Servant Leadership: An Overview
“Your Journey Toward Servant Leadership
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D. (adapted from SkillTrack®
1.1, 1.2, 1.3: Servant Leadership)
A Servant Leadership Thesis:
“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.” --LE
After more than three decades of exploring servant leadership, this definition
is for me a work-in-progress, serving as a basis for my continued findings.
The thesis, first drafted in 1995, is set in place for the study, learning,
and practice of servant leadership. It will be revisited often.
- Key Leadership Text--Mark 10:35-45
“After the pattern of Christ” is a critical element of servant
leadership in the practice of any type of Christian ministry. A host of biblical
texts set out the situations, styles, and skills of servant leadership, but
seldom by that precise term. Christ remains central; He is not only its champion,
but the supreme example of servant leadership. Consider His direct teaching:
Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must
be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For
even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give
his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45 NIV)
There are a vast number of other biblical texts presenting the practice,
situations, gifts, skills, and contributions to the work of God’s kingdom.
In Romans 12:6-8, “service” and “leadership” are tied
together in the pattern we are to follow:
We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s
gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is
serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging,
let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him
give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is
showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. (Rom. 12:6-8 NIV)
- Objectives and Practical Goals
The objective of this overview article is to provide a servant leadership
context for Christian ministry, as it is in reality, a lifelong journey. Practical
goals include: (1) to empower today’s Christian lay and staff ministers/leaders,
(2) to explore a working understanding of leadership and servant leadership
today, (3) to discover biblical patterns lived and taught by Christ, (4) to
learn from Robert K. Greenleaf and other contemporary teaching leaders, (5)
and, to chart your own course in the journey.
- Your Own Journey
Step into the picture and content of this topic; it intends to invite you
along on the journey that Christ himself walked. This overview is an introduction
to a series of articles reporting a continuing study of servant leadership--its
principles, pathways, and practices. A thorough study of this series of articles
should enable you to:
- understand the biblical and contemporary foundations for servant leadership;
- evaluate the concepts and practices of servant leadership as you focus
on “servant first”;
- make a continuing assessment of your leadership styles and skill levels;
- understand your basic choices among the various styles and models of
- apply servant leadership to the many functions of Christian ministry;
- map out your own journey toward servant leadership development and
- reach back into this and other materials as a “toolbox”
for “as-needed help”;
- guide others in their development and practice of servant leadership;
- keep the leadership of Christ as the pattern every step and mile of
- Practicing Servant Leadership: A Graphic
What does “servant leadership” look like and how do you start
out on the journey? This servant leadership graphic seeks to portray the practice
of servant leadership as five windows of opportunity--of light and fresh air.
Each of the five intersecting windows provides a distinct view reflecting
a synergy that is true to the essence of the servant as leader. The largest
window, encompassing all else, is empowering leadership;
and the smallest, supporting all else, is efficient leadership.
Servant leadership is not just a concept; it is not learned until it is practiced.
Developing and practicing servant leadership is truly self-directed by continuous
choices and practices in every arena of your life and leadership. This graphic
will be expanded and applied in other articles in this Servant Leaders
- Leadership Theory--the Longer Journey
Just how does “servant leadership” fit into the
longer journey of leadership theory? Volumes have been written about leadership,
although the term has come to its “loftiest use”--if not overuse--in
our generation. Yes, and servant leadership has its own champions in corporate,
institutional, and nonprofit life. Since much of this body of material is
about leadership theory, dominant theories are briefly summarized here:
Servant Leadership and Theories
- Succession Theory: Leadership is given by divine right,
by the succession of one sovereign to another in a royal line. But becoming
king by succession does not confer the ability to rule wisely; and it doesn't
apply at all to most of humankind.
- Natural Theory: Some are born and destined for leadership,
they are natural leaders, and others simply are not. Natural characteristics
often contribute to the capacity to lead, but history has proven there is
more to leadership than that; natural ability is too often wasted or misused.
- Great Event Theory: Leadership shows itself with an occasion,
an event in history, when one rises to do what must be done. There was a
Winston Churchill and an Abraham Lincoln; but then again, many crumple under
the weight of historical challenges.
