Why "Servant-Leadership" Is Dead

In leadership circles, the concept of "servant-leadership" is a popular one. It is regularly praised. And rightfully so.

A Brief History:

The concept has its origins in both ancient Eastern and Western religious traditions and philosophies. Most notably for many of us who are Christians, the concept can be demonstrated in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. ~ (Mark 10:42-45)

The phrase itself, "servant-leader" was coined by a Quaker, Robert K. Greenleaf, who in 1970 wrote a famous essay called "The Servant as Leader." He said the following:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

Many businesses have embraced this idea, and incorporated it into their management and leadership culture. Likewise, many churches have found inspiration in Greenleaf's teaching on the matter.

All of this is wonderful and fantastic stuff. It's a concept that we have done well to embrace.

Current Church Culture:

However, I believe we are at the point in America and in the church where we need to bury the usage of the phrase "servant-leader." While the phrase is a powerful concept, I believe we are at the point that it has become extremely overused, and that it's now nothing more than a tired, worn out, and empty cliché, devoid of any real power or meaning.

Frankly, I believe the concept behind the phrase, while amazing, has been hijacked and twisted into something else altogether. And we are pretty much at the point today where the phrase "servant-leader" is preached and practiced in such a way that that those who use it really mean "leader" when they talk about the concept. There is very little concept of "servant" left in the application of this phrase.

In a nutshell, "servant-leadership" is dead. And we are guilty of killing it.

Take for example, many pastors in the church today. The bigger the church is, the more likely it is that you will never really know any of your pastors on a personal level. Gaining direct access to any of them usually means you have to go through a number of middle-men who will filter your ability to converse with or even know these individuals. If the pastor even recognizes your face, knows your name, or knows any details about your life, such is increasingly a rare thing.

Many pastors today serve (or rather lead) from a very isolated and detached position in the church they minister at. They are men on a platform, and the guy calling the shots behind closed doors. Everybody does what the pastor says, and those he employs exist to do nothing less than implement his vision.

Additionally, the bigger the church a pastor often leads, the bigger his salary, and the more "benefits" he receives in the process. It's never been more lucrative to be a "servant-leader" than at this time in history. Few pastors making over six-figures a year ever tell the church to stop raising their salary. As a result, churches often become very secretive about the compensation package the pastor receives, and most people have little clue where their pastor even lives.

I believe many of these guys are well intentioned. If you were to ask any of these men about servant-leadership, they could probably give you a very good talk on the matter, and they would praise its virtues and say it is their own philosophy of leadership.

But, demonstrating it and living it out is another matter altogether.

Everybody likes the idea behind servant-leadership, but at the end of the day, many prefer the idea of simply being a leader instead. Being a servant is something that is increasingly paid mere lip-service, and it is something many only pretend to be.

Being a leader on the other hand, is where the real action is at. Which is why we trip over ourselves to get the latest books on leadership, and go to Catalyst and Willow Creek Leadership conferences every year, so we can hear from the latest and greatest movers and shakers, and try to implement what we learn from them back at home.

Feeling like a leader increases our sense of self-importance, and even if we never attract much in the way of followers, we enjoy the high that comes from feeling like one just the same. In the process, it makes a lot of authors and speakers very wealthy, and many are more than happy to help you get that high. Very few people after all, ever became rich by writing a book about being a servant.

Consider the following case studies in leadership and servanthood.

Leadership Example: MLM Guru's

Many pastors today embrace a style of leadership that is not too far removed from people who head up MLM schemes (Multi-Level-Marketing), like in AMWAY, Pampered Chef, or Mary Kay. The people involved in these programs simply can't wait to tell you about the business "opportunity" they have for you. They hope you "join" them in their venture.

If you are a small fry and recent recruit in an MLM scheme, that means you'll be doing a lot of heavy leg work, and personally meeting with people over coffee to explain to them why they should join your network, and get in on the same "opportunity" you have.

In contrast, if you are the head of the MLM, you'll pretty much only show up to speak at packed out hotel conference rooms. The days of heavy lifting are over. All that remains is for you to show up at packed out events, and meet directly with those under you to help plan the event, and make sure everything goes as designed.

The conference room you show up to speak at is packed out because all the people under you have been busy recruiting to fill the conference hall. In the end, the low man on the totem-pole does all the real work, while the guy on top reaps all the benefits. He provides some direction, some vision, gives a pep-rally speech, and then goes back home, and allows all the money to trickle up to him. One day, most of the new recruits hope they can become the man on the stage.

The people at the bottom often receive very little compensation for their labor, and in good time, after failing to go much of anywhere, they realize the entire thing is a scam and they move on to something else.

Servant Example: The Gopher

In contrast to all of this, I think of the few years I spent after college working as an office clerk at a large international law firm. I essentially worked as a "gopher." After working in this position, if there is anybody who knows anything about what it means to be a servant today, it's me.

At the law firm, if somebody needed a package taken across town, I was the guy that got it there. If a conference room needed to be setup or broken down for a meeting, I was the guy that did that. I sorted the mail. I made photocopies. I restocked the supply closets. I refreshed paperclip trays. And if anybody needed anything whatsoever, I was to be their go-to guy. I was a servant in the law firm.

My office was located smack-dead in the middle of the firm, and I shared it with a couple other people in the same position. There were 4 doors in the "service center" that anybody could enter at any time of the day, and make their requests known. We were always available. No middle men existed between us and the secretaries, paralegals, associates, or managing partners. If somebody wanted something, we were to be Johnny on the spot, no matter how busy we were doing anything else. We were to never let the phone ring more than twice.

As a result of the nature of my work, I learned all 100 names of the people I served. I not only knew their names, but I also knew where some of them parked in our parking garage, what kind of car they drove, and I even knew where some of them lived. I knew their preferences and their expectations, and my job often required me to proactively anticipate their desires.

For example, one of the partners I worked for had a habit of drinking a lot of Diet Caffeine Free Coke. According to his secretary, he drank one can every hour on the hour every single day! As a result of knowing this, part of my job involved keeping our office fridge freshly stocked full of Diet Caffeine Free Coke on a daily basis... and it had to be cold. If I knew this attorney was going to be in a conference room for a couple hours, I had to make sure I put out a couple cold Diet Caffeine Free Coke's for him. A generic drink setup with a random assortment of soda's simply would not suffice.

Making a Decision:

Having read these two examples, which do you think sounds like the model of church leadership that exists today? And which example do you think is the most in keeping with the spirit of the New Testament? Do you think Jesus and the apostles were more like MLM guru's, or do you think they were more like gophers working at a law firm?

Today, do you think we are really behaving like servant-leaders? Or do you think we are just simply being leaders?

I believe we have become more like MLM guru's than gophers. And as a result of the phrase "servant-leader" becoming virtually meaningless, instead of trying to restore its true and proper meaning in the minds of people (if it ever was there to begin with), I think it is a word we would do well to strike from our vocabulary altogether, because we cannot use it without perverting it.

Instead, I think we would be better off simply using the word "servant" in our churches and businesses. Indeed, if you were to read the New Testament rather closely, you will find that the word "leader" was only used a couple times. Instead of describing themselves as leaders, Jesus and the apostles regularly referred to themselves and other ministers that worked alongside them as "servants." They looked at themselves as being there for you, and not the other way around.

Different Questions:

Leaders and servants ask a very different set of questions. They embody and operate under a very different value system and ethos.

Leaders ask questions like: How can I grow my church? How can I expand my spheres of influence? How can I better market my worship experiences and increase my Sunday attendance? How can I better structure my organization to maximize our assets (volunteers!) and resources (offerings!).

As servants, I believe we need to start asking a different set of questions.

Questions like: How can I be a better servant? What is it that the people in my life need from God? What is it that the people in my life need the most from me? How can I bless somebody today? What is it that I can do to help somebody else out? Where are people falling short in their lives or walk with God, and how can I help them fix that? How can I help somebody else become all that they can be? How can I help equip them to better do the things God has called them to do?


The idea of servant-leadership is something that I believe is in keeping with the heart of God. It's how He made leaders to function. Such is why this wisdom exists across Eastern and Western religious traditions and philosophies, and is not unique to the Bible. It's simply part of God's natural order and natural revelation.

Men do not exist to rule over others, rather, they exist to come alongside others and serve. None of us were born leaders. From the womb all of us were born subject to the will of somebody else (our parents).

And such is how we should continue to live out all of our days. Leaders aren't born, they are made. Which is why it is so important that no matter what position we find ourselves in within a church, business, or government, that we always keep in mind that we are never in a such a position to fulfill our dreams, but rather, we are where we are in order to help others fulfill their dreams.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as leaders, or as a servant-leaders, we simply need to look at ourselves as servants. And our aspiration and goal should simply be to be the best servant that we can be.

And if somebody calls us their leader, we should probably just silently chuckle on the inside, and ask what we can do for them next.

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