Three Characteristics of a Servant Leader

Servant leadership is a condition, not a style. It is a condition of the leader in her identity. At the risk of confusing you, servant leaders can use various styles of leadership and be effective, because servanthood is not in competition with leadership styles—it is fundamental to them all, especially in a Kingdom context. You may have a personality, gifting and experiences that lend themselves to a particular style of leadership, and that’s okay. That style will not be effective, however, until it is rooted in a servant-leader identity.[1]

Jesus consistently modeled life as a servant leader because it is who He was. Jesus did not use a method or a style, He simply was Himself. Although there is much to glean from His life (John 21:25), we will only examine three characteristics of His life as a servant leader in this chapter; humility, service, and collaboration. These three characteristics continue building on the foundation of Christ Himself as we learn to become better servant leaders.

Practicing Humility

1 Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
6           Though he was in the form of God,
                                he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7           But he emptied himself
                                by taking the form of a slave
                        and by becoming like human beings.
            When he found himself in the form of a human,
8                       he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
                                even death on a cross.
9           Therefore, God highly honored him
                                and gave him a name above all names,
10         so that at the name of Jesus everyone
                                in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11                     and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God
                                the Father. Philippians 2:1-11, CEB

Paul’s discussion of Christ’s humility is the starting point for understanding what this truly looks like for our own lives. He begins by linking this passage to his call for unity in the body from his opening exhortations to the church in Philippi.[2] He draws our attention to the seriousness of his appeal by drawing on his apostolic authority in Christ, the believers’ bond of love, and the shared experience and reality of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This appeal is bold to draw our attention to the seriousness of the topic Paul is addressing to every believer and “to every local church in which division and party strife are spoiling the fellowship and marring the witness” of Christ to the world.[3]

In his book, Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness, Andrew Murray uses this same passage to remind us of Christ’s example and His approach to every aspect of life. It reflects a complete emptying of self to be completely consumed by the Father and His will and purposes. Murray uses this passage from Philippians 2 throughout his book to highlight that humility is, at its heart, getting rid of our own selfish desires and purposes. Christ provides a model example for us with his own emptying paired with obedience to (and complete filling by) God, It was this path of humility and submission that is the only path to greatness in God’s Kingdom and which brings God the greatest glory.

Jesus not only modeled this behavior, but He spoke about it and taught it to His disciples during His earthly ministry. In Matthew 20:20-28, Jesus responds to His disciples as they discuss position and greatness in the Kingdom which Jesus is teaching about and proclaiming. He challenges their perception that the Kingdom of God would resemble or replace the authoritarian example of Roman occupational rule copied and practiced even in the Jewish world.[4] Instead Jesus makes a bold point that turns these perceptions upside down.

But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Matthew 20:26, CEB

In Matthew 20:26 Jesus clearly states that great leadership comes from the heart of the servant. “He was teaching us the truth that there is nothing so divine as being the servant and helper of all.”[5] This is key to understanding that humility is a true reflection of servant-leadership and is a foundational building block for the individual and the church. It is “not so much a virtue along with the others, but it is the root of all, because it alone takes the right attitude before God and allows Him, as God, to do all.”[6]

We begin learning by becoming disciples of Jesus. True discipleship is following Jesus completely—not just listening to His words but taking on the model of His life. “Even as we need to look to the first Adam and his failure to know the power of sin within us, we need to know the Second Adam and His power to give us the life of humility as real and abiding and enabling as was the life of pride.”[7] His example and His teaching then become the beacon that guides and informs every living moment when we completely surrender to Him. “When our own heart is set upon this true sanctification, we will study each word of Jesus on self-abasement with new zeal, and no place will be too low, no stooping too far, and no service too mean or too long if we may but share and prove the fellowship with Him who said, ‘I am among you as one who serves’ (Luke 22:27).”[8]

“[Jesus] lost nothing by giving all to God.”[9] His humility was not a path to earned greatness; it was the root of his greatness. Like Jesus, we should be seeking God in humility and submission and not seeking the rewards of seeking God (an expectation of greatness because of our performance in “being humble”). If we seek reward, then our efforts are worthless and wasted because we have manifested the very self-focus and pride to which genuine humility and genuine submission is opposed.

By going back to Philippians 2:3, we find the key to unlocking a life of humility as modeled by Christ.

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3, CEB

The concept behind “humility” (tapeinophrosynē in Greek) in this verse is echoed in 1 Peter 5:5-6 where we put on humility toward one another under God’s power.[10] It is “a humility before God which leads to a humility in our relations with other people.”[11] It is the kind of perspective that looks for the best interests of others before our own self-interest—being other-minded.

