Servant Leadership: Principles

“Exploring the Servant Leadership Journey”

by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from Skilltrack®
1.1 – Exploring the Journey

A Servant Leader Challenge

There is a fundamental principle and challenge to all those in any and every role of Christian ministry: we should, all of us together, consistently practice servant leadership as a lifetime journey. Jesus did, and He taught us to do so. This introductory article seeks to examine key highlights to be expanded in the succeeding articles. A Servant Text from our Lord lays down an oft-repeated critical path for the journey:

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave 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 10:43-45 NIV)

Those of us in our generation enrolled in the service of Christ have taken up and applied this critical challenge from Holy Scripture. Paul A. Cedar, among those who take the challenge quite seriously, affirms: “Servant leadership is for everyone: for every situation; for every human need.” He goes on to claim that “it is the common style for Christian leaders; is both biblical and practical; is for business, home, school, and church; and, begins with the heart.” (from pages 17-29, Strength in Servant Leadership, Cedar)

  1. Servant Leadership Principles

    There are discovered principles for exploring the journey of servant leadership. “Principle” is often defined by using such grand phrases as “basic truth,” “rule or standard,” “essential
    quality,” or “moral values.” At other times this lofty word seeks to describe “way of learning,” “basis of knowledge,” or “mode of acting” (see The word “principle” is used in this series of articles to set out some of the basic ways that servant leadership may be explained, explored, learned, and put into practice.

    “Principles for exploring the journey” include approaches that are practical, biblical, mental, and historical; they are introduced here and pursued in subsequent articles:

    • To learn servant leadership, you must put yourself in the picture; that is, you must see yourself expressing your understanding and practice of servant leadership in a variety of ways. (SL#17)
    • You can learn about “servant leadership” by exploring the best of what others teach about leadership and management: concepts, examples, styles, and models. (SL#18)
    • Servant leadership, like “going the second mile,” may be explored and lessons learned from those who have written on the subject–presenting it both as a life practice and a Christian lifestyle. (SL#19)
    • The “ultimate principle” of servant leadership is seen in the example and practice of Christ. (SL#20)
    • Historically, much can be learned from Robert K. Greenleaf, sometimes called the “grandfather,” or pioneer of the modern-day concept of servant leadership. (SL#21 and SL#22)
    • You explore the journey of servant leadership by organizing your understanding into a working pattern and applying it consistently within your total life. (SL#23)
    • A final principle of exploring the journey of servant leadership is to hammer out your own way of “installing” it in your life throughout a lifetime. (SL#24)
  2. Greenleaf’s Servant Principle

    A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. . . . Rather, they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants. (Servant Leadership, Greenleaf, p. 1)

  3. What Do We Mean by “the Journey”?

    “The journey,” as a term used to describe servant leadership, is both reality and metaphor, a consistent practice and a moving picture. As examples, these concepts are intended to enlarge on the concept of “principles”:

    • Life and leadership is like a journey, not a casual stroll, or a fifty-yard dash.
    • Servant leadership is a choice; it is intentional and requires preparation.
    • It has direction, goals, stopping points, and a destination; it is going somewhere.
    • Sometimes it is a pilgrimage into an unknown land, a discovery of new treasure.
    • It most often includes valued associates; not a lonely, solo trip across a vast expanse.
    • It has its ups and downs; it curves, detours and seemingly dead-ends.
    • And, servant leadership does have its own rewards, satisfaction, and celebration.


  1. Study Objectives

    This article, and those following, will explore basic principles of leadership and servant leadership in the many roles of life and ministry. If you merge your own experience and ideas, even peer-group learning as you go along, your efforts to put servant leadership skills into practice could become an exciting and satisfying journey. This series of articles will explore the journey with you, assisting you:

    • to visualize and define leadership
    • to put yourself in the picture of leadership and servant leadership
    • to understand servant leadership and its impact
    • to examine its basis in the life of Christ
    • to see, feel, and identify basic principles of the “journey”
    • to assess your current leadership practices
    • to apply servant leadership to your own life and mission
    • and, to develop your own course toward servant leadership practice.

  2. A Minister’s Servant Text–1 Peter 5:1-4

    For each one of us, this biblical passage can stand as a challenging minister’s servant text. Our intention is to grow in the likeness of Jesus’ life and leadership. Throughout this study, regardless of the ministry role you fill, let this biblical text provide encouraging servant leadership guidance in your consistent example and persuasion.

    To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Peter 5:1-4 NIV)

  3. Personal Conclusion: I’m on My Journey

    Imagine overhearing this conversation between a man–any man–and a boy, a

    A Man: “Son, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

    A Boy: “Sir, I’m going to be a servant leader.”

    A Man: “Well, son, that sounds fine; but what do you mean by ‘servant leader’?”

    A Boy: “Well sir, I don’t really know just now; but I’ll know it when I get there.”

    Probably no such conversation has ever taken place, but if it had, I wish I had been that little boy. In fact–I still feel that way. When I finish growing up, I would like to be a servant leader after the pattern of Christ. The best I can say now is I’m on the journey, and in this article I invite you to come and travel with me in that direction.

Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership test serves me as a starting place for now:

The best test 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? (Servant Leadership, Greenleaf, pp. 13-14)

Reflection/Warm-Up Questions

If we were in a conference together we might start off by asking a few “warm-up questions,” just for getting acquainted and thinking together. Let’s try it through personal reflection, ok?

  • When you think about servant leadership, what comes to mind?
  • When did you first become interested in servant leadership?
  • What have you read on the subject, say in the last five years?
  • Who do you know that is a good example of servant leadership?
  • Where in your life and leadership do you want to apply this learning?
  • What questions, even concerns, do you have about your own leadership practice?
  • How do you think you could involve others in a servant leadership journey?

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© 2006; hosted and copyrighted
by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.

For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at

Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership