What is Authentic Servant Leadership?

There has been a lot of buzz recently about what it means to be an authentic servant leader.

The phrase “servant leadership” was originally coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 The Servant as Leader essay. Greenleaf writes that a servant-leader starts with being a servant. It is his or her desire to serve that leads one to aspire to want to lead others. This is in sharp contrast to those whose primary goal is to become a “leader first.”

What are the characteristics of a servant leader?

One can identify a servant leader by whether his or her primary focus is on the growth and well-being of others and the organization, church, and/or community in which they serve. This type of leader will place the needs of others first, intentionally share power, and will focus on helping those around him grow and develop as leaders. Servant leaders will promote organizational principles such as creating a culture of trust, have an unselfish mindset, encourage leadership in others, serve with humility, inspire vision, and honor others.

In my experience, close cousins to this concept of servant leadership include what is referred to as “Level Five” leadership traits as well as the level of one’s emotional intelligence. Level Five leadership, coined by management guru, Jim Collins, describes a leader who displays a powerful combination of “personal humility and indomitable will.” Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, evaluate, and leverage emotions for meaningful communication with others.

How does a servant leader lead?

When we think of leadership we tend to think of the “what.” What title do you possess? What is your role? Under this definition, the CEO or the Senior Pastor is the leader. For me the definition is different. Leadership for me is not so much the “what.” Rather, for me, leadership is “how.”  

The most important question that you and I can personally answer is, “How well can I serve those who have been placed in my path?” From my vantage point, this and this alone determines who is a servant-leader and how well we lead. If you agree with this premise, everyone reading this blog is a servant-leader. Why this becomes so powerful is that it allows each of us, no matter what our station in life, to effectively weave our faith, character, and calling into our DNA as servant leaders.

During my ongoing journey of leadership, I have learned that I must change the way I lead. I have learned that I can learn more from my younger colleagues then they can learn from me. That I must focus, not on instructing my colleagues what to do, but rather on how well I can serve them so that they can accomplish their own goals. I learned that if I truly wanted to make a difference, I must move from solely focusing on driving results from within my own organization to influencing results across a host of organizations. Finally, I had to relearn the mantra that leaders must follow the Golden Rule:

Matthew 7:12

So, in everything, do to others, what you would have them do to you. 

In my current work with organizations, leadership teams, and boards of directors, I have found that board members and organizational leaders who are naturally servant leaders, who with humility place the needs of the organization and their colleagues ahead of their own interests, are much more effective in their roles. In fact, research and experience clearly demonstrates that organizations that exhibit a healthy servant leadership culture are more likely to achieve missional success. Research also demonstrates that leadership teams with Level Five leadership qualities and boards and leadership teams that possess a wealth of emotional intelligence are also more likely to accomplish their shared mission and goals.

Christians as servant leaders

This is where we as Christians have a unique advantage. We are privileged to bring our entire being to the leadership table and board room. We are steeped in Biblical knowledge that instructs us how to be effective servant leaders. Such servant leadership wisdom includes:

  • Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17)
  • Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
  • Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds, for riches do not last forever; and does a crown endure to all generations? (Proverbs 27:23-24)

It is my prayer that you will embrace your role as a servant leader, serving with humility, everyone that God places in your path.

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Kurt Senske

Dr. Kurt Senske is the founder of CEO-Board Services, a consulting firm that specializes in working with mission¬-oriented organizations. Previously, Dr. Senske served as CEO of Upbring, a multi-faceted, multi-state social service organization. Dr. Senske’s extensive board service includes serving on eleven boards of directors, including as chairman of Thrivent Financial. A gifted public speaker, Dr. Senske is regularly sought after to speak and consult on a variety of topics.

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