What is Servant Leadership?

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I’m been an advocate for Servant Leadership for decades – even before I knew there was such a thing. Recently, I was asked a question I didn’t remember hearing before: What is Servant Leadership?

Honestly, I really didn’t have a succinct and ready definition. Ken Blanchard and I wrote a book, The Secret, about what servant leaders do; but in that moment, it hit me . . . telling someone what a servant leader does is not the same as telling them what a servant leader is.

My first step to find the answer was to see how some prominent thinkers have tackled this question. First, I needed to know what Robert Greenleaf said on the matter. Many refer to him as the father of servant leadership, and although I disagree with the title, Greenleaf did popularize the concept of servant leadership in an essay he wrote in 1970.

His definition encompasses multiple paragraphs and, honestly, is a little tricky. However, I found this statement embedded in his comments:

The best test (of servant leadership), 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? 

Greenleaf believed the test of servant leadership was the outcome or effect on those being led. This is a valuable test, but it still didn’t quite answer my question or satisfy my curiosity.

Next, I sought input from several really bright leaders. Their thoughts were helpful, but I still felt unsettled. I wanted a succinct way to articulate what made servant leaders different from traditional leaders.

At this point, I decided to circle back to the source. The very first record of servant leadership I can find is almost 2,000 years old. There is a story in the Bible in which Jesus’ disciples asked him if they could be on his leadership team when he became king – they literally asked to be seated on his right and on his left, maybe Vice President and Secretary of State.

Jesus wasn’t buying it. He knew their hearts. They wanted power, position, and prestige. He himself wanted none of these things. Without calling them out directly, he went to the heart of the matter. He called their attention to the prevailing style of leadership in their day.

The connection was immediate. The disciples were all too familiar with the typical approach to leadership – the leaders they knew were large and in charge, and everyone else knew it too. These leaders did not hide their motives. They were self-serving and would pay any price to protect their positions of authority.

Jesus’ followers were not really hiding their motives very well either. They wanted some of the perks they saw surrounding these leaders. Jesus’ message was clear – don’t cling to a distorted view of leadership. Their concept was skewed by the role models they saw around them. Tragically, many leaders today suffer the same warped view of leadership, perhaps because they haven’t seen any good role models either.

Jesus wasn’t finished. Not only did he challenge their very concept of leadership, he gave them a new standard – the servant leader.

He said, “ . . . not so with you!” Translated: Don’t be fooled by the prevailing view. You can lead at a higher level, you can lead differently, and here’s how:

“Whoever wants to be the greatest (leader) among you must be willing to become a servant.”

I can only imagine the shock, confusion, and disbelief that must have engulfed them in that instant. This was a radical, counter-cultural idea in the first century. And, as you probably know from experience, the idea of being a servant leader is just as mind-bending today. However, it is true. The path to greatness as a leader is paved with a desire to serve.

So, who is a servant leader?

 A leader compelled by the unshakeable desire to serve.

My aim is to be this type of leader while encouraging and equipping you to do the same. I look forward to taking the journey with you!

About Mark Miller

Mark Miller is the best-selling author of 6 books, an in-demand speaker and the Vice President of High-Performance Leadership at Chick-Fil-A. His latest book, Leaders Made Here, describes how to nurture leaders throughout the organization, from the front lines to the executive ranks and outlines a clear and replicable approach to creating the leadership bench every organization needs.