Commentary Ministry

The 3 Things You Need to Become a Servant Leader

Most of us just shared a Thanksgiving meal (safely, I hope!) with our loved ones. Close your eyes and paint the picture of that decadent day. 

Think back and ask, Who’s sitting waiting for the meal to arrive at the table? Who’s slaving and sweating so everyone else can sit and wait? Who’s washing dishes after the meal? Who’s dishing out the pie and brewing the coffee at dessert? 

We’d all admit that the people who served us on Thanksgiving or any other day, are the real heroes. And whether they held an important title in our family or community, without a shred of doubt we’d call them leaders


This is a picture of servant-leadership. And being a servant is the heartbeat of true leadership. Deep down we get this. But when push comes to shove, it’s hard to live out. Why? 

Because we’d rather be the one watching the NFL on FOX waiting for the pumpkin pie to land in our laps.

Being a servant takes work. That’s why when it comes to leadership in everyday life—whether it’s at work, at home, in the church, on a team, in the classroom, anywhere—any other leadership style is so much easier.

A few newsletters back, I wrote about what servant-leadership looks like. I emphasized being a servant rather than just adding characteristics to your leadership arsenal. Give that a read if you haven’t and then come back here.

Today, I’ll answer the question, How do I become a servant? But first, a tiny bit of history.

Where does Servant-Leadership Come From?

Robert Greenleaf is often credited as the originator of the concept of servant-leadership. He wrote an essay in 1970 that eventually turned into a book. This was Greenleaf’s primary contribution to the field of leadership. 

I find it a bit humorous that Greenleaf holds the prestigious honor of founding this idea. 

After all, Jesus, the greatest servant-leader who ever lived, came on the scene a tad before 1970. 

Greenleaf wrote about servant-leadership from a business management perspective. Jesus actually lived the life of a servant in flesh and blood and sacrificed his life for the entire world (aka major servant-leadership act there).

Jesus was a rabbi—literally “teacher” in Hebrew. Rabbis had “disciples.” These were people who learned their rabbi’s teaching and his way of life. Rabbis were community leaders. 

On the last night before he was crucified, Rabbi Jesus was with his disciples ready to eat a festival meal together (called Passover). They gathered in a furnished room after a busy week. It was customary in those days for the servant of the house to wash the feet of dinner guests before eating. Without paved roads, sanitation, and a sewer system the walkways would get pretty gnarly. It was a dirty job but someone had to do it. 

As the meal progressed, no house servant showed up. And none of the disciples stepped up to the task. So Jesus stripped down, grabbed a towel, and started to clean the mud-caked feet of his students. 

Everyone in the room saw him doing the lowest possible job. 

And in that moment everyone in that room knew who the real leader was.

The One who served. 

I hate to break it to Mr. Greenleaf, but he didn’t discover servant-leadership in 1970. 

As a Christian, I take my leadership cues from Jesus. If you aren’t a Christian, I don’t know where you go for leadership, but I’d encourage you to at least listen to Jesus and watch his way of life.

You have nothing to lose.

Now, how do you become a servant-leader? It’s not as easy as 1-2-3. Few things are. These aren’t so much “steps” as a three-part paradigm shift to how you see the world of leadership. 

Admit Your Desire to Dominate

One time Jesus’ friends were fighting about what cabinet positions they would hold when Jesus becomes pres—I mean, king. So Jesus had a frank conversation with them about how leadership works in this world compared to how it works in his kingdom. 

He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant” (Mark 10:42-43).

Jesus exposes the human craving to dominate. He knows that we aren’t born servants with humble, tender hearts ready to say, “What can I do for you?” Instead, Jesus knows we are born with a desire to be everyone’s master. 

And when we actually get power? Watch out. You know the phrase, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s true. 

So the first “step” to becoming a servant-leader is to acknowledge and admit that being a servant goes against your very nature.

How does this work practically? Talk to yourself. Whenever you make a decision or go into a conversation or make a change or whatever you do as a leader, remind yourself, “I admit going into this situation that it’s easy for power to get the best of me. I’m naturally a power-hungry, authority-loving, lord-it-over kind of leader who tends to squish everyone in my path.”

Once you say this to yourself you’ll realize how horrible it sounds. You’ll realize that no one wants to follow a leader like that. (You wouldn’t either.)

When I do this, I don’t go in guns a blazin’. And I’m no longer hellbent on getting my own way. Instead, I’m ready to listen, empathize, collaborate, weep, teach, help, correct, train, encourage. Whatever is needed in the moment. 

Admit your desire to dominate. You’ll begin to see how futile and counterproductive domination actually is.

Find the Right Model

Once you’re in this position of admitting your tendency to be the kind of leader no one wants to follow, you’re ready to find the right model. 

And this is where Jesus comes in. He’s the perfect leader who always spoke truthfully and graciously. Who always spoke truth to power and had compassion on the vulnerable. He called out hypocrisy and empowered people society overlooked. He body confronted sin and made the ultimate sacrifice for sin by dying in our place.

In the last part of that passage from Mark 10 above, Jesus says this: “Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage” (verses 44-45).

Jesus is the Son of Man. He’s telling his disciples about his mission. And this is where my HUGE DISCLAIMER comes in.

Jesus is not merely saying, “I’m your model. I’m a servant. Imitate me!” 

If he were only saying that, he would crush us because we could never live up to his example. 

That’s why it bothers me so much when I hear, “On the cross, Jesus is the greatest example of love.” Of course that’s true. 

But he is so much more than that. 

Examples can’t save you. But a Redeemer can. And that’s who Jesus is.

Jesus is really saying, “I came to save you from lord-it-over kind of life. You don’t need to live to dominate others and live for your own power and glory. Don’t you see that you are enslaved to self-glory? Because you live this way, I will give my life as a ransom for you. And once you’ve been ransomed, what else can you do but make yourself a servant of everyone you meet?” 

