It is now 50 years since Robert Greenleaf coined the term “Servant Leadership” in his groundbreaking essay, The Servant as a Leader.1 In a break from command and control strategies of the past, Greenleaf’s leadership theory required that a leader must be a servant first and a leader second. Unlike task-focused leaders, a Servant Leader must focus her attention on the well-being and growth of her subordinates, while sharing her power with them.  Servant leadership theory is now widely adopted in corporate America and also in the Christian community, where it has taken on a level of authority never imagined by Greenleaf.  However, we should be careful about conflating Greenleaf’s theory with a Christian ethic or theory of leadership.

In the half century since its introduction, Greenleaf’s leadership theory has become increasingly popular with American corporations. Companies such as Nordstrom, Starbucks, The Container Store, and FedEx have all adopted his idea of Servant Leadership into their business models. Nordstrom, for example, depicts its structure as an inverted pyramid.  The inverted pyramid places the executive team at the bottom and its lower level employees, like sales floor staff, at the top. This implies that the company’s front line employees are the most important and that management’s job is to promote their development. Fred Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx, was introduced to Servant Leadership in the Marine Corp and wanted to bring that same theory into his company. FedEx has adopted a People-Service-Profit philosophy that places its employees at the highest level of importance. FedEx believes that when employees receive a greater emphasis, profitability and satisfied customers will follow.

U.S. corporations, however, have not been the only ones to embrace Greenleaf’s theory. Much of the Christian community has adopted it over the last 50 years. Institutions such as Andrews University, YMCA, and The Salvation Army are among the Christian organizations that have implemented servant leadership as their administrative model. Churches across the country have embraced the theory as well. The Servant Leadership Assembly is an annual conference open to churches across the country every year. This conference is committed to the development of Servant Leaders in the church community. Some Christian authors have gone so far as to argue that servant leadership is the only leadership style acceptable for Christians.2 Since they accept Christ as the model of a servant leader, and since we are called to emulate Him, these authors contend that Servant Leadership is Biblically mandated. This argument grants Servant Leadership a kind of doctrinal authority never imagined by Greenleaf.

Servant Leadership has been embraced and welcomed by Christian organizations in part because many of Greenleaf’s principles resemble the Christ of the New Testament. Passages of scripture such as Matthew 20:25-28, Luke 22:24-27, and John 13:1-7 are commonly used to support the idea that Servant Leadership is not only associated with Christ but originated with Him. It is clear from these and other scriptures that Christ calls His followers to serve.  Does that mean, however, that He calls them to be Servant Leaders?  Christians should be careful to evaluate Greenleaf’s theory in light of the theory’s history and content.

Despite what some might say about modern Servant Leadership theory originating in Scripture, Greenleaf did not base his theory on the Bible.  He based it on Herman Hesse’s work, The Journey to the East, hardly a Christian source. Greenleaf later utilized scriptural references to support his claims about Servant Leadership. However, he also stated in one of his lectures that he “regard[s] all scriptures of all religions as great stories of the human spirit and take[s] them for the insight they yield on that basis”.3 This statement indicates a much more universalist approach when applying sacred texts than a Christian viewpoint in which the Bible is considered uniquely authoritative. The theory that Christian organizations have been embracing does not in fact have scriptural origins and its author never endorsed it as a Biblical mandate. 

There is no doubt that Christ possesses some of the attributes Greenleaf identifies with Servant Leadership. A few of these qualities include grace, humility, serving his disciples, and focusing on the well-being of those around Him. He does not, however, follow the practices that, by Greenleaf’s successors’ definition, a Servant Leader must practice. Kent Keith, former CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, says that a servant leader’s power must be gifted to him by his followers.4 Christ, however, was never dependent on his followers for power. Christ’s power was given to Him by His Father. Christ fails this key requirement of being a servant leader.

James Autry, author and former CEO of Meredith Corporation, states that servant leaders must allow employees an important role in establishing their own performance standards.5 Servant leaders must meet with their employees, discuss the standards to which they should be held, and have an open dialog between the two parties until a final agreement is made. Nowhere in scripture does Jesus allow his followers to set their own performance standards. Jesus instead reinforces the Old Testament notion that God alone is the only leader and only source of acceptable standards. Everyone else is His servant.

Servant Leadership theory has proved beneficial for some companies that have adopted it in their business models. Increased employee engagement and higher return on investment have been found to positively correlate with Servant Leadership.6 There may be many practical and beneficial results of using Servant Leadership in a business, or in a church, but that does not render the total theory Christian and certainly not doctrinal. Like most academic theories, it needs to be critically evaluated using Scripture and transformed in light of Christian theology and ethics. In other words, Christians and Christian organizations should make whatever use of Servant Leadership theory they believe will advance God’s Kingdom in their mission, but they should always critique these theories in light of the One who is leading us all.

Footnotes

  1. Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader(Newton Center, MA: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1970).
  2. Nicholas Beadles II, “Dialogue I: Stewardship-Leadership: A Biblical Refinement of Servant-Leadership,” JBIB, 6no. 1(2000): 25-37.
  3. Robert Greenleaf, Don Frick, and Larry Spears, On Becoming a Servant-Leader (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996), 324.
  4. Kent Keith, The Case for Servant Leadership. (Westfield, IN: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2008).
  5. James Autry, The Servant Leader: How to Build a Creative Team, Develop Great Morale, and Improve Bottom-Line Performance (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2001).
  6. Danon Carter and Timothy Baghurst, “The Influence of Servant Leadership on Restaurant Employee Engagement,” JBE 124, no. 3(2014): 453-464.

Larry G. Locke

University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
Larry Locke is a Professor and Associate Dean of the McLane College of Business at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and a Research Fellow of LCC International University.

Baylee Smith

University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
Baylee Smith is a graduate of the McLane College of Business at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and currently serves at Total Rental Center in Houston, Texas.

One Comment

  • Eric Hinderliter says:

    Just as servant leadership has become a popular philosophy so the lack of an empirical basis for servant leadership is widely noted (Sendjaya 2002). Servant leadership is “an untested theory” and an “elusive” concept (Babuto 2006)