Jesus, Greenleaf, and Servant Leadership
By Michael Mooney
Robert Greenleaf is at the forefront of servant leadership theory in the world today. This brief post examines Greenleaf’s highlights in conjunction with a Biblical perspective. Additionally, servant leadership is defined as a model in terms of the life of Jesus Christ.
Leadership Theory of Robert Greenleaf
Robert Greenleaf is recognized for popularizing the term “servant leader”, a cliché originating from his private writings of professional enlargement. From these, Larry Spears categorizes ten fundamental attributes of servant leadership: “listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth of people, and building community” (Greenleaf, 1996, p. 4). At the heart of this list is strength, a word which Greenleaf conceptualizes into a quintessential virtue of leadership. Strength to him is an abstract power of persuasive ability to set goals, and approach them while accepting responsibility for individual and social outcomes in the process. It should be noted that this definition is quite removed from any standard meaning of strength (Professor, 2010).
The Source of Strength
Equally as eccentric, Greenleaf claims that strength is not gained or increased by resistance, endurance, calculated methods or even religious observance. Yet somehow in spite of these things he encourages leaders to question themselves for preparedness to increase their strength (as if they could take steps to attain it). Empowered by entheos, leaders are encouraged to search within themselves for greater insight and wisdom that accompanies human experiences and reflection (Greenleaf, 1996, p. 4).
Christianity Contrasted. With a focus upon an Eastern like energy, this approach to inner strength carries strong innuendos of Buddhism. Greenleaf’s heavy emphasis upon the spirit of man as the source of power leaves little room for the Spirit of God. This statement might come as a surprise even to some Christians, but mature believers understand that “God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6, MKJV). In this humility is the understanding that even if there were foolishness with God, it would still be wiser than the zenith of mankind’s intellectual faculties (I Cor. 1:25). For Christians strength comes in recognizing human weakness; thereby placing all confidence in God (II Cor. 12:9-11). Christian strength is expressed in the quote: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Php 4:13, MKJV).
Man vs. God-centered Service. Greenleaf teaches social responsibility as an ethic by which mankind becomes the object of service in his theory of leadership. This can be a compelling conviction, while also confusing to Christians (Duby, 2009). Greenleaf’s premise sounds as if it is an extension of Christian theology; however, there is a subtle difference between the two ideologies in the object of service. Greenleaf places mankind as the object while the teachings of scripture reserve this place for God alone (Mat. 4:10). Ironically, God commands believers to serve Him by serving others (Mat. 12:31; Gal. 5:13; Col. 3:22-24). The clear distinction is in both the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations to serve God in all activities (Col. 3:23). A Biblical worldview places God before all (Duby, 2009).
Jesus’ Model of Servant Leadership
Greenleaf’s ideology is similar to the parable of the wheat and the tares in that both good and bad concepts arise from it (Professor, 2010). “To have a Christian perspective on servant leadership we must acknowledge the source, Jesus Christ” (Fischer, 2010, lecture). He is the epitome of service through leadership (Mar. 10:45; John 1:1-3). Therefore, it follows that His life provides a model, one that is not contractual, but rather relational (Fischer, 2010). Blanchard & Hodges (2006) classify four key qualities of Jesus’ life that are important to leadership: heart, head, hands, habits. The heart is descriptive of the attitude of loving like Jesus with a “heart” of service. The head is descriptive of the action of studying and regularly evaluating personal intentions and beliefs regarding leadership. The hands are descriptive of the application of servant beliefs. Habits are descriptive of the regular practice prayer, solitude, reflection, and rest. These four qualities are visible in a comparison of Jesus’ model and Larry Spears’ attributes:
• Jesus listened to His people (Mat. 8:10)
• Jesus was aware (Luke 11:44)
• Jesus conceptualized big ideas (John 10:10)
• Jesus had empathy (John 11:35)
• Jesus healed His people (Mat. 14:14)
• Jesus mentored others with a commitment to their growth (Mat. 10:1)
• Jesus utilized others to build community (Luke 10:1)
• Jesus practiced stewardship with all that He had (Mat. 22:21)
• Jesus had foresight (Mat. 12:25; John 6:64, 13:11)
• Jesus was persuasive (Mat. 2:14)
• Jesus taught His people (Mat. 13:54)
• Jesus took responsibility for His people’s failures (2 Cor. 2:21)
• Jesus sacrificed Himself for His people (John 15:13)
• Jesus humbled Himself to personal growth and development (Php. 2:7; Luke 2:40)
• Jesus humbled Himself to remedial duties for His people (John 13:14)
Therefore, the conclusion is that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9, MKJV). Jesus modeled servant leadership long before Greenleaf ever existed.
All rights reserved. Blog authored by Michael Mooney for:
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Duby, David G. (2009). The Greatest Commandment: The Foundation for Biblical Servant
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Fischer, K. (2010, April). Biblical Leadership. Lecture conducted from Liberty University,
Greenleaf, Robert. K. (1996). On becoming a servant leader. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Professor. (2010, April). Untitled BUSI 502 Lectures: Professor’s Notes. Lecture conducted
from Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA.
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