Setting the Stage for Excellence: Lessons From The True Foundation of Servant Leadership


As I was pursuing my administration license and education, I took a variety of leadership courses. Regardless of where you are pursuing your leadership education (School administration, College of Business, etc.), you will learn about the Servant Leadership model. It is based upon the idea that in order to lead effectively, you need to serve first, whether it is serving your staff or community. It does not mean you don’t lead—you do; however, the basis of your leadership is to make the world a better place, give back, focus on the growth of your staff, ensure clear expectations are outlined, and have honest and ethical dealings—setting the stage for excellence.

This philosophy was developed by Robert Greenleaf in 1970 and is still highly regarded as a top leadership mindset for leaders in today’s world. Greenleaf was influenced by Christian values but indicated that the pieces of servant leadership were for everyone, regardless of your belief system. I agree with this, as I believe this is true of many of the lessons we learn from the Bible!

When you think of Servant Leadership in light of the Bible, the obvious example of the epitome of Servant Leadership is Jesus Christ. He served his disciples, focused on the growth of everyone he came into contact with, defined clear expectations and set those who were willing to listen on the correct pathway to successful life, and of course, was honest and ethical (and even ousted those who said they WERE, even if they did not define it by action).

In today’s post, I investigate two chapters where Jesus was the ultimate servant leader and how His example in these passages, as well as throughout the Gospels, define Servant Leadership today.

MATTHEW 20: 20-28

In this excerpt of Matthew, we really see Jesus begin to define Servant Leadership. We can read all about the different characteristics of what creates a Servant Leader in all of Jesus’ teachings, but when I was reading this passage, what Jesus said regarding being a servant really stuck out to me.

What is happening here is that the disciples are continuing to argue who will be first in Jesus’ kingdom. At that time, I believe they were looking at the kingdom in the mind of human at the time (that the kingdom will be on earth with Jesus), rather than seeing the whole of what will happen and the ultimate plan. All 12 disciples continued to argue and try to one up another. It even got to the point where the mother of James and John (brothers) came to Jesus asking that her two sons be FIRST in the kingdom! Jesus responded that it would not be that way. He even shared, “…Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your Servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…”

It is clear in this brief passage that the foundation of Servant Leadership and a follower of Jesus is first serving others and not worrying about being FIRST.

John 13

We further see the development of Servant Leadership, as Jesus not only teaches about being a servant but carries out these actions. On the last evening with His disciples, Jesus models the ultimate definition of washing His disciples feet (a custom in the times of sand and sandals!). This was not something that a King would do, but Jesus demonstrated He was not afraid of demonstrating actions for others that some may think that were “beneath Him.”

As we all know, Jesus made the ultimate servant sacrifice. Through his ultimate sacrifice and victory, He served US yet showed his ultimate leadership, power, and victory as King.


What are some of the takeaways of Servant Leadership through Jesus’ example in the Bible as we strive for excellence?

  1. Jesus was the ultimate leader at that time and indicated to all, through both His words and actions (He didn’t just talk the talk, He walked the walk), that it was important to serve first—wherever you are (see my post on Serving Where You Are here). It is easy to talk about what you should do and instruct others, but do you really carry it out?

  2. Servant Leadership really focuses on serving. it does not necessarily mean that you just serve, do everyone else’s jobs for them, and don’t lead without expectations—which I think is often seen as that with some who misunderstand the theory. That is not it at all. Servant leadership is focused on serving others—whether it is customers (think of customer service philosophy), serving your staff (especially in the domain of professional and personal growth), the community (how do you give back? What service or product are you providing for the community?), and the organization (How does your presence and how you serve ultimately make the organization better?).

  3. One way to give back to your staff and organization is to continually go above and beyond, even when it is not in your job description or doing the extra things—whether it is remembering the small details of your colleagues lives, checking in with others when they are going through something challenging, attending the small gatherings recognizing those you work with, or just taking an interest in who they are outside of the work place.

  4. As I mentioned in number 2, one of the biggest misconceptions about Servant Leadership and Jesus in general, is that in this model and Jesus’ life, is all about giving back and love. While Jesus loves everyone, and ultimately SERVED, He was never afraid to identify wrongdoing. He challenged those those who accused Him of wrongful acts and never ignored misled or misunderstood actions and thoughts. He wanted everyone to get back on the right track to excellence and identified what was acceptable and unacceptable. It was definitely NOT let everyone do as they please! It is not good to continue to let ineffectiveness or non-compliance fester. As leaders, we may not be identifying the major things Jesus identified, but we may need to identify areas of professional growth or non-compliance. While not easy, are we really serving our staff and the organization if we let ineffectiveness persist? It is important to get those not on track back on the right track, as letting things continually go will not benefit these individuals in the long run. It also impacts those who are doing what they should be doing and can impact the culture and productiveness of the organization as a whole. Yes—redirecting staff and focusing on areas of growth IS Servant Leadership; however, remember to correct with a caring attitude.

  5. No position is too low for you. This is definitely seen in Jesus’ life, as he was unafraid of to serve others (washing feet) or healing those seen as outcasts in the community. Now, this does not always necessarily mean that you need to do EVERY job in your organization (we recognize the importance of delegation here—Jesus has his disciples!) or that you need to be busy doing so many other things, that you cannot do your job well or effectively (I also think this is a huge misconception of the theory!). But what does this mean in your leadership role or your daily role (if you are not in a “leadership” position)?

    1. It is important to recognize the importance of all roles, positions, and staff in your organization. Leaders need to recognize all roles, provide positive feedback, provide constructive feedback, and talk with all people. We definitely don’t want that leader that walks by us and thinks they are too important! Often in todays’ world, we find that many people are stretched too thin to even do their own role, so at times, it is definitely hard to fulfill the idea of “no job is beneath you” of actually doing that job; however, you can provide praise, recognition, and make others feel valued and important. Appreciate your staff! We often take them for granted.

    2. Empower other leaders under your supervision to support others!! If you are in a leadership role where you may supervise OTHER leaders or aspiring leaders, it is important to support and empower them so THEY can help promote servant leadership to the organization and reach others you may not necessarily have the chance, time, or opportunity to do on a regular basis.. Jesus recognized that He needed a team of people (the apostles) to support his mission and carry it out later. He provided them the support and guidance to grow in their own role.

    3. Lead and Serve Where you Are. I think this theme is HUGE, as I continue to talk about it A LOT. I think it is important to note that everyone is a leader, no matter what role you are in. This is even true with Jesus’ words, as He identified the misled thinking of the disciples in Matthew. It does not matter if you are a CEO, top level administrator, middle management, or in a support role—you can serve there and be a leader by your example. How you are, how you fulfill your duties and job obligations, serve your organization and customer base, and how you treat others is the true fulfillment of servant leadership.

What are your thoughts on Servant Leadership and the example of Jesus? What is your favorite example of Jesus being the ultimate Servant Leader?

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Kristen Nowak