Servant Leadership: Principles
“Practicing Servant Leadership--A Pattern” (SL#23)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® 1.1 - Exploring the Journey

During recent years I have been pulled, sometimes kicking and screaming, along this journey toward servant leadership. At times it seems exactly the thing to be and do; and at other times I wanted to find quicker or easier ways to go about my work. I’m not there yet, but a working definition helps me stay on course--or when I stray, to get back on the pathway. That’s why there is an element of testimony in these reported findings.

Another fundamental principle, or approach, to learning servant leadership is to develop the habit of organizing your experience, thoughts, and findings. This article reports my own findings over a period of time and as a “work in process.” When you think through concepts of servant leadership and write them down, it is possible that you not only clarify your understanding, but you also reinforce your practice and your behavior. When continued learning takes place, you can intentionally make changes, improving your performance and your satisfaction. Last, but not unimportant, is that you are more likely to intersect with others about your venture, even to the point of calling them along on the journey. Here are some of my thoughts and a construct about the practice of servant leadership; first a definition:

Practicing servant leadership in Christian ministry is self-giving service with others after the pattern of Christ through example and persuasion in order to achieve extraordinary commitment and contributions toward mutually shared kingdom goals. (1995 and since--L. Elder)

This is not really a new journey; true, it was rediscovered and defined in the 1970’s by Robert Greenleaf and other contemporaries. But in reality most are struggling and celebrating as we retrace old and favorite paths of service to Christ. I’m not there yet, but on the way. Visuals, definitions, concepts, the sage instruction of a pioneer like Greenleaf--even our grasp of Holy Scripture--all of these fall short of the mark if you and I do not get down into the front line trenches of life and consistently practice servant leadership.

A servant leadership graphic intends to portray the practice of servant leadership as five windows of opportunity, of light and fresh air. The largest window, encompassing all else, is empowering leadership; and the smallest, supporting all else, is efficiency. All five practices working together reflect a synergy that is true to the essence of the servant as leader.

This construct is introduced here and often cited; but, it is more extensively explained and applied in another article being developed.

  1. Empowered Leadership: “Doing the right things in His power”

    Commentary: Hebrews 12:1-2 (Zondervan Commentary)
    We are to run this race "with no eyes for any one or anything except Jesus" (Moffatt, in loc.). It is he toward whom we run. There must be no divided attention. The "author and perfecter of faith" (there is no "our" in the Gr.) may mean that Jesus trod the way of faith first and brought it to completion. . . . As the heroes of faith in chapter 11 are OT characters, there is the thought that Jesus led all the people of faith, even from the earliest days.

Commentary: John 15:5 (Zondervan Commentary)
Fruit-bearing is not only possible but certain if the branch remains in union with the vine. Uniformity of quantity and quality are not promised. But if the life of Christ permeates a disciple, fruit will be inevitable.

  1. Ethical Leadership: “Doing the right things for the right reasons”

    Glossary: “ethical” (from WordNet® 1.6)
    Conforming to accepted standards of social or professional behavior; adhering to ethical and moral principles.

  1. Enabling Leadership: “Doing the right things together”

    Glossary: “enabling” (American Heritage® Dictionary)
    To supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity; make able; a hole in the fence that enabled us to watch; techniques that enable surgeons to open and repair the heart. To make feasible or possible.

  2. Effective Leadership: “Doing the rights things on purpose”
  3. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up . . . (Ephesians 4:11-12 NIV).

  4. Efficient Leadership: “Doing the right things in the right way”

If you were to list the key components of servant leadership, what would they be? If you were to lead a conference on “Practicing Servant Leadership,” what would your major points be? The three objectives of this article are:

© 2006; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership

Study Abstract - A Congregational Model
from Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, and drafted by Lloyd Elder

The following concepts are summarized from Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf. Reflect on these concepts and those reviewed in Articles SL#21 and SL#22; seek to apply them to your ministry service and leadership.

  1. The servant thesis: More servants should emerge as leaders or should follow only servant leaders.

  2. Servant leader--servant first: The servant leader is servant first. The servant leader’s primary motivation is the desire to serve. On the other hand, the “leader first” is a completely different type. Augustine recognized this difference when he concluded a passage on leadership: “So he who loves to govern rather than to do good is no bishop.” The difference between the two kinds of leaders is seen primarily in the effect of their leadership on those who are led. Under servant leadership people become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to become servants themselves.

  3. Servant Leadership Characteristics: Servant leadership is strong, ethical leadership in an age of anti-leaders. Such a minister/leader seeks to build servant congregations in an anti-institutional era. The enemy of servant congregations is not the critic on the outside but the strong natural servants who choose to follow a nonservant leader.

  4. Congregational reconstruction: Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Until recently, caring was largely person-to-person. Now, much of it is mediated through institutions--including churches.

  5. Servant leadership in the church: The churches, like other contemporary institutions, are under pressures and influences. By worldly standards, churches are often judged to be inadequate. In addition, the churches are often not critical enough of their actual performance and contribution because their cause is so noble. Trust must come first. This is not trust generated by leadership charisma; the only sound basis for trust is for people to have the solid experience of being served by their institutions.

  6. Moral, ethical leadership: Moral leadership has the capacity to rise above the claims of everyday wants, needs, and expectations. Moral and ethical leadership relates leadership behavior--its roles, choices, style, and commitments--to a set of seasoned, conscious values. Moral leadership reaches into the needs and value structures, mobilizing and directing support for such values as justice, liberty, equality, individual dignity, brotherhood, and world evangelism.

Reflection and Application


Close this window