Who’s Your Master: Discovering “servant” in Servant Leadership


The activities of a leader are a reflection of their nature.  While leadership activities may be learned, the character and nature from which they proceed must be formed.  In the formation of one’s nature a reference point, or master, will become the principal influence. The result is a natural reflection of the nature and priorities of that master in the daily activities of leadership. Leaders will tend to become like their master, or principal reference point.  It is of paramount importance, then, for a leader to clearly identify the master that will strategically shape the nature of their leadership and their priorities. 


            The first question I asked the class on Servant Leadership was, “Why are you here?”  In one form or another, most of the students answered the question as one young lady did, “I want to learn to do servant leadership, ‘cause I heard it really works!”  At face value, that response is more than a professor could want. These students were ready to learn and already had a positive attitude toward the class. Yet it gave me pause.  I wondered, “Do they really know what they’re in for?  Where have they gotten the preconceived ideas they bring to the class?”  As the class progressed, it became evident that they were like so many others who are caught in a pragmatic trap that filters everything through the grid of results.  If it works, it’s good.  If it doesn’t, then it’s not good.  

            There is a growing interest in servant leadership both in the secular arena and among religious organizations.  Leaders hear the ideas and are naturally drawn to the apparent selflessness of the paradigm that puts others first.  This interest gets reinforced by the results servant leadership yields in real life situations.  Too many experiences of positive outcomes exist to deny that it has merit as a serious and increasingly attractive pattern of leadership.  

            In the face of these results, the natural tendency is to approach servant leadership as a model or style of leadership.  Embarking on a journey to learn servant leadership, a person presumes he or she will be gaining skills in behaviors that will make them a servant leader. This in turn will help others become fulfilled and thereby the desires of the organization will be achieved.  The result is that the servant leader will be effective.  And isn’t that the desire of every leader?

            But the genius of servant leadership is really not in its observable behaviors or in its outcomes.  Anyone can adapt their activities to conform with prescribed behaviors in order to achieve results. The result of learning servant leadership is not merely changed behavior.  It is a fundamentally different way of looking at oneself and the responsibility of influence. Servant leadership is not so much a style of leadership as it is a condition of the leader.  Its uniqueness is not in its outcomes but in its genesis.  It is not a series of activities to be mimicked or skills to be acquired.  Rather, it is a mindset, a life, an identity to be forged.  Admittedly, there are behaviors that are descriptive of servant leaders, but they occur as a result of what the person has become.  Anything less cheapens the depth and significance of servant leadership, which is a call first to be a servant.  Because we always behave out of who we are, it is natural that a servant will exhibit servant leadership skills.

            Certainly you can approach the subject as if it is a set of skills to be learned.  And perhaps that will provide help in leadership.  There is merit in recognizing that learned behavior, when repeated often, can become habitual.  These habits can become second nature and begin to transform the character of a leader.  This personal transformation happens from the outside in.  But the true power of servant leadership is ultimately found in the inner being of the leader.  It begins with identity questions that provide a solid foundation out of which skills will naturally flow with integrity and ultimate effectiveness through a variety of styles of leadership.  Therein lies the true genius of servant leadership.

The Model of a Leader:

Identity gives rise to behavior.  Who we are will always have an effect on what we do.   Those are two dimensions of leadership that are inseparable.  They are like two sides of the same coin.  Better yet, it is like an iceberg.  One tenth of the mass of an iceberg is found above the waterline.  Nine tenths, then, lies beneath the waterline where no one can see it.  The top of the iceberg is in the visible realm; the bottom is unseen. There is one iceberg but two dimensions. The top of the iceberg represents the leadership activities that we perform and which others may see and evaluate – vision casting, management, budgets, decision-making, strategic planning, counseling, directing.  The bottom of the iceberg represents the identity of the leader. It is much less measurable and often goes unseen by others.  It answers the question “Who am I?” while the top of the iceberg answers the question, “What am I here to do?” The top speaks to activity, performance, achievement, and competence.  The bottom deals with the person’s nature, formation, personhood, and character. Both are essential elements for a leader.  But you can quickly see that one cannot exist without the other. The top is doing, and the bottom is being.  The top of the iceberg is only able to keep balance and stability to the extent that the bottom is well formed and deep.  

A leadership style is merely the description of activities in the top of the iceberg and their effect on the surrounding context.  Effectiveness in this pattern of thinking is defined by the results that come in tangible and measurable outcomes. The pursuit of good leadership, then is merely the mastery of skills and activities to be applied with increasing competence in response to particular needs or situations.  If we think about leadership only as a style, we are assuming that outcomes or results are the priority and primary reference point for leadership.  Effective leadership is reduced to being much more about the mastery of prescribed skills rather than an intrinsic quality that is formed. The adaptive nature of leadership becomes limited to the repertoire of skills in a particular leader. The capacity of the leader to discern the critical circumstances around her/him is reduced to merely observing the effect of the selected behavior.

