of lords and the King of kings (Revelation 17:14) — was to serve others and, ultimately, give His life for them.
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
In the greatest act of love and indicator of servanthood in history, Jesus, the incarnate God, gave up His life to save us.
How Servant Leadership Transforms Others
One aspect of servant leadership is the impact it has on other people. Greenleaf focused on this aspect in his “The Servant as Leader” essay, which popularized servant leadership.
The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
Asking these types of questions for the likes of Moses, Esther, and Peter would be comical. Did they help others grow in the love of God and produce other servant leaders? Of course. Moses’ people would have died, quite literally, if it wasn’t for his intercessions, and his leadership continued through Joshua. Esther risked her life for her people and founded the Feast of Purim. Peter added 3,000 new believers to the church on the day of Pentecost alone (Acts 2:41) and was a pillar of the early church.
Peter wasn’t always the model servant leader, though. He was outspoken and, at times, impulsive. In an instructive moment of Peter’s transformation and of Jesus’ servant leadership, Peter objected to Jesus washing his feet (John 13:2-9), which was an act even below that of a slave. Jesus persisted in washing Peter and the disciples' feet — including Judas — and then taught them about what it means to be a leader.
So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Being a leader is about serving others in lowliness. As Peter wrote, authority doesn’t involve “lording it over those entrusted to you” but rather to “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:3, 5).
How Servant Leadership Transforms You
The other aspect of servant leadership is how it impacts the individual leader. In his famous survey, Greenleaf clarified how the leader prioritizes serving.
The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions...
None of that happens overnight. As anyone familiar with Moses, Esther, and Peter can attest, it takes time to be transformed as a true leader in the presence of God.
Moses was fearful throughout his encounter with God at the burning bush, giving excuses and outright asking God to send someone else before fulfilling his calling. Esther was a young, scared Jewish girl who would come to stand up for her people as queen of Persia. Peter went from a strong-willed, rather difficult disciple to a leader of the flock God entrusted to him.
It’s amazing to see how God can work in and through the people He has called to ministry. That’s certainly true for you, too. As Paul wrote, Scripture is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” so you can be “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And with an online Master of Transformative Ministry, you can gain a biblical foundation for transforming individuals, communities, and organizations for God’s glory.
Enhance your impact across environments like church ministry, parachurch ministry, and nonprofit organizations. You’ll learn in a flexible environment at Point University, which pursues a mission to educate students for Christ-centered service and leadership throughout the world.
Image credit: ©Getty Images / Hinterhaus Productions
Founded in 1937, Point University is a private liberal arts institution that educates students to influence culture for Christ in all spheres of life. In addition to our online programs, which provide a broad, comprehensive curriculum designed to prepare students for their chosen professions, we operate multiple ground campuses throughout Georgia.
Point University offers accredited associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees taught by dedicated faculty who equip the next generation to take their faith into the marketplace in new and culturally relevant ways – to erase the lines between who they are and what they do so that they see life and mission as one and the same.