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What is a servant leader?

By Julia Fetherston
What is servant leadership

If you’ve ever worked in an unhealthy environment where you felt your superiors were taking advantage of you or didn’t value you, you know how drained and unfulfilled it leaves you. Perhaps you’re familiar with this thought: “If I was in charge, I would do things differently.”

As an entrepreneur, you’re finally in a position where you’re in control—you’re the big boss. Now that you have employees or people you work alongside, do you do things differently? Are you the superior you always wished you had?

Power, intelligence, and work ethic—while enticing and important—aren’t all the leadership skills needed to make a good leader. A good leader makes the people under them feel empowered, valued, and appreciated. They’re understanding, empathetic, and willing to serve others. True, biblical leadership is servant leadership.

Jesus explains the meaning of servant leadership in Matthew 20:25-28 [ESV]:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Examples of servant leadership

What is a servant leader? Here are two great examples of leaders who humbled themselves to serve others in the Bible.


Esther was brought up from humble Jewish beginnings to become King Ahasuerus’ queen. She kept her identity secret, which played a part in winning the king’s favor. When Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, refused to bow before Haman, the grand vizier, Haman received permission from the king to put Mordecai and the Israelite people to death.

Mordecai pleads his case before Esther, begging her to save him and their people. She resolved to go before the king without permission, knowing this could lead to her death. She approached the king humbly and used wisdom to win his favor before letting him know Haman had sentenced her people to death.

Through her resolve, humility, and bravery, Esther risked her own life to save her people, becoming an amazing example of a servant leader.

A good leader makes the people under them feel empowered, valued, and appreciated. They’re understanding, empathetic, and willing to serve others.


Jesus is by far the best example of how to serve others. Jesus, fully God, humbled Himself to become a man, accepting the painful and humiliating death on the cross [Philippians 2:8 KJV]. As God, He had the ability to rule over all the earth, but He humbly chose to walk the path of a servant for our sakes.

When Satan approached Jesus, who had been fasting for 40 days in the wilderness, Satan tempted Him to turn stones into bread, to throw Himself off the temple and save Himself, and finally Satan offered Jesus the entire world in exchange for His worship. Instead of giving in, Jesus denied Satan at every turn, choosing to walk the humble path set out before Him [Matthew 4:1-11 NIV].

Throughout Jesus’ time on earth, He extended mercy to the sinners who deserved judgement, often going out of His way to minister to the ones who’d been rejected by society.

At the last supper, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. He then said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” [John 13:14 NIV]. Jesus set an example for His followers, radically shifting their perspective of leadership to being someone who serves others, no matter how menial the task.

Later, when Jesus hung on the cross, the people crucifying Him demanded He save Himself to prove He was God, but Jesus stood firm, knowing His death needed to take place for our salvation [Matthew 27:38-44 ESV].

Servant leadership qualities

What are the characteristics of servant leadership in the modern work environment? The first step is reflective prayer. Beyond that, here are some ways you can serve your employees and partners.

Positive work environment

An ideal work environment needs open lines of communication. The people you work with should feel confident coming to you with work-related issues, trusting that you will be receptive and understanding. You have more influence over the work environment than you may realize. If the people you work with are too afraid to come to you with problems, you may need to reflect on what you can do to change their perception of you.

There should never be favoritism amongst your employees, and no one should be given special or poor treatment. Ephesians 6:9 [NIV] says, “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him.”


Your employees know when they’re fairly compensated. You shouldn’t step on the needs of your employees for your own benefit. If your priority is worldly gain, you’re on the wrong track. Matthew 16:26 [KJV] says, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Prioritizing your employees and their needs and making sure they’re properly compensated exemplifies servant leadership. While it may be tempting to offer minimum wages, it’s often difficult or impossible to make a living off the bare minimum, depending on where you’re from.

Personal accountability

As the leader, you never want to give the impression of weakness and fault, which is why it’s easy to dig your heels in when you make a mistake. But if you apologize and take ownership when you’ve made a mistake, you’ll gain far more respect.

If you don’t take ownership of your mistakes when you’ve erred, you will lose the trust of your coworkers. Proverbs 28:13 [NIV] says, “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”


The people who work for and with you need to know you’re in their corner. If they’re being harassed by a customer or mistreated by a coworker, step in and offer them support. Your employees and partners will have more confidence in you and their work if they know you’ll have their back when they need you.

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Julia Fetherston
Julia is a writer and storyteller with a passion to inspire others to live out the truths of the gospel. Her out-of-the-box thinking provides a unique perspective on biblical truth, and her mission is to relate those truths back to others.