I spent a total of twenty-six years leading churches as a senior pastor. But when I was a young leader just getting started in my career, my focus wasn’t initially on serving people. It was on doing big things and getting ahead.
All my training and education assumed a hierarchical approach to leadership. Pastors were educated, ordained, and positioned to sit apart from and “above” their congregations. We were expected to preach messages, give wise counsel, and conduct the ordinances of the church. The models of leadership were all top-down.
But then I went to hear Zig Ziglar speak, and I heard him say, “If you help people get what they want, they will help you get what you want.” What he was really talking about was servant leadership, and that idea rocked my world.
Change of heart
Zig’s comment made me realize something: I was trying to get others to help me, not trying to help them. I realized my attitude toward people wasn’t right. And that knowledge started me on a journey that eventually made me realize that the heart of leadership is based on serving others, not myself. It challenged me to invert the “power pyramid,” putting others at the top and myself at the bottom.
I started to change my leadership focus to empowering others to do what I was doing. And the real clincher came when I read a passage in the Bible as if for the first time. It said, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”
This made it clear that my responsibility as a pastor was to equip God’s people to do His work and build up the church. From that moment I realized I wasn’t supposed to get the people to help me build my congregation. I was to serve people and help them build God’s church. From that day on, my leadership has always been about serving others, and not about being served by others.
That was forty-five years ago. My thinking about leadership and my approach to it has continued to be shaped by other people in this area. Robert Greenleaf has been an influence. In 1970 he wrote an essay called “The Servant as Leader,” which he later expanded into the book Servant Leadership. Greenleaf wrote:
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. . . . The care taken by the servant-first [leader is] to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. 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? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
Others books, such as Leadership Is an Art by Max De Pree, the former chairman of Herman Miller, and The Soul of the Firm by C. William Pollard, chairman emeritus of ServiceMaster, also assisted me on my journey to becoming a servant leader. But the book that made the greatest impression on me was Eugene Habecker’s The Other Side of Leadership. It convinced me that adding value to others needed to be at the core of my leadership.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing Eugene for more than thirty years. The words in his book are a description of his life. He said, “The true leader serves. Serves people. Serves their best interests, and in so doing will not always be popular, may not impress. But because true leaders are motivated by loving concern rather than a desire for personal glory, they are willing to pay the price.”
Inspired by Eugene’s life and his book, I made two decisions: first, I would place the concerns of others above my own, and second, I would love people unconditionally. The first was a matter of the will. The second was a change in attitude. And because I’m a person of faith, I adopted the following words from the Bible and took them to heart as the desire of my life:
Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.
As I strive to live this way, I’ve adopted some guidelines that I try to practice daily to become a better servant leader:
- I Don’t Rely on My Position or Title: I’m grateful for the accomplishments I’ve made, but I don’t rely on them to help me lead. I work to earn respect every day by delivering on what I promise and by serving others.
- I Choose to Believe in People and Their Potential: I care about people because it’s the right thing to do. But there are also practical reasons for believing in people. I’ve found that the more I believe in people’s potential and the more I serve them, the more their potential increases. That creates a win for everyone.
- I Try to See Things from the Perspective of Others: It’s possible to lead and serve others well only when you know their minds and hearts. I intentionally connect with people and try to see from their point of view to serve them better.
- I Work to Create an Environment of Encouragement: Few things are better than being on a team of people who desire to serve one another. When leaders are willing to serve people and encourage others to serve, a spirit of cooperation emerges where it’s “one for all and all for one.” That makes the environment positive and develops a sense of loyalty among team members.
- I Measure My Success by How Much Value I Add to Others: When you decide to serve others as a leader, the team’s success becomes your success. I remember when I experienced that change in thinking. It felt as though my world immediately expanded. It is true: one is too small a number to achieve greatness. Few things surpass helping your team to win together.
I’m still not where I would like to be when it comes to serving people, but I’m continually striving to get better at it.
Servant Leadership FAQs
What is Servant-Leadership?
Simply put, servant leadership is leading not through power and force of position, but by serving others and setting an example they choose to follow. There have been many great servant-leaders throughout history, but Jesus Christ is the greatest example, since He not only served, but laid down His life for His friends.
Why is Servant Leadership so Important?
Servant leadership is important, because it changes other people, impacting them for service on their own. People will do something if they have no other choice, but true influence occurs when people willingly serve because of the example set by others. How we choose to lead changes the world around us. So, if we want a world where people love one another and are willing to sacrifice, we must create that world by leading the way.
How do you Explain Servant Leadership?
There are, of course, principles that can be taught, but servant leadership is usually better "caught" than "taught." Scripture teaches that we are to follow Christ's example, and if we take that admonition seriously, we will become leaders who lead like Jesus. Servant leadership will come naturally as we choose the good of other people and deny ourselves for the sake of the world around us.
How do you Teach Servant Leadership?
There are several books designed to do this exact thing. Developing the Leader within You by John Maxwell is a great place to start, and is suitable for group discussion. There are also courses and videos that will help you explore this subject with coworkers and employees. Just be sure that what you're listening to is truly servant leadership and not a means of manipulating others.
What is the Main Criticism of Servant Leadership?
The main criticism of servant leadership is that there are times when a forceful hand is indeed necessary. However, servant leadership, if understood properly, does not deny the strength of a leader. Rather, it emphasizes the motivations behind their leadership. Remember—Jesus Himself overturned tables in the temple. It was hardly a "nice" thing to do. However, he had the voiceless in mind when he chased out the moneychangers. He was concerned with Gentiles who came to God's house to pray. They had no other space available to them. So, Jesus' actions were a service for the outcasts and the aliens who came to Jerusalem. His strength was used for their good. Servant leadership is all about our motivations.
Who is a Good Example of a Servant Leader?
As we've already seen, Jesus is the primary example of a servant leader. But there have been many others, not only in the Christian tradition, but in others as well, down through history who have demonstrated servant leadership. Beyond well-known historical figures, oftentimes the greatest servant leaders are those who are unsung–mothers, fathers, pastors, public servants, and average citizens who put others first.
Servant-Leadership in Practice
Servant leadership can take many forms, but the best way to practice being a servant leader is to step forward and be the change you want to see. If you want to make your organization a place where people listen, start listening. If you want to encourage sacrificial giving, give sacrificially. If you want to go deeper with the Word of God, take the first step. Remember: It was Jesus who washed His disciple's feet and then told them to do the same. His command would have been far less powerful if He had not led the way.
The Role Model for Christian Leadership
Jesus Christ the greatest role model for Christian leadership. If you consider His actions in John 13, you'll find a model for servant leadership. Read Colossians 1 and Philippians 2 in tandem as well, and you'll see His greatness cloaked in humility. While none of us have the power and majesty of Jesus, we can follow His example by yielding all we are and all we have to serve the least of these.
Qualities of a Servant Leader
A servant leader often has the following qualities:
They have empathy for others.
They seek to heal, not wound.
They are aware of those around them.
They are able to persuade, rather than force others to their side.
They are good stewards of what has been given to them.
They are committed to the growth of other people.
They are able to build community around them.
What are the key points in servant leadership?
A successful servant leader listens to other people, empathizes with the hardships and challenges of others, is committed to win-win-win situations, and builds true friendships wherever he or she goes. Perhaps, the greatest summary of servant leadership is found in Jesus' so called Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (see Matthew 7:12).
Editor's note: This is an excerpt from John Maxwell's new book Developing the Leader Within You 2.0. Used by permission of HarperCollins. This article was updated on April 21, 2021 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.