By David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)
If you look up the term “servant leadership” online, you will find that the phrase was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay he first published in 1970. Yes, he may have coined the term, but the concept itself dates back to Christ, the greatest servant leader who ever lived.
Today, the Greenleaf Institute states, “Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” I would wholeheartedly agree, but a better definition of servant leadership is found in Mark 9:35.
In this chapter, Jesus sits down his disciples to do a leadership intervention because they were arguing among themselves about who would be the greatest when Christ established His kingdom. Jesus summed up servant leadership in a short phrase, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In Mark 10:42-45, He expands on that by saying, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
If the Son of God was a servant leader, shouldn’t we aspire to be one as well?
Servant leaders are servants first and leaders second. It would be more accurate to call them “leader servants.” Their main focus is serving others, not on the accumulation of power, prestige or wealth. They want to help those they lead to become all God designed them to be by helping them to reach their full potential. Their goal is not to build an empire but to build the people they influence—their staff, their customers and their communities.
I was “infected” by the example of Dr. Ernie Steury, a humble missionary physician who faithfully modeled servant leadership to me as we served at a small bush hospital he started in rural Kenya in 1959. He was so contagious that I had the overwhelming desire to be just like him after spending only a few weeks following him around as a college student one summer.
After finishing medical school and residency, I joined Ernie as a missionary physician in 1981. His impact on my life was profound as he invested in me for 11 years. He stretched me constantly and gave me ever-increasing responsibilities and authority, essentially providing a “lab” for me to practice what he modeled. He advised, encouraged and challenged me to new heights every day. Four years after I arrived, he put me in charge of the hospital when he traveled back to the United States for a year furlough. As I continue striving to be a servant and build others, I know I’m the leader I am today because of his investment in my life.
Though organizational success is not the primary goal of a servant leader, it is its byproduct, because you get the best effort and results out of those you lead. I’ve experienced this. As the Chief Executive Officer of Christian Medical & Dental Associations, I was surprised when we were selected as the “Best Christian Workplace” in the U.S. by Christianity Today and the Christian Leadership Alliance. I was amazed, because we had gone from a struggling small organization that almost imploded due to a huge crisis my first year to an admired major player in the non-profit sector eight years later. I credit that to my senior staff’s efforts to be servant leaders.
Though many people are attracted to the concept of being a servant leader in their homes, workplace and community, they don’t know how to do it or even where to begin. Old habits and ways of leading are hard to break. That’s why Bert Jones and I wrote Servant Leadership: Proverbs for Today’s Leaders. Using pithy and succinct proverbs, we teach you how to become the servant leader you desire to be. If you are already a servant leader, we will help you to further improve “your serve” because you should never be satisfied with where you are on your journey.
To purchase your copy of Servant Leadership, visit www.cmda.org/servantleadership. Personalized embossing with name or company logo and discounted orders on 10 or more is also available. To purchase the e-book version, visit www.cmda.org/amazon.
“I love this new book. Wisdom flows throughout the hundreds of uplifting, thought provoking sayings. Let the wisdom of this book help you become the leader God is calling you to be. Every Christian leader should have this book on his or her desk.” —Frank Lofaro
President, Prison Fellowship International
“Pointed, pithy and powerful. I find David Stevens’ and Bert Jones’ writing on point. I move from conviction to affirmation and motivation. I pray often to be the slave of God. These proverbs actualize that prayer.”
—Dr. John Neihof
President of Wesley Biblical Seminary