As we follow Christ, and our faith and relationship grows, we can begin to take hold of and live out a humility like His. Jesus uses this concept of humility, of other-mindedness, to call his disciples then, and each of us today, to “display a radical and countercultural attitude toward leadership.”[12] With this new viewpoint and a changing perception of our relationship with God and others we also begin to grow in the next characteristic, the gift of service.

The Gift of Service

Leaders display humility as they interact with others. From their ever deepening relationship with God, their attitudes and actions toward others change. “True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others.”[13] It is our concern for others that grows out of a humble attitude that leads us to serve. We serve because we care.

In the Gospel of John, we read how the disciples gathered in Jerusalem for the last Passover Jesus would celebrate on earth. He knew that he was headed to the cross and would die to bring about God’s ultimate plan for redeeming the earth. During this Last Supper, the disciples got in an argument over who would be greatest in Jesus’ new kingdom. We saw, in the previous section, that Jesus rebuked them about their perspective and their argument over who was the greatest. He told them that the true place of greatness and leadership flowed from having the actions and attitudes of a servant. In His own humility He demonstrated time and time again His own willingness to take the path of lowliness and service.

Earlier that same night, as they gathered for the meal, each was “keenly aware that someone needed to wash the others’ feet. The problem was that the only people who washed feet were the least.”[14] And then Jesus did something amazing, He stripped to His waist, picked up the towel, pitcher, and basin and washed everyone’s feet. The greatest among them set a new standard where the highest was willing to do the work of the lowest without direction.

“The shepherd is the biblical model for God’s relationship with his people (Ps. 23:1). It was also the designation of the Old Testament king’s role among his people (2 Sam. 7:7; Zech. 11:4-17). Jesus adopted the shepherd as his model of leadership when he said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11).”[15] Service is the way of the shepherd—it is the example of Jesus. But this service does not see self as greater and others as less. Service sees need and responds. Service is a component of true leadership that comes from the character of humility. It is not self-seeking or reward driven, it is the compassionate response of being other-minded.

As servant leaders, our question then becomes one of intent. Are we keeping score so the world will know what we have done, or are we willing to do the little things behind the scenes because they need to be done and no one may know? Do we seek the praise of men, or do we serve for God’s pleasure? Are we worried about results, or do we delight in the service itself?[16] Are we doing because of our moods or emotions, or are we responding to need?[17] Finally, are we serving because it is a life-style that flows from who we are and it is not just something we do?

These are great questions that help us as individuals evaluate our motives and intent as we seek the path of humble service. However, as servant leaders we must also be focused on those we lead. “Leaders of deep influence serve those on their teams and help them become the best they can be as individuals, professionals, and contributors to a common mission.”[18] Perhaps the best test for this type of leadership is to ask whether the people we lead grow as individuals; do they become “healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”[19] And if the answer is “no,” then we should examine ourselves and our motives!

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help determine if you are functioning as a servant leader and to help adjust your perspective to become a better one:

  • Do I listen more than I speak?
  • Do I clearly communicate expectations?
  • Do I ask for and receive input from my others on tasks, projects, and goals?
  • Do I give my time and attention to others so they know I genuinely care?
  • Do I enter a situation thinking about what I can receive or how I can benefit?

To grow as a servant leader, find a way to practice serving. Learn how to do the tasks of a team member. Listen for what is going on in their life and find a way to help them. Do something behind the scenes that will help them do what they do better or faster. As you serve, also use these questions to help you transition and grow.

Collaborating with Others

Corinth was one of the most important cities in Greece; prosperous and wealthy, it was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia.[20] However, the Corinthian church had fallen into disputes and “disquieting irregularities in the conduct of the believers” that were challenging its very unity. [21] Paul addressed these concerns through a series of letters and personal visits to Corinth where he discusses unity and diversity within the Church that produces a synergist outcome greater than the individual parts could produce alone.

4 There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; 5 and there are different ministries and the same Lord; 6 and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, CEB

Paul writes that the Holy Spirit is the originator of different kinds of spiritual gifts. The Greek word diaireseis expresses the idea of division of gifts, or distribution of the gifts all for the common good.[22] Paul is building his case that we, especially servant leaders, must see the bigger picture to bring unity and collaboration in the Spirit as opposed to competition based on unique and diverse giftings. “All the gifts are to set forward the same great divine purpose.”[23]

Later in the same chapter, Paul writes that the whole church is like a body (1 Cor 12:12). It is put together of many parts that are vital to life. There is no role that is too little, nor one that is too big. Instead, all parts are equally important and necessary. Thus, a servant leader understands that we need each other to succeed.

