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In his classic book, Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf stated that servant leadership “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (p. 434). Greenleaf was writing to the organizational world of late twentieth century. In his view of things, the time was rapidly coming when people would no longer tolerate the command-and-control leadership behavior of the past. He launched the “servant leader” model of leadership, which is still held in high regard today.

Someone once said, “There is nothing new under the sun” and this is certainly true when it comes to this concept of leaders needing to be servants. It may be rare; but it is not new. Jesus made this the hallmark of his entire life’s work. Service was central to his exercise of leadership.

This was not a popular idea in Jesus’ day. Aristotle taught that the division between slaves and rulers was not just a matter of political expediency but a reflection of fundamental differences between people. He wrote: “From the hour of their birth, some are marked for subjection, others for rule” (V). According to this framework, to perform acts of service was to mark oneself as belonging to the slave class.

During his last supper with the twelve apostles, wanting to impress upon them this central aspect of how Jesus gets things done, he got up from table, laid aside his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and washed the disciples’ feet, wiping them with the towel (John 13:4-5).

This was a demonstration of service intended to warn his future leaders about the corrupting influence of authority and power and how that power can distance the leader from his followers. It was a graphic portrayal of the kind of leadership Jesus practiced and expected from his team.
Marquardt and Berger mention four outcomes of a servant style of leadership:

  • increased service to others,
  • a holistic approach to work,
  • a sense of community, and
  • shared decision-making power (p. 22).

All of these outcomes can be seen in Jesus’ ministry. He looked at people’s heart and gave them what they truly needed. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He washed their feet. And his crowning act of service was to intentionally sacrifice his life to redeem others.

In his words, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). The connection between service and leadership was new to a world accustomed to tyrants and political opportunists, but this was only one of many innovations that characterized Jesus’ leadership.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics. 350 BC. Trans. B. Jowett. Irvine: World Library, 1996. 28 June 2005.

Greenleaf, Robert K. The Servant As Leader. 1977. Leadership: Understanding the Dynamics of Power and Influence in Organizations Ed. Robert P. Vecchio. Notre Dame: University
of Notre Dame Press, 1997. 429-438.

Marquardt, Michael J. and Nancy O. Berger. Global leaders for the 21st century. New York:
State University of New York Press, 2000.


Photo: Jesus Washes His Disciple’s Feet by Jan Luyken, November 13, 2008. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.