Conversation Sundays Worship

An Introduction to Servant Leadership

Leading up to Conversation Sunday

Service over Success

Servant leadership is a vocational commitment to the well-being of the neighbor. It is a straightforward idea. If you want to be a servant leader, seek to better your surrounding community. With the flourishing of others as your motivation, seek next to lead – to bring people together in pursuit of a shared goal. It’s all about being motivated by service, not success.  

The idea of servant leadership originates in the writings of several business and management gurus. Among them is Robert Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive, who defined servant leadership as follows:  


“The servant-leader is servant first… It [servant leadership] 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.” 


Other servant leadership experts, including best-selling author Ken Blanchard,  are quick to point out that these ideas come from the teachings of Jesus. The foundations of servant leadership are found throughout the Gospels – most notably in the Last Supper. After Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, Jesus teaches that the master is not greater than the servant, that Christ comes not as a conqueror demanding to be served, but as a servant.  


There’s also a connection between servant leadership and the Lutheran tradition. Luther, after all, teaches that our worthiness comes not from our efforts or worldly successes, but comes instead from Christ. Our value before God is unconditional. Freed by the grace of God, we can turn outwards to serve the neighbor. We can strive after service before we strive towards success.  


I would argue that servant leadership is made possible with the recognition that you are unconditionally loved and valued by God. If we understand this unconditionality, we don’t need to be motivated by ego or selfish ambition. Through Christ, we are free to selflessly give. Our service matters more than our success.  

That’s not to say a servant leader cannot be conventionally successful. Servant leaders can be found in all vocations – full time employees, students, retirees, stay at home parents, the fully employed, the unemployed, those navigating transitions – all can be motivated by service towards the neighbor. They can also be found in all types of organizations – schools and government, companies and nonprofits, small businesses and large corporations. Servant leaders don’t share a setting, they share a mindset.  


So if you want to be a servant leader, start by reflecting on your location in your vocational journey. Ask yourself what service to the neighbor looks like in your walk of life, day in and day out. If you can answer these questions, and you find that service to be compelling, even motivating, you’re all the more likely to have the heart of a servant. And with that, you’re all the more likely to be a leader that this world needs.