The Ancient Art of Servant Leadership

The Ancient Art of Servant Leadership by Dr. Greg Waddell

In the previous post, I asked the question whether Jesus Christ could be considered a great leader using some of the criteria for leadership that has been identified in the leadership literature and research. I came to the conclusion that, with regard to the vision thing, Jesus was a truly remarkable leader. Robert Greenleaf popularized the idea — well, he actually started a whole leadership school of thought — of servanthood as a necessary and inherent component of great leadership. How does Jesus Christ measure up to this leadership criterion?

In his classic essay, Servant Leadership, 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.” In other words, servanthood is the foundation of true leadership. First, you want to serve people and this causes these same people to want to follow your leadership.

Even a cursory glance at the gospel documents reveals that serving others was central to Jesus’ exercise of leadership. He made this clear to his disciples when he said that the Son of Man (his favorite title for himself) did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

This was not a very popular idea in Jesus’ day. In the Greek world, the philosophers taught that the goal of every man was to arrive to the place of aristocracy. An aristocrat had so many slaves that he no longer had to engage in manual labor and could, therefore, dedicate himself to the ultimate goal of life: the exercise of pure reason. Social and class distinctions were extremely important in that world (as they continue to be today in many cultures).

Jesus taught that His followers were to be different. He did this in a lot of ways, but one of the most vivid happened during their last meal together. The documents tell us that Jesus “got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded (NASB, John 13:4-5).

This was a warning against the power of position and a graphic portrayal of the kind of leadership Jesus practiced and expected from his team. It was not to be a leadership based on hierarchy but on service.

Jesus’ entire ministry was filled with acts of serving others. He was able to look beneath the surface and see what they truly needed. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He washed his disciple’s feet. His crowning act of service was to intentionally sacrifice his life to redeem others.

You may be saying to yourself right now, “But that was then and today the world is different.”

Yes, it is different in many ways, but one way it is not different is in the need for leaders to serve the needs of their people, their company, and their world. Yes, on this second criterion, Jesus again passes. He was not only a good example of servant leadership; he is among the greatest examples of all history. Leaders of all type today would do well to follow his example.

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at] to discuss the needs of your organization.

2 thoughts on “The Ancient Art of Servant Leadership

  1. the genius of Jesus is that His leadership practice is a check on our motives in and of itself. If I am leading by serving others, and furthermore doing so according to the will of God, then there is precious little room in there for the disease of ME!

    • Great comment Tim. I agree. The number one destroyer of otherwise great leadership is ego. But when a leader has a genuine heart to serve others, then his or her leadership endures for the good of others, for the good of the organization, and for the good of the world.

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