When we see that Jesus is the right model, we actually come to find out that he’s morethan a model. He’s the true Servant-Leader who ransomed us from slavery to self-glory. And he’s brought us into life of freedom where we gladly serve others.

Because Jesus is more than a model, he actually won’t crush us when we fail to live up to his example. Instead, he forgives us and empowers us to keep going. 

That’s servant-leadership.

How do you do this practically? Watch Jesus. Spend a lot of time reading the Gospels. Marvel at him. Worship him. Obey him. Imitate him. 

Chances are you also know someone who reflects this (at least a little bit). Watch them, too. Ask them questions. Listen to them. Learn from the bad. Imitate the good.

Embrace the Process

The third “step” is an ongoing mindset. You don’t just become a servant leader. You are always becoming. It’s a never-ending, messy process. 

You will fail. I fail. We all fail. Embrace it. Admit it. 

Then remember the good news that we have a Servant-Leader who never failed. And remind yourself of that. Every. Single. Day.

The best part? When we let power go to our heads, our Servant-Leader doesn’t frown over us saying, “Here we go again. I can’t believe you!” 

No. He kneels down, right there with us, in the mess. He gently corrects, holds us, washes us clean, and says, “Remember that I’ve served you. I’ve given you everything I have. Now, let me help you up. I’m with you. Keep going. Keep leading. Keep serving.”

    This post originally appeared at on December 1, 2020.


    Understanding True Servant Leadership

    The image above is what we usually think of when we hear the word “leadership.”

    In fact, it’s the first picture that comes up when you search “leadership” on  (that’s why I picked it).

    Leaders, we think, are genius oddballs who are always ahead of the pack, equipped with all the answers. Perhaps they have a secret insight that makes them, well, better than everyone else.

    The Center for Creative Leadership notes 10 characteristics of a great leader. Integrity, empathy, respect, self-awareness, and communication, among others, are on the list.

    These are all good and necessary things. I want to possess all of these qualities!

    But the research behind these 10 characteristics is overlooking something, I think. It’s missing something more foundational than qualities or skills you can add to your arsenal. What is it?

    Being a servant.

    Be, Don’t Just Do

    Most leadership qualities we’re taught are things we can do.

    A servant-leader is something you are.

    You can learn it to be sure. No one is born a servant. We’re all born screaming, “Hold me! Feed me! Help me!” That’s not a servant.

    Servants do the holding, the feeding, the helping.

    Over time, we grow. We don’t just learn skills. We become a certain kind of person. Servant-leadership is a disposition of your heart. It’s hard to describe, honestly. Yet it’s easy to recognize when we see it. And when we see it in our leaders? Oh my, do we want to follow!

    It might be best to say it like this: when you are a servant, you will possess those leadership characteristics or qualities and develop them in increasing measure over time.

    But if you aren’t a servant, you can’t hide your true self by adding a bit of empathy here and a bit of communication there.

    I’ll say it again. Servant-leadership is a disposition of your heart. An attitude and approach to everything that falls under your oversight.

    What is a Servant-Leader?

    What’s a good definition for a “servant-leader”? Let me take a crack at it:

    A servant-leader puts people before power by considering the needs of others as more significant than his/her own.

    Let’s dig into that idea.

    Every leader has an agenda. Bring in better results, more profit, expanded scope. You wouldn’t be a leader without a vision and specific goals.

    But servant-leaders don’t try to get people to fit into their nice, tidy agenda. Usually, that ends up with the boss looking great and everyone else being stepped on in the process.

    Great servant-leaders don’t try to show others who’s the boss. I’ve worked under those kinds of bosses. You probably have, too. It’s exhausting and demoralizing. And it makes you want to quit.

    Servant-leaders, on the other hand, seek to meet the needs of others by putting people before power. They prioritize relationships over results and building trust over completing tasks.

    Servant-Leadership in Real Life

    Having a hard time picturing this? Here’s a real-life example. Imagine you’re a supervisor at, oh I don’t know, let’s say a prestigious paper company somewhere in northeast Pennsylvania.

    One of your employees is struggling to meet the metrics you agreed on during the last performance review. In fact, it’s been pretty awful.

    A regular check-in with this person comes along. Here are two scenarios with two different approaches from the supervisor.

    Scenario #1: “I know you’ve been struggling. I’ve been pretty disappointed in your numbers, and you need to get your act together. Your performance reflects poorly on me as your boss. You’ll need to hit at least 60% by next quarter or we’ll have to let you go.”

    Scenario #2: “I know you’ve been struggling. Can I ask you a few questions? How are you? How are things going at home? What do you need here to thrive in your role? And what do you think I could be doing to help you succeed?”

    Do you see the difference?

    The first elevates you. It clearly communicates that you have the power to crush them. It might feel good. But it will never motivate anyone at their core. You’ll always have people who will struggle. With this approach, you’ll let them go, only to replace them with more people who struggle with the same problems.

    Do you see the common denominator? (Hint: it’s not them.)

    Now for the second scenario. It puts you in a rather vulnerable position. It admits you may have fallen short, even failed, as a leader. It shows that you’re willing to change and do more to help them be the best they possibly can be.

    Of course, there will always be people that just aren’t a good fit for your organization, but we’ll leave that for another article. It also communicates care for them as a human. It’s oozing with empathy.

    That’s servant-leadership. If you want to motivate, inspire, and influence, and if you want to work for the genuine well-being of your people and your company, then you must become a servant.

    Still not convinced?

    Here’s a simple question that might help: which kind of leader would you rather work for?

    Be that leader.

    This post originally appeared at on October 7, 2020.