The Hole in Our Servant Leadership

If you don’t have to relinquish some power, then it’s not really it.
The Hole in Our Servant Leadership
Image: Vernon Wiley / iStock

When I was in my 20s, I joined a discipleship program in which we were asked to read a book about servant leadership. The author described the ways Jesus served others: by washing people’s feet, letting the children sit on his lap, and caring for the sick. He exhorted readers to emulate Jesus by becoming servant leaders. I was hooked.

“Servant leadership” remains prevalent and attractive. In the halls of churches and colleges, you’ll hear well-meaning Christians say they want to serve people who follow them. You might hear a student say, “I’ve just returned from helping out at a homeless shelter where I learned to be a servant leader”—as she returns to her cozy dorm room. Or you might witness a pastor invite congregants to offer input on a church matter—before he makes an executive decision.

All things being equal, servant leadership is a good idea. But in a world where all things are not equal—especially in matters of race, class, and gender—servant leadership has its limits. In the two examples above, despite good intentions to serve, the leader retains the power. The inequality that often exists between the servant leader and the people being served remains unchanged.

Most important, it just isn’t what Jesus was talking about. Though the concept of servant leadership has ancient roots, the term wasn’t popularized until 1970. That year, Robert K. Greenleaf used the term in an essay that criticized autocratic leadership. In “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf suggests that powerful people can ethically lead the less powerful if their first priority is to serve. Many leaders took this to mean that as long as they wanted to serve ...

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