- Position Theory: Leadership is linked to a position such
as prophet, priest, judge, president, chairman, pastor, deacon, etc. A position
may provide the opportunity for leadership but does not guarantee the vision,
relationship, skill, or leadership performance.
- Trait Theory: Leadership is vested in a particular set
of personal qualities, talents, and skills; but as you may know, without
a particular set of leadership traits some succeed, and having all of the
most desirable ones may not be transformed into reality.
Servant leadership is more than theory, style, or method. Although
there may be some truth in each one of the above theories, or a combination
of them, servant leadership is based on biblical and more contemporary principles
and practices--on your character, behavior, and contributions to others. Keep
this in mind and add your own insights as you build upon our efforts. Evaluate
the concepts and practices of servant leadership, always focusing on servant
- to understand the basic choices you have among the various styles and
models of leadership;
Servant Leadership Learning Tools
- to apply servant leadership not only to the many functions of Christian
ministry but also to the many other roles that you live;
- to increase your contribution and satisfaction in your chosen field of
- to map out your own journey for leadership development;
- to reach back into material such as this as a “toolbox” for
- and, to guide others in the consistent development and practice of servant
leadership as they serve along with you.
Someone has said that “leadership can be learned, but it cannot be taught.”
Others may provide tools, but developing servant leadership is self-directed
by your own continuous choices to follow the pattern of Christ. Servant Leaders
Library builds upon many tools useful both for your affirmation, knowledge,
awareness and for putting your training to work in your own daily life and
As one tool, leadership self-assessment is presented throughout
these articles. That is always a good starting place on the servant leadership
journey: honestly assessing your current level of knowledge, your patterns
of behavior, and your actual practice of servant leadership. Also, case
studies are often used as effective ways for the interactive teaching/learning
process. Concrete situations and actions--real or invented--are described
in such a way that a person or a team can propose options, actions, lessons,
and corrections for handling such future situations. How can you do this
for these articles?
Signposts on My Journey
My own servant leadership journey continues. As author or co-author of most
of these articles, perhaps it would be helpful for me to state some of my
commitments to and findings about servant leadership. This is also a good
place for you to complete a self-assessment activity of your own. Some of
these thoughts are clearly drawn from others, but they are pulled together
here as my own sense of journey:
- Jesus is the one ideal pattern of servant leadership, although many
others may practice this approach to life and leadership.
- The Bible reports a great diversity in styles and models of leadership
expressing servant leadership.
- Servant leadership is always in that order--servant first, then leadership;
or as Robert Greenleaf put it, “servant as leader.”
- Servant leadership is a way of life and is expressed appropriately
in many settings and relationships: the church, family, school, business,
society, government, etc.
- Servant leadership is a relationship, a team effort, not a solo act
practiced in a vacuum.
- Even if servant leadership cannot be taught by another, it can be learned
and improved; you learn by practicing it as you travel the journey.
- Servant leadership is a journey, not a short trip. That is the dominant
concept in this series of articles. You seldom get there; it is a process,
not one point in time or an event completed.
- Servant leadership will be dealing with kindred realities: calling,
choices, processes, persuasion, example, influences, situations, abilities,
capacities, energy, passion, relationships, direction, vision, inspiration,
- Servant leadership takes all of you--your spiritual gifts, innate abilities,
acquired skills, circle of acquaintances, situations, and life of choices.
- It is an exciting venture to contribute guideposts, tools, concepts,
and practices for others as they choose to travel the ancient way of Christ
as servant leaders. Are you on your journey?
Servant leadership in the church setting at its best always serves
the kingdom purposes of Christ, both the immediate and eternal needs of individuals,
families, and cultures of the nations. The thirty or so servant leadership articles
are organized into three categories: principles, pathways, and
practices. You may follow the order in Servant Leaders
Library, or you may explore the articles that fit
your own interests and needs.
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© 2006 servantleaderstoday.com; hosted and copyrighted
by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at www.servantleaderstoday.com
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership