Servant Leadership and Christ-centered Leadership: Is There a Difference?

“Servant leadership” is a term often used to describe how Jesus led – a servant to His followers.  So are “servant leadership” and “Christ-centered leadership” one and the same?  Or is there a distinction between a servant leader and a Christ-centered leader?

Herman Hesse once told the story of a band of men on a mythical journey. The central figure in the story is Leo who accompanies the party as a servant. He does the menial chores for the group, but he also sustains them with his positive attitude and with song. Leo is a person of extraordinary presence.

All goes well for the band of men until Leo disappears. At which time the group falls into disarray and their journey is abandoned. They cannot make it without Leo.

Some years later, Leo is found and taken into the Order that sponsored the journey. As it turns out,  Leo the servant, was the head of the Order, a noble leader.

Servant as Leader

The idea of Servant as Leader first came to Robert Greenleaf in 1958 as he read this story. At the time, he was an executive at AT&T, and was searching for approaches to leadership that would successfully mobilize the new generation of anti-establishment workers.  In Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (1977), Greenleaf posed the question “Who is the servant leader?” He answered by writing: “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” (p. 27). Greenleaf expressed the need for this kind of leadership in which the follower’s allegiance is freely granted to the leader in response to the “servant stature of the leader.” He clarified that servant leaders place the followers’ needs and aspirations above the leader’s own interest.

Greenleaf’s seminal book carved a unique and enduring place in the study of leadership; however, he provided neither a clear definition of servant leadership nor how servant leadership is actually to occur. Therefore, “servant leadership” has become a ubiquitous term in the ensuing decades, and has been vested with a wide – and sometimes contrasting – array of meanings. Today servant leadership is used to describe everything from demonstrating integrity and kindness to employing a more attractive leadership style in order to milk a workforce for greater productivity.

Christ-centered leadership differs.

It is first and foremost about following Jesus. It’s not about personal gain; it’s about sacrifice. It is not a utilitarian model to achieve success; it is Jesus’ example to follow because it is right. In other words, Christ-centered leadership requires a settled resolve to reflect the following characteristics of Christ’s leadership in our own leadership:

  1. Jesus’ leadership was grounded in relationship (rather than control).

    Foundational to Jesus’ leadership was His relationship with the disciples. Rather than exerting control over them, He led them by walking dusty paths beside them, answering their questions, and entrusting them with insider information. He was honest in his conversations with them. They knew Jesus genuinely cared about them. Thus, He earned their trust, even when His words and actions were difficult to understand or receive.

  2. Jesus’ leadership was activated by influence (rather than hierarchical authority).

    Jesus’ leadership was activated by influence rather than delegated positional authority. Despite His unrivaled spiritual authority, Jesus’ leadership of others was not accomplished through strong-arm coercion. Instead, people chose to follow Him or to reject His invitation and turn away. Humankind’s freedom to choose was one of God’s most profound displays of true leadership. A restored relationship with God that is dependent on a person’s choice is central to the gospel message. Jesus did not use a hierarchical structure to manage people; instead, He invested in relationships to influence people.

  3. Jesus’ leadership focused on His followers’ potential (rather than their production).

    What most set Jesus’ leadership apart was His capacity to discern and to develop His followers’ potential. He saw people as God’s image bearers. He saw the future fueled by their collective, Spirit-empowered genius, and He consistently demonstrated His altruistic commitment for each individual to reach their own highest Kingdom potential. The radical priority that His followers grow to their maximum Kingdom potential was at the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry. He never held a prominent community or organizational position, and He did not seek success according to standard organizational measures. Rather, He took up the task of infusing His commitment into those who would carry the torch after His departure. He set His vision on the future where those He had developed would catalyze a movement to change the world.

  4. Jesus’ leadership was committed to common purpose (rather than leader-only agenda).

    Jesus built relationships with people to forge a common purpose with them. A fish story in the Bible concludes with Jesus saying to Simon, “’Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.’ And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.” (Luke 5: 10-11) Simon (and others) came to believe that Jesus was committed to their highest Kingdom potential, so Jesus’ purpose and their purpose became one. Through relationships, Jesus profoundly influenced the lives of His disciples so that eventually they owned His vision and profoundly shaped the course of history.

So here’s the most significant difference: one can be a servant leader without a complete and vibrant commitment to Jesus.  The critical component of Christ-centered leadership? Being a follower, following Jesus.

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