Last Updated on April 10, 2023 by Dave Schoenbeck
I have wanted to write this article for years, but I have successfully procrastinated to avoid sounding too “preachy” to my business readers. However, I finally realized that I have important ideas to share about servant leadership. My management style has been significantly shaped by what I learned at church and in my career.
I was raised a Lutheran and have tried to live my life congruent with Christian beliefs. Fortunately, I started working for a large midwestern retailer with powerful feelings about servant leadership. My new company’s guiding principles were written in the 1960s, long before popular humanistic management evolved. Here is an excerpt from that original document:
“Helping others succeed is the key to being a successful manager. We believe in the first assistant philosophy. The concept visualizes an upside-down organizational chart with all managers serving as assistants to those above them on the chart. The customer is at the top of the chart, and the bottom is management. Managers understand that they do not run their part of the business but should assist others who do. They do not think of themselves as bosses. They understand that any rewards they might enjoy come from what is accomplished by those with whom they work.”
Business leaders are often encouraged to be secretive about their religious beliefs to maintain team harmony. However, your faith inherently shapes your leadership style if you are a Christian. Christians are called to hold themselves to a higher standard, following Jesus’s example. We can do this by adopting and practicing servant leadership in our business.
What Is Servant Leadership?
Although the practice of servant leadership dates to the days of the Bible and beyond, the term itself was coined by an author named Robert Greenleaf in 1970. He defines servant leadership as follows:
“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power… servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
There is a very different picture of leadership when others come first than what we tend to see glorified in the media today. A servant leader empowers others rather than seeking power for themselves. We put the needs of others before our own, and our primary goal is to lead with love. This viewpoint sounds a lot like how Christians are expected to live.
Servant Leadership Examples from the Bible
Jesus Christ was an incredibly influential leader. He commanded the attention of crowds and inspired the loyalty of countless followers. As a result, over two billion people worldwide consider themselves Christians today.
Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God. As such, He came to earth as an understated but mighty human being. He is called the King of Kings, yet He lived a humble life with few earthly riches. He performed miracles, but not to terrify the people into submission—His miracles were to demonstrate, instruct, motivate, and heal others.
Jesus was the ultimate example of servant leadership. In a pivotal scene from the book of John, Jesus takes the time to wash the feet of His twelve disciples. The streets of Jerusalem were dusty, and foot washing would have been the work of the lowliest servants, yet Jesus took on this act of service Himself.
When His disciples express surprise, Jesus says, “You call Me Teacher and Master. That is what I am. So, if I am Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash others’ feet (John 13:13-15).
Jesus clarifies that our work as leaders is to serve others and inspire them to serve in return. In the book of Matthew, He says, “Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. He came to serve, not be served.” (Matthew 20:26–28) Mark 9:35, he said, “So you want first place. Then take last place. Be a servant to all.”
This is truly the definition of servant leadership. To become an effective leader, we must first become humble. The Son of God Himself did not come to demand worship but to give everything He had for others, including His life, out of love. So likewise, servant leaders should be willing to sacrifice to help, encourage, and protect their teammates in their care.
An important note is that the love of Jesus is not the same as blind acceptance. Jesus spent a lot of time with sinners, but He did so, hoping that they would change their ways. As a result, his parables also are full of cautionary tales about people who paid the price for their mistakes. These stories aren’t always easy to hear, but they’re necessary to learn and grow.
Servant leadership isn’t weak or limp-wristed. It’s a managerial style defined by caring but balanced by rules, respect, and high expectations. When we genuinely love and respect our employees, we want them to succeed. Therefore, we must help them succeed. Honesty means we should be willing to have tough conversations and practice open corrective advice, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Implementing Christian Values in the Workplace
Contrary to popular belief, although business leaders are typically advised to keep their religious opinions under wraps in the workplace, there is nothing wrong with being open about your faith. Indeed, we shouldn’t proselytize on the job, but if you are a Christian, you are called to glorify God in all things. Moreover, we can witness your faith simply by living out your Christian values.
In addition to servant leadership, many other essential skills can be gained by embodying Christian principles in the workplace. Here are a few critical Christian values that are also qualities of a good leader:
- Integrity: Christians are called to be people of their word. “Just say yes and no. When you manipulate words to get your way, you go wrong (Matthew 5:37). However, when you always say what you mean and mean what you say, your employees will believe you and trust your guidance.
- Forgiveness: A Christian leader should not hold grudges. “You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others.” (Matthew 6:14-15).
- Humility: “God goes against the willful proud. God gives his grace to the willing humble” (James 4:6). A humble leader is willing to admit wrong and take responsibility for their and their team’s mistakes.
- Compassion: “Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. (1 Peter 3:8). But unfortunately, compassion is an underrated leadership skill. It’s hard to make tough decisions when you have genuine compassion for your employees, but it’s necessary to strike that balance.
Strong values can grow from the Christian faith, but you don’t have to be Christian to practice those values at work. Anyone can benefit from striving to be a good servant leader. So whether you’re a Christian wanting to discuss the importance of Christian ethics in business or simply an enlightened business leader looking to adopt more of a servant leadership style, I’m here to help.
As a Christian and a professional business coach, I can help you navigate personal growth to level up your leadership. Click here to fill out my contact form to learn more about implementing servant leadership in your business.