Servant Leadership through History




Although much of our traditional concepts of servant leadership are based on the teachings and life of Christ, the basic concepts date back much further than this.

In approximately 600 B.C., the Chinese sage Lao Tzu wrote The Tao Te Ching, a strategic treatise on servant leadership:

“The greatest leader forgets himself
And attends to the development of others.
Good leaders support excellent workers.
Great leaders support the bottom ten percent.
Great leaders know that
The diamond in the rough
Is always found “in the rough.”
(Quote from The Way of Leading People: Unlocking Your Integral Leadership with the Tao Te Ching.)

Chanakya or Kautilya, the famous strategic thinker from ancient India, wrote about servant leadership in his 4th century B.C. book Arthashastra:

"the king [leader] shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects [followers]"
"the king [leader] is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people".

In the Bible, the Old Testament uses the Hebrew word nagiyd to refer to a person under authority who fulfills the wishes of that authority. In Exodus 33:11 the word is used to refer to his servant Joshua. Moses was a servant leader. In II Kings 4:12, this word is used to refer to Elisha’s servant.

In the New Testament, the Greek word diakonia is used, and this word literally means serving at tables. It was Christ that told his followers:

And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all."
Mark 9:35-36 NKJV

The Greek word diakonia is used in this passage for servant. We get our modern word "deacon" translated from this. Later the word was used to refer to the followers of Christ in relationship to the Lord (Colossians 1:7) and sometimes to refer to the followers of Christ in relation to one another (Colossians 1:23,25) (Some translations translate the Greek word as "ministers"; but it is the same Greek word.)

Greenleaf and others have advanced the definition for today as:

Servant-leadership emphasizes the leader's role as steward of the resources (human, financial and otherwise) provided by the organization. It encourages leaders to serve others while staying focused on achieving results in line with the organization's values and integrity.


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Copyright 2005-2009, Carl Townsend