Servants and Servant Leaders

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By Dr. Kent M. Keith
President, Pacific Rim Christian University
President Emeritus, Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership


I learned something at a Greenleaf Conference ten years ago that made an impression on me. The conference was held at a big hotel. Out in front there was a bellman who was especially good at welcoming hotel guests as they arrived at the entrance. He had a great smile, greeted everyone cheerfully, and helped guests with their luggage. He answered questions, provided information, and gave directions to the hotel check-in. He made the guest experience very pleasant.

One of the participants who was impressed by the bellman invited him into the conference and asked him to come to the podium during a general assembly. He introduced the bellman as a great example of a servant leader. The bellman accepted the applause, and then, very politely, he said: “That was very kind. Thank you. But I am not a servant leader. I am a servant. I am not leading anyone. I am serving them. I take great pleasure in serving people, one by one, as they arrive and leave the hotel. That is what I love doing. Thank you again.”

The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with him. He made a distinction that is worth keeping in mind.

There is no question that servant leadership begins with a servant’s heart, the desire to help others. Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” In the Gospels, Jesus made it clear that his followers are to be servants when they lead others. “Servant” describes the true nature of the servant leader. A servant’s heart is a fundamental, essential and continuing characteristic of a servant leader. 

Servant leadership grows out of servanthood. As Greenleaf said, one starts as a servant, and then “conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” There are many ways to serve, and leading is one of them. When one sees the opportunity to serve by leading, one assumes the responsibilities of leadership. 

Servant leaders are thus servants who have chosen to serve by leading. They will be servants before, during, and after they hold a leadership position, because that is their true nature—that is who they really are. The true servant leader is always a servant and sometimes a servant leader. The leadership positions can be given or taken away, but the servant leader remains a servant at heart.

Certainly, we need good servants, and we should be good servants. But not all service involves leadership. An act of service may be a one-time act of kindness toward another individual. By contrast, leadership involves followers, colleagues, team members, and their organizations. It involves influencing groups of people to achieve common goals. The appropriate response to a servant is to be grateful and to remind oneself to serve others in the same way. The appropriate response to a servant leader is to join the team and make the world a better place for as many people as possible. 

Please give us your perspective on having a servant’s heart versus being a servant leader.  Do you believe there is a difference? 

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