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Servant Leadership - A Perspective

March 30, 2022 - 3 minute read

Silhouette of people helping each other

“If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

The Mission of Concordia’s Servant Leadership Institute is to: Develop servant leaders.

In 1970, Robert Greenleaf, a retired leader from AT&T, proposed a new leadership model called - servant leadership. Greenleaf asserted that a leader’s number one priority should be to “serve others first.” This seminal leadership model inverted the traditional top down leadership style with one where the leader has a genuine desire to first help and develop others rather than settle on a myopic interest of self.

Although Greenleaf is identified as the modern-day visionary who crafted the servant leadership model, Christians recognize that servant leadership had its origins two thousand years ago in the life of Jesus Christ who modeled perfect “service” during his life. Jesus’ commitment to servant leadership is captured in John 13:14-15 - “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). The vision that Christ conveys in Matthew 20:26-28 provides the ultimate template for our lives today, “… whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The notion of becoming a “servant leader” is, on the surface, an oxymoron. The concepts “servant” and “leader” are incongruous goals in our society. A more familiar and desired image of a leader is someone on top – rather than one who embraces menial tasks such as washing the feet of others, stacking dishes, setting up chairs, or picking up trash. Servant leaders are counter culture as they humbly put the needs of others first and eagerly empower those they lead to fulfill their potential to reach optimal success.

Servant leaders genuinely desire to serve others first. There is a refreshing dose of authenticity and sincerity that is palpable in an effective servant leader. In reality, servant leaders are rare. It is easier to equip a servant-minded individual with the tools necessary to lead, than it is to reverse that process and help a leader learn how to serve. Being a servant is part of one’s identity while becoming a leader is a vocation or calling. True service to others begins with a deeply engrained attitude that is nurtured and developed through life.

Servant leadership is hard work. Consider the night Jesus got down on his knees on the floor and took the dirty feet of His disciples in his hands. He dipped his hands in water to soak a rag to scrub 24 odoriferous feet with crooked toes, callouses, and blisters. There was nothing glamorous about this activity – but the disciples undoubtedly remembered for the rest of their lives how their humble leader made them feel. The selfless character and empowering strategies employed by servant leaders are unforgettable and transformational. Servant leaders surrender ego in order to lift others up, share the spotlight, and diffuse deserved credit and accolades.

Servant leadership works. Organizations and teams led by servant leaders thrive. Leaders who empower others will motivate the pursuit of new heights of excellence. The humble nature of servant leaders is charismatic and cherished by followers. Conversely, autocratic or transactional leaders exude a need for control and an air of arrogance that is repugnant and ineffective in today’s society.

Genuine servant leaders are anomalous. In today’s me first culture it is difficult to find leaders who personally embrace the attitude congruent to Christ’s who said that He “came not to be served but to serve.” Concordia’s Servant Leadership Institute exists because of this compelling vision to serve and is committed to equipping individuals with effective servant leadership characteristics and skills while lending support to help maximize their positive impact on others.

Dr. Kent Schlichtemeier, Ed.D. is the current Director of Concordia University Irvine's Servant Leadership Institute.

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