The concept of servant leadership may have had its origins in Jesus’ demonstration of servanthood when he washed his disciples’ feet, as recorded in John 13:1–17, or in Nehemiah’s response after God instructed him to lead the process of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. However, within the sphere of academia, Robert Greenleaf has been lauded as the father of servant leadership through his seminal works published in 1977 and 1991.
This article presents five strategies for effective servant leadership that may be applied for the purpose of transforming Christian higher education institutions at varied levels of organizational health and performance. These strategies, developed by Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert, are guided by biblical texts and Greenleaf’s work. I will also refer to Dennis Bakke’s contribution to the successful application of servant leadership principles in the management of AES Corporation, a leading electric power distributor.
According to Jennings and Stahl-Wert (2003), the five key strategies that have been shown to affect organizational transformation can be represented in an upside-down pyramid (Figure 1).
The first and most significant transformation needed in someone seeking to adopt a servant leadership approach is a mindset change that places those who are to be led at the forefront of the organizational transformation process (Ackerman Anderson & Anderson, 2010). Anderson and Ackerman Anderson (2010) described transformational change as a new state of the organization, which requires a fundamental shift in mindset. A significant segment of the organization must operate from this new mindset and implement relevant behavior change to facilitate the success of transformation and to implement and sustain a new business model and direction (Anderson & Ackerman Anderson, 2010).
A detailed description of the five strategies for effective servant leadership, starting from the bottom of the pyramid as presented by Jennings and Stahl-Wert (2003, p. 101), states that leaders who embrace the servant leadership approach should:
- Run to great purpose by holding out in front of their team, business, or community a “reason why” that is so big as to require and motivate everybody’s very best effort.
- Upend the pyramid of conventional management thinking. Servant leaders put themselves at the bottom of the pyramid and unleash the energy, excitement, and talents of the team, the business, and the community.
- Raise the bar of expectation by being highly selective in the choice of team leaders and by establishing high performance standards. These actions build a culture of performance throughout the team, business, or community.
- Blaze the trail by teaching Serving Leaders principles and practices, which are influenced and driven by the culture and needs of the organization and by removing obstacles to performance. These actions multiply the Serving Leader’s impact by educating and activating tier after tier of leadership.
- Build on strength by arranging each person in the team, the business, and the community to contribute what he or she is best at. This improves everyone’s performance and solidifies teams by aligning the strengths of many people.
Jennings and Stahl-Wert (2003, p. 102) went on to provide further clarification of these five strategies by articulating a paradox for each of them, as follows:
1. Run to Great Purpose
To do the most possible good, strive for the impossible. Sustain the self’s greatest interest in pursuits beyond self-interest.
2. Upend the Pyramid
You qualify to be first by putting other people first. You’re in charge principally to charge up others.
3. Raise the Bar
To serve the many, you first serve the few. The best reach-down is a challenging reach-up.
4. Blaze the Trail
To protect your value, you must give it all away. Your biggest obstacle is the one that hinders someone else.
5. Build on Strength
To address your weaknesses, focus on your strengths. You can’t become the best unless others do, too.
Dennis Bakke and Joy at Work
Bakke (2005), co-founder and former CEO of AES Corporation, has provided guidelines for the transformation of organizational culture, health, and profitability that reflect the “joy of work” through the application of servant leadership principles. Figure 2 outlines some of these key principles.
Figure 2: Key Principles from Joy at Work
The three main roles of an organizational leader, according to Bakke (2005), ar
- responsibility for interpreting the organization’s shared values and principles
- serving as senior advisor to everyone in the organization, and
- leading with a collective conscience by pushing the organization to reach its goals and live up to its ideals.
Bakke (2005, p. 132) stated that the goal of the serving leader is to “create a community that encourages individuals to take the initiative, practice self-discipline, make decisions, and assume responsibility for their actions.”
Servant Leadership and the Nehemiah Approach
Linthicum (2003) introduced the Iron Rule for the implementation and execution of a successful change strategy through the application of the Servant Leadership approach. The Iron Rule states, “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.”
He went on to point out, “The biblical person who most clearly understood the Iron Rule was Nehemiah. The book of Nehemiah illustrates how to use relational power to bring about social transformation” (Linthicum, 2003, p. 93).
Linthicum’s summary of the strategies Nehemiah applied in the process of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem appears in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Steps in Nehemiah’s Servant Leadership Approach
The first step, building relationships, entailed facilitating the process by which people discovered their skills and strengths and how these could be interconnected through a team effort to get the necessary work done. Therefore, Nehemiah sought to empower all members of the community to realize that they were of value to the process of rebuilding, and also to recognize and appreciate the value of the skills of each community member in reaching their collective goal.
Steps 2 through 8 all focus on other established elements of Greenleaf’s servant leadership approach. These include the empowerment of team members through listening to them and internalizing their concerns, identifying how the skills of team members can contribute to the resource base, team building, shared decision making, and collectively arriving at a strategy for solving the problem at hand.
The final step of organizational transformation in Linthicum’s conceptualization stresses that organizational success is a collective team effort between the leaders and the workers. According to Linthicum (2003, pp. 109–110):
Only organizing together around the common issues of those [members of the organization]—whether it’s broken-down walls or crime or education—and requiring the systems to be responsive will bring about substantive change in that community [or organization]. And such organizing together cannot happen unless considerable time has been given to building relationships of trust with each other as people share the struggles of their lives, the values they hold in common and the issues that are making life miserable for them. Only by building relational power can the lives of people be changed and their [organizations] be socially transformed.
This article has presented strategies for effective servant leadership that can be applied to any type of organization and system, including institutions of higher education. The strategies of Jennings and Stahl-Wert (2003) and of Bakke (2005) were greatly influenced by the seminal work of Robert Greenleaf. All four authors have strong Christian backgrounds, indicating once again that servant leadership has strong Christian roots.
Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet provides a servant leadership strategy that aligns with Bakke’s identification of humility as a significant character trait of a servant leader. This scene also shows that an effective servant leader should know when to step aside from a position of authority and power, taking on a servant’s position, to meet the basic but important needs of the workers in an organization (Bakke, 2005).
Linthicum’s (2003) exploration of Nehemiah’s approach to rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem also exhibits a close alignment with the foundational features of servant leadership.
Therefore, leaders of Christian higher education institutions should embrace and demonstrate the servant leadership style as a critical strategy in ensuring that a healthy organizational culture is maintained. In such a culture, workers will feel that they are a valuable part of the team, and that their well-being and that of their family is important to the leadership. As a result, all members of the organization will embrace its mission and vision and will be motivated to work together toward its ultimate success.
King et al. (2018) provide a striking example of servant leadership in the realm of Christian higher education. Trinity School for Ministry is an evangelical seminary of Anglican orientation that was deeply involved in the process that led to the creation of the Anglican Church of North America, separate from the more liberal Episcopal Church.
Along the way, Trinity faculty became closely linked with Anglican peers in Africa. One of them took a 10-year leave to serve as vice chancellor of Uganda Christian University; another became the Anglican bishop for Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea for five years; a third organized frequent mission trips to Africa.
In this work, Trinity faculty self-consciously avoided Western paternalism by (in Jennings and Stahl-Wert’s words) upending the pyramid, presenting themselves as servants. As one of them stated, “For decades, white Europeans and North Americans have told you that they are the experts and that you need to learn from them. But now I come to you with hat in hand, because you are the guardians of the historic, biblical Christian faith. We need your prayers and support” (King et al., 2018, p. 171).
King et al. (2018, chapter 6) also share stories from another memorable servant leader: Wayne Alderson, founder of the Value of the Person training programs designed to foster collaborative labor-management relationships in corporate settings. One of Alderson’s admirers, Wayne Thompson, recalled this classic example of building on the strength of each team member and its impact:
“Let’s walk around until we find someone doing something right,” Alderson said. When they encountered an employee lining up shingles with precise care, he approached the man. “I’m visiting here,” he said, “and I just recognized how much you care about your job and how well you want to do it. This is the most beautiful section of inventory I’ve ever seen.” He then turned to Thompson and said, “I think you should write a note about him, send it to his home, and put it in his personnel file.” …
The following week, the employee tracked down Thompson to thank him. “I showed that letter to my wife and daughters,” the worker said through tears. “They couldn’t believe the plant manager wrote me a letter telling me how good a job I did. The only letters I’d ever received were reprimands. My wife bought a frame for your letter and we put it above our bed, and she has me read it to her every night.” (King et al., 2018, p. 122)
Bakke (2005) summarized his success in making AES a global giant through the application of servant leadership principles in this statement: “Indeed, there is ample evidence that a joy-filled workplace improves financial performance” (p. 13). This “joy-filled” workplace as expressed by Bakke is one in which all members of the business or organization contribute to the achievement of the organization’s goals and growth, and one in which every employee from bottom to top benefits from the business’s financial success.
Other examples of the successful application of servant leadership principles in the workplace have been included in Schwantes’s (2017) article on “The World’s 10 Top CEOs.” According to Schwantes (2017), “Over the last three decades, servant leadership has risen from a noble and ethical leadership ideology stuck in religious worldviews to the very principles of how the most successful companies on the planet operate and profit.” He added, “Successful companies, some of which are regularly featured in Fortune magazine’s annual ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list for having high trust, high employee engagement and low turnover, are guided by visionary leaders who walk the talk of servant leadership.”
Ackerman Anderson, L., & Anderson, D. (2010). The change leader’s roadmap: How to navigate your organization’s transformation. 2nd ed. Pfeiffer.
Anderson, D., & Ackerman Anderson, L. (2010). Beyond change management: How to achieve breakthrough results through conscious change leadership. 2nd ed. Pfeiffer.
Bakke, D. (2005). Joy at work: A revolutionary approach to fun on the job. PVG.
Greenleaf, R. (1991). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Paulist Press. (Original work published 1977)
Greenleaf, R., & Spears, L. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Paulist Press.
Jennings, K., & Stahl-Wert, J. (2003). The serving leader: Five powerful actions that will transform your team, your business and your community. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
King, M., Jamison, B. & Barron, B. (2018). Steel faithful: Stories of God at work in Pittsburgh, 1952-2018. Adam’s Quest.
Linthicum, R. (2003). Transforming power: Biblical strategies for making a difference in your community. IVP Books.
Schwantes, M. (2017). The world’s top 10 CEOs (They lead in a totally unique way): A leadership philosophy that’s been around for centuries is practiced by only a few wildly successful global leaders. Inc. https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/heres-a-top-10-list-of-the-worlds-best-ceos-but-they-lead-in-a-totally-unique-wa.html