8 Characteristics of a Servant Leader

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In a previous post, I shared the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet as an example of servant leadership. As mentioned in that post, the idea of servant leadership has become more popular wherever leadership is discussed. However, transferring talk into action is always a challenge.

Knowing why we need to be servant leaders is answered by Jesus in John 13:12-17. But knowing how to do it—how to actually be a servant leader—is not always clear.

First of all, for pastors and leaders in churches it is fitting for us to be servant leaders because that’s how we see Jesus lead. This is reflected in what Jesus says about Himself and for His followers in Mark 10:43-45—

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

It is also the very nature of Jesus—

… and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart. (Matt 11:29)

But what if you aren’t a pastor or leader, at least not in a recognized sense?

All believers are leaders in some way in various roles in life. Wherever we have influence in people’s lives—whether among family or friends or at work—as believers, we are called to be examples and this is an important qualification for any leader.

Even within the church, whether we are recognized by others as people having influence, we are called to fulfill God’s purpose for our life within His church body (Eph 4:15-16).

Here are the first 3 of 8 characteristics of a servant leader, as seen in the leadership of Jesus in John 13:1-17.

1– Motivated by love (verse 1)

This is always our first priority. We are to be compelled by love to serve others with our leadership—not ambition, nor obligation.

We need to see people as Jesus saw them and love them as Jesus loved them. Jesus had compassion on people as “sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). Jesus was compelled by His love for the Father. It was always His number one priority. But is it ours?

When Jesus “knew His hour had come,” it says Jesus already had loved His own and would now show them the fullness of His love. Who does this include? Those who seek and follow Him near and far, then and now, even those who've ignored Him and His love.

It says He “loved them to the end.” This is expressed in the well-known declaration found in John 3:16.

His all-important mission—the purpose of Jesus being sent to earth by the Father—would be completed through His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead.

Are we as leaders compelled by the love we have for Jesus to serve as He served?

2– Humility based on confidence (verses 2-3)

If our confidence is based on anything else than our personal relationship with the Lord, it is a feeble confidence—empty of any spiritual authority. In fact, we need to be emptied of any confidence in ourselves so we become confident in Him alone.

Jesus had nothing to prove and nothing to lose. Jesus knew who He was, where He had come from, and why He came from heaven. Jesus willingly stripped Himself of His glory to fulfill His Father’s will.

His relationship with His Father, His mission, and His nature as a Son were His base of confidence—not His position as Messiah.

Godly confidence is relational. It can’t be gained by any other means—education, hard work, recognition, nor anything else—and no one but the Lord can confer it upon us.

Godly confidence is relational

John’s narrative in the first three verses are given as a backdrop to illustrate this simple lesson in servant leadership.

Because Jesus was the Son of God—His confidence based in His relationship with the Father—had freedom to stoop down as a servant to wash the disciples’ feet. It was intentional and relational.

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example… (John 13:14-15)

As leaders, our motivation for serving is love and our confidence to serve needs to be based on our relationship with the Lord.

3– Denial of self and giving ourselves to God first (verses 4-5)

The picture of Jesus stripping down to the role of a common servant, then stooping down to wash the disciples’ feet is an extraordinary display of servant leadership. It gives us a mental picture of the Son of God transformed into the servant of God (Phil 2:5-8).

It’s important to remember that in serving others we are not their servants but servants of God. This is the example of Jesus in John 13.

Jesus was denying Himself in this lowly act of service after submitting Himself to His Father’s will. This is something Jesus told the disciples often (John 4:34; 5:30) and later demonstrated in the Garden of Gethsemane in prayer (Matt 26:36-45).

If we claim to be followers of Jesus and leaders of His people, we need to keep in mind the most basic call of following Jesus as found in Matthew 16:24—

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

This is a basic foundation for leadership in the Kingdom of God—servant leadership.

If, we cannot look beyond ourselves—our own needs, desires, dreams—how can we hope to lead anyone beyond ourselves for or to the Lord?

Giving our self to the Lord first by denying and dying to our self prepares us to follow the example of Jesus in serving others.

When we do this, it will be seen in our relationship with others—our attitude towards others and how we treat others.

How do you treat people you interact with on a regular basis?

What is your attitude toward others when you serve them?

We’ll look at the other 5 characteristics of servant leadership in the next post. For now, pastors—what are your thoughts on these first 3 characteristics of servant leadership?

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