Biblical leadership is Servant-Leadership

The subject of leadership has been a passion of mine for many years. Seldom do I walk into a bookstore and not seek out the section on leadership. In fact, whenever Lori (my wife) and I get separated in one of those huge mega-bookstores, she knows that if she makes her way to the leadership section she will probably find me with my nose buried in a book on how to be a better leader. It does seem that many of the authors are saying the same thing, maybe in a slightly different way. After all, how much can anyone say about leadership that hasn’t been said before? Every business person, civic leader, church elder, and anyone else in a leadership role recognizes that success in dealing with people equates to success in their respective fields. The subject of leadership is too large to thoroughly cover in this limited article, but I think we can crack open the door and shed some light on some of the unique qualities that we find present in biblical leadership.

The Bible is filled with examples of some of the world’s best, and worst, leaders. Lessons about how to deal with difficult people and impossible situations are replete in Scripture. As I glanced at my bookshelf, I noticed three leadership books written on lessons learned from the lives of Jesus and Moses. [1] The subject of leadership so permeates the Bible that John Maxwell has produced an entire version that weaves his leadership lessons throughout its pages. [2] In the introduction to The Maxwell Leadership Bible, he states: “But the truth is, the best source of leadership teaching today is the same as it has been for thousands of years. If you want to learn leadership, go to the greatest Book on leadership ever written—the Bible.” [3] The leadership lessons we can glean from the Bible are ageless wisdom that transcends time from the Garden of Eden to the present.

Leadership, whether biblical or otherwise, is really nothing more than the ability to influence others. “True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that can’t be mandated. It must be earned.” [4] Our ability to influence others is dependent upon the degree to which others can trust us. “Trust is built one block at a time, but when it is violated the entire wall comes crashing down. When you have been empowered with authority, you exercise that authority on behalf of those you report to. It is never to serve your own interest. Over the course of your leadership journey, your character and integrity will invariably be tested.” [5] Qualities such as character, competence, commitment, consistency, and our connectedness to others are foundational traits that every leader must work to develop. [6] The Bible is filled with numerous positive and negative examples of men and women who have demonstrated these traits, or the lack thereof. Consider the character of Abraham, the competence of Joseph, the commitment of Noah, the inconsistency of Saul. The biblical leadership school starts with these lessons first.

In recent years our ministry has frequently used the phrase “servant-leadership” when describing the type of leadership we promote. Jesus first described servant-leadership when he confronted his Apostles after James and John came to him asking to sit at his right and left hand in the Kingdom.

Mark 10:42-45
(42) 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.
(43) Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,
(44) and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
(45) 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.”

It must have shocked the Apostles to be confronted with the harsh reality that to be leaders would require them to be servants. This seemed so completely contrary to the world they knew; yet it was what Jesus had been modeling right before their eyes.

What does it mean to be a servant-leader? The phrase almost appears self-contradictory, yet this is what God requires of the biblical leader. Robert Greenleaf first coined the term in his book, The Servant As Leader. He describes the servant-leader as a person who is “a servant first because that is what he is, deep down inside. Leadership was bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant. It was something given, or assumed, that could be taken away. His servant nature was the real man, not bestowed, not assumed, and something that cannot be taken away. He was a servant first.” [7] As biblical leaders, we must first seek to serve those we lead. “Great leaders never set themselves above their followers, except in their responsibilities.” [8]

Another concept that is consistent with servant-leadership is the currently popular notion of “360 degree leadership.” Consider that no matter what position a person holds, he has the ability to influence others, and since leadership is nothing more than the ability to influence, everyone is a leader. 360 degree leadership asserts that you can exert a tremendous degree of influence on others no matter what your positioning in any organization is. If you are positionally on the bottom of an organization, you can influence others by “leading up.” The first thing you need to do to lead up is to manage yourself. You can also lead up by learning how to lighten your superior’s load. This sounds a lot like learning to be a servant first.

If you are in the middle of an organization, you can lead up, down, and across. We effectively lead across with our peers when we work to complete them, not compete with them. We can work to develop a spirit of cooperation and teamwork, realizing that influence has less to do with your position than with your disposition. You can lead “sideways” by assisting your peers.

Finally, when placed in a position of authority and responsibility, the 360 degree leader knows it is his job to lead down by creating value for those he leads. Such a person leads with the heart of Jesus, being first a servant. I believe the 360 degree concept is a biblical model of leadership. Remember how a young shepherd boy named David came forward and slew the Philistine giant Goliath, resulting in a great rally for the Israelite troops (1 Sam. 17). Or how about when King Saul’s son Jonathan and his armor bearer went up and challenged the Philistines, slaying 20 men in the space of an acre and bringing about a great victory for God (1 Sam. 14). Let’s not forget Queen Esther and how she was able to influence the king resulting in Israel’s deliverance (Esther 4:12-17).

The Bible is filled with accounts of men and women who lived the principle of 360 degree leadership. They influenced their superiors, their peers, and their subordinates. Although your ability to influence others may be affected by the position you hold in an organization, it is still true that in any position you can influence others, and thus lead them. The issue is not whether you influence others; the question is what type of influencer are you?

There are many lessons God has in the Bible about godly leadership. [9]

Noah: One person can make a difference.
Esther: God has a place for you.
Joseph: Don’t give up your dreams.
Moses: Live in the faith zone, not the safe zone.
Rebekah: Give generously to others.
Abraham: God always does the right thing.
Nehemiah: No problem is too big when you have the right help.
David: You can overcome the limitations others place on you.
Jonathan: Strengthen a leader and save a nation.
Paul: Persevere and you will receive a great reward.
Peter: Speak up, you may be wrong but what a way to grow.
Moses: Be prepared to take a walk in the wilderness.
Rahab: Even a prostitute can be honored by God.

Clearly, we could go on and on, as well as list multiple lessons under each of these people.

The New Testament books of Timothy and Titus are filled with specific attributes that a leader in the Church must have. I love the metaphors God uses in 2 Timothy when he tells us that a servant-leader is to be brave as a good soldier (2:3), disciplined as an athlete (2:5), hardworking as a farmer (2:6), diligent as a workman (2:15), and gentle as a servant (2:24).

The lesson of the Bible is that we are all capable of being leaders because we can all exert influence wherever we are. Biblical leadership is servant-leadership. We are servants first because that is what we are in our hearts, exerting influence up, down, and across from any position we hold. Positions of leadership may come and go, but we are always leading through our influence as servants.


[1] William Beausay II, The Leadership Genius of Jesus, Ancient Wisdom for Modern Business (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN); Laurie Beth Jones, Jesus, CEO, Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership (Hyperion, New York); David Baron with Lynn Padwa, Moses on Management, 50 Leadership Lessons from the Greatest Manager of All Time (Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York).
[2] Dr. John Maxwell, The Maxwell Leadership Bible, New King James Version (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN).
[3] Ibid., Introduction, pg. vii.
[4] John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN) pg. 14.
[5] John Maxwell, The 360 Degree Leader [Stated by David Bracken] (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN) pg. 32.
[6] See our Tape of the Month (Oct. 04) “Trust: The Foundation of all Godly Relationships,” by Dan Gallagher.
[7] Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant As Leader (Paulist Press, Ramsey, NJ) pg. 8.
[8] John Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN).
[9] John Maxwell, Running with the Giants, What Old Testament Heroes Want you to Know about Life and Leadership (Warner Books).

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  1. please who is the author of this work? it is a good piece for my scholarly work hence i need the name of the author, date of publication. Thanks


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