In reality, wholeness and long-term effectiveness comes from building integrity between who we are and what we do; between the bottom and the top of the iceberg.  To relegate servant leadership only to the category of a leadership style limits it to the top of the iceberg which is only a fraction of who the leader really is.  Furthermore, seeing it as just another style makes it entirely dependent upon the results of “doing” leadership.  When servant leadership is seen first as the condition of the leader, then the priority is identity formation, which will give rise to activity that is consistent with its nature.  The bottom of the iceberg always provides a foundation and nature out of which activities in the top of the iceberg are performed.  Servant leadership is much more than merely a style of leadership.  It is a description of the leader him/herself. 

Putting the “servant” back in “servant leadership” means more than doing greater acts of service for others in fulfilling our leadership responsibility.  It means shaping the character of the leader with identity questions that will transform the leader into a servant in their very nature.  The resulting activities of leadership, irrespective of the style they reflect, will be servant motivated.  Clearly there are some activities that by nature are inconsistent with a servant identity.  However servant leadership may manifest itself in a diversity of behaviors that cross the standard lines of established leadership styles.  The foundation of servant leadership is the “bottom of the iceberg” identity of the leader which, when extended into “top of the iceberg” activities, shapes the behavior.  This integrative pattern provides a level of discrimination that eliminates inconsistent actions and, at the same time, multiplies the effects of activities that are consistent with its nature.

Identity of a Servant:

            In reality, we all serve someone or something.  The question is what or who.  It may be that upon careful examination, we find we are serving our own agenda.  Self is probably the most prevalent master in the lives of leaders today.  In this paradigm, we strive to fulfill our own agendas.  Self becomes the central point of reference for all activities.  Personal betterment becomes the test against which all decisions are evaluated for effectiveness.  The measure of good leadership, then, is whether we are in better shape and obtain greater power, prestige, or influence personally; or in the view of others if we have achieved self-fulfillment and a greater reach.

            Another strong contender for center stage in a leader’s life is others.  At first the thought of serving other people sounds noble if not downright righteous.  When it comes to the conversation around servant leadership, this is most often the focus. The presumption is that servant leadership is all about serving others. Yet under closer examination it becomes apparent that making leadership all about serving others can be a pitfall for burnout, fueling the need to be needed, and frustrated vocation.  Consider all the differing agendas of people in the organization.  Trying to fulfill all of those while still maintaining some level of growth in the organization and personal balance is a formula for overload.  This is particularly true in volunteer organizations like the church and is perhaps the greatest source of frustration and attrition for pastors.  Their constant attempt to please people and serve them creates inner stresses that can quickly come to a breaking point in tough situations. At the same time, the visionary element necessary for these situations becomes hidden in the cloud of serving others’ agendas.

            A third possibility as the primary objective in a leader’s work is organizational performance.  Outcomes overshadow all other agendas or interests.  Leaders with this “master” may very quickly slide into a pattern of leadership that is controlling, manipulative, and potentially abusive to people unless there are careful check points.  They may be so intent upon seeing results that potential collateral damage in staff members is inconsequential.

            Perhaps the most important feature of understanding servant leadership is to describe what one may call the “servant/master construct.”  Inherent in the very word servant is the implication that there is a master.  Each gives the other meaning.  Of course the concept of servant not only implies a master, but it also involves free choice.  Servants voluntarily choose to submit themselves to the influence of a master thereby being formed into the nature of their master and realigned by the priorities of their master. The deepest desire is to become a reflection of the principal reference point they have chosen and to fulfill the agendas of that same master.  The choice of that primary reference point we may call “a master” occurs either by intention or it becomes evident through patterns of behavior important to a person. The description in the Bible of the great kenosis or emptying (Philippians 2:5-11) is perhaps the most obvious example of the volitional choice required in becoming a servant.  It evidences a release of rights and personal priorities as well as a humbling of the will in adopting the nature and priorities of another.

            The healthiest, and perhaps only “master” of a true servant leader, is God.  While it may sound so general as to be irrelevant, in reality it is the most relevant and healthiest point of reference for a leader to have.  Clearly there are many assumptions attached to such a declaration, but when understood well, the idea that servant leaders are servants of God first helps a leader to find meaning, balance, fulfillment, and motivation in exercising their leadership activities in any context.   Before you discard the idea as spiritual jargon, consider the reality that the uncontested greatest leader of all time was Jesus.  In order to understand his effectiveness we have to take a look behind the scene and get a glimpse of his identity.  He did not come to set up an organization, or to manipulate people into performance under his control.  The best descriptor we have is that of a servant.  But it’s important to note that even though he was meeting the needs of people, he was not their servant.  He came as a servant of God, and it was God’s agenda that directed his activities.  His service to people was to help them discover wholeness in response to their greatest need as they too came into an understanding of God’s greatest desire for them.  In short, Christ came as a servant of God and a minister to people. There is a vast difference in the concept of service or ministry and servanthood. 

