The phrase servant leadership was coined by Robert Greenleaf in an essay he wrote in 1970. He explains the idea as one who first aspires to serve, then desires to lead. The servant leader seeks to promote the well-being of others, as he or she helps them to grow and develop, and must be humble and willing to get their hands dirty.
General George Washington exemplified servant leadership on a rainy day during the Revolutionary War. Riding through the embattled countryside, Washington came upon a group of men trying to lift a heavy oak beam. The men tried repeatedly to hoist the timber, but could not muster the strength. Near them stood their young corporal, shouting encouragement.
Washington drew near and asked the corporal why he wasn’t helping his men. The corporal replied, “Sir, don’t you know I’m the corporal?” Washington stepped down from his horse, helped the soldiers, and the beam slid into place. As he went to mount his horse, the general turned to the corporal and said, simply, “If you ever need help again, call the Commander-in-Chief and I will come.”
Greenleaf may have coined the term servant leadership, but it was Jesus who introduced us to the concept as he said:
… Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, whoever wants to be first must be your slave- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Matthew 20:26-28
Later, as he ate His last supper with the disciples, Jesus began to wash their feet. When Simon Peter protested, Jesus persisted.
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. John 13:14-17
Jesus showed us how to live, how to love and how to serve; not just by standing on the sidelines and shouting instructions, but by washing feet and, ultimately, on the Cross.