24 The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor 25 so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. 1 Corinthians 12:24-25, CEB

In these verses, Paul brings us to the understanding that there is no competition in the parts of the body, but rather a synergistically divine collaboration. “In the body all the members without distinction work for the good of the whole. No special care is lavished on one member to the detriment of other members.”[24] The servant leader therefore does not view themselves as more important or significant than any other member of the team. It is the role they fill that places them in a special area of trust.

A servant leader must then operate and build with the future in mind. “Servant-leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others.”[25] Servant leaders see the present role, task, or position as one that is entrusted to them for the benefit of others. This forward-looking approach to leading for others is vital in seeing our role as servant leaders.

When we begin to see that we are working for the benefit of others in a position of trust on God’s behalf, we can take a different approach to accomplishing tasks and goals. We stop seeing others as competition and obstacles. Instead, we begin to see how working together benefits everyone as we focus on the future gains for God’s Kingdom.

While humility, service, and collaboration are by no means the only practices, or spiritual disciplines, we must develop, I encourage you look for ways to practically apply them in your own life. Robert Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, writes, “[T]he Spiritual Disciplines are the means God uses to build in us an inner person that is characterized by peace and joy and freedom.”[26] Development of our inner life is foundational for growing as a servant leader. Often understanding follows obedience as we discipline ourselves and apply what we learn as we journey with God. Allow Him to reveal ways to grow as a servant leader in humility, service, and collaboration.

As you reflect, as yourself the following questions. What practical ways can you practice humility? Brother Lawrence’s reflections in The Practice of the Presence of God is a great meditation tool to help us live humbly out of God’s presence. What gift of service can you give someone this week? Look around as you go about life; at home, at work, or out in your community; and discover ways to help and serve others. It could be as simple as reaching an item on a tall shelf for someone or helping them pick up dropped items. How much are you paying attention to those around you and finding opportunities to make serving others part of your daily practice and character? Be blessed and encouraged as you make simple changes and step out to serve others over the coming weeks, months, and years!


[1] Kevin Mannoia and Larry Walkemeyer. 15 Characteristics of Effective Pastors: How to Strengthen Your Inner Core and Ministry Impact (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 81, Kindle Edition.
[2] Ralph Martin, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 11. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 98.
[3] Martin, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary, 100.
[4] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 307.
[5] Andrew Murray, Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2012), 11, Kindle Edition.
[6] Murray, Humility, 17, Kindle Edition.
[7] Murray, Humility, 25, Kindle Edition.
[8] Murray, Humility, 40, Kindle Edition.
[9] Murray, Humility, 32, Kindle Edition.
[10] Martin, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary, 101.
[11] Martin, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary, 101.
[12] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 213, Kindle Edition.
[13] Robert Greenleaf and Larry Spears, The Power of Servant Leadership: Essays (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1998), 4, Kindle Edition.
[14] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, special anniversary ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2018), 126.
[15] Gene Wilkes, Jesus on Leadership: Timeless Wisdom on Servant Leadership (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1998), Location 1198, Kindle Edition.
[16] Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 128.
[17] Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 129.
[18] T J. Addington, Deep Influence: Unseen Practices That Will Revolutionize Your Leadership (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014), 36.
[19] Greenleaf, The Power of Servant Leadership, 4, Kindle Edition.
[20] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 7. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 22.
[21] Morris, 1 Corinthians, 29.
[22] Morris, 1 Corinthians, 164.
[23] Morris, 1 Corinthians, 164.
[24] Morris, 1 Corinthians, 171.
[25] Greenleaf, The Power of Servant Leadership, 7, Kindle Edition.
[26] Foster, Celebration of Discipline, vi.

One thought on “Three Characteristics of a Servant Leader

  1. Hi Jason,

    What an awesome article! Well done…!

    I hope you, Katherine and the kids are all doing well.

    Jim Murch

    On Thu, Apr 1, 2021 at 12:00 PM Upsidedown-Kingdom wrote:

    > Jason Anderson posted: ” Servant leadership is a condition, not a style. > It is a condition of the leader in her identity. At the risk of confusing > you, servant leaders can use various styles of leadership and be effective, > because servanthood is not in competition with leadershi” >

    Like

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