As a manifestation of His ultimate choice to serve God, Jesus surrendered his own agenda to fulfill the principal agenda of the one He served.  That agenda was to restore people to wholeness through reconciliation with God. In fulfilling the agenda of His master, He ministered to people.  Servant leaders do well to begin their journey of formation here.

            The bottom of the iceberg, our identity, is the dimension of self that no one else sees.  It is the ballast that gives our lives stability and meaning.  Out of the overflow of that identity, our activities are motivated and focused not only in a manner consistent with the inner DNA of our being, but in a way that fulfills God’s vocation and calling for us.  

            Making the willful choice to serve God means that first our nature is transformed.  Our nature is affected by our submission to the one we serve.  If the one we serve is self, we will by nature become selfish.  If the ones we serve are others, we will become manipulative and insecure in the many different demands placed on us by others.  If the one we serve is good and righteous, then we will become like minded.  The character of the leader will take on the nature of the one they serve.  

In addition to our nature being affected, our priorities are also affected based upon whom we serve.  If we serve self, our priority is to preserve and exalt self at all cost.  In serving God, however, we find that His priorities become ours.  What is important to God becomes important to us.  His greatest priority since creation has been for people to be reconciled to God’s own self in becoming whole and healed of the brokenness resulting from the great fall.  Hence, in serving God, our priorities become like His – to meet the needs of people thereby maximizing their sense of fulfillment and effectiveness.  The difference is, though, that we do so not out of a manipulative motivation to achieve good results, but out of a deep desire to please the one we serve. So the most important question every leader must consider is: “Who’s your master?”

Serving God simply means trying to fulfill what God has in mind for us.  That is the basis of vocation which at its root is a calling, a destiny, a deep passion and motivation that transcends the mere implementation of leadership activities.  When a leader discovers this fountainhead, suddenly all of the activities in the top of the iceberg begin to make sense.  They flow out of a natural wellspring of identity and are focused with consistency as the nature of that identity finds expression in actions.  Who we are always gives rise to what we do.  Our nature as a servant first will affect our actions as a leader.  

The error that many students of leadership make is to assume that servant leadership is merely a style of leadership complete with formulas, behaviors and patterns which, when learned well, will result in positive outcomes.  Servant leadership is not merely a style.  It is a condition of the leader.  As such, a servant leader may employ a variety of leadership styles.  What makes them a servant is the fact that they are acting out of servanthood to God, compelled by a God-given vocation in fulfilling a God-given destiny.  It is most evident in the condition of the leader.  Therefore, while we may perform service for people, we are not their servants.  A servant leader is servant to One. 


            In a day when efficiency and outcomes are the center of attention for leaders and leadership studies, calling people to servanthood is counter cultural.  It goes against the grain of a 21st century entrepreneurial, success oriented culture.  From school days to work situations, we are imprinted with the importance of performance and results.  The bottom line is the most influential element in promotions, hires, and bonuses.  The expectation is that not much else is important as long as the results are good.  Even the character of a person is minimized if performance is strong.  And so we create a culture that is built upon results, performance, and outcomes.  While at first glance this appears to be effective, owing to the net improvement of organizations and their ability to service communities, it is a trap that can become destructive.  

            The shallow nature of performance-based identity leaves a leader dependent upon outcomes to determine personal value.  If the outcomes of leadership activities are good, then the leader assumes she is a good person.  Conversely, if performance is poor, the leader begins to think they are a bad person and begin to seek other, perhaps inappropriate, sources of personal validation.  Burnout, moral failure, misbehavior are all potential consequences of an identity that is based merely upon performance that fails.  Arrogance, abuse, self-centered corruption can become the consequences of performance-based identity that is successful.  In either case, the value of a person is reduced to the ability to perform and they become a commodity to be used or an asset to be leveraged.

            Although the servant leadership model is best exemplified by the person of Jesus, it is a principle that applies universally to all people.  It is not a style to be learned as much as it is a condition to be embraced by the leader.  For a leader the starting point is to ask the question, “Who am I?”  As this leads to basic identity formation, the activities that follow in engaging the work situation will be shaped and adjusted into consistency.  In that consistency, otherwise known as integrity, there is power and effectiveness that is healthy, productive and selfless.

Kevin Mannoia