By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

It’s safe to say that Servant Leadership has taken the world – or at least very large parts of it – by storm.

Businesses, government agencies and non-profit organizations have been jumping on the bandwagon since Robert Greenleaf first coined the phrase – and described the phenomenon – in an essay back in 1970.

His seminal book, Servant Leadership, followed in 1976.

This approach to effective leadership took on an explicit and distinctly Christian flavor when Ken Blanchard, co-author of The One Minute Manager and 50 other books, and his friend and colleague Phil Hodges, published Servant Leader in 2003. Lead Like Jesus followed in 2005.

Although Jesus never coined the term “servant leadership,” it’s not a stretch to say that Jesus was the first person who actually lived and taught servant leadership.

But my reading of scripture is that he took a unique perspective on leadership that adopted two other metaphors in addition to Servant – Steward and Shepherd.

Put them together and you get S3 Leadership.

Let’s take a closer look at all three.

Servant Leadership

Jesus urges his disciples to lead as servants in several places in the Gospel. Here in one example from each of the four Gospels:

“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Mat 23:11-12)

He sat down, called the 12, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mk 9:35)

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (Lk 22:25-26)

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (Jn 13:12-15)

Clearly there’s no doubt that Jesus not only was a servant leader, but that he wants his disciples to be Servant Leaders.

Steward Leadership

As I began to write The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus, I quickly encountered a difficulty.

It soon occurred to me that the foundation for Servant Leadership is the realization that “It’s not about me.” Servant Leadership is about being mission-centered, not self-centered. But if one sees oneself as the owner of his or her own life and all its graces and roles, things will always be about the self. It’s unavoidable and inevitable.

Jesus always put mission ahead of self. He said, “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me,” (Jn 6:38), and he was absolutely consistent with that mission even in the face of terrible suffering and death.

In the garden, anticipating all of it, he declares: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42)

Jesus saw himself as a Steward of what the Father had given him – including especially his life’s mission. All of it came from the Father and all of it would go back to the Father. His life, teaching, suffering and death was never about him. It was always about doing the will of his Father.

St. Peter made the connection between servant and steward in Jesus’ life explicit when he said: “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (1 Peter 4:10)

Servant Leadership is based on the realization that “It’s not about me.” Steward Leadership is based on the underlying realization that “It’s not mine.”

There are two ways, in particular, that the metaphor of Steward Leader is central to Jesus-like Leadership today:

  • In the universal call, often articulated by Pope Francis, to be good stewards of “our common home,” the planet Earth.
  • In the nature of leadership in publicly owned and traded corporations, where no one is a sole owner and everyone – even at the highest levels of formal leadership – has the role of steward.

In recent decades the sense that we are stewards, not owners, of our lives and destinies has been heightened by a growing awareness that our planet is not ours to do with simply as we wish. Our decisions and our actions have consequences – and when it comes to how we use this planet’s resources, they have long-range, even permanent consequences.

Some of those consequences have already visited us. Some grow more serious with each passing day.

It’s clear that we can, if we continue to use the planet’s resources as we have in the past, make the planet uninhabitable. In fact, if we continue as we have, we can and we will destroy the human race – God’s most sublime gift in creation.

The subtitle of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You) is “On Care for Our Common Home.” How often do we think of the Earth as “our common home” – the shared home of all humanity, no matter what our colors or creeds, so matter the current state of our relationships, no matter what our quarrels and conflicts?

And yet that is as obvious as the noses on our faces. Every human being has a vital common interest in protecting the health of our planet. No matter our differences, we have to work together to keep it safely habitable. That common challenge supersedes all else.

To be good Servant Leaders, we must also be good Steward Leaders.

Shepherd Leaders

Even then, if Jesus is our model, there is more.

In John 10:1-16, Jesus speaks of his own leadership in terms of being the Good Shepherd, and he instructs his disciples about what being a good shepherd means in our relationships with other people.

We have to let ourselves be known, we have to build intimacy and trust because sheep will not follow strangers. We have to be willing to lay down our lives for our sheep. If we put our own interests first, like a hired hand, we will run at the first sign of trouble and the sheep will be scattered and preyed upon.

As Pope Francis told his priests, we need to be so close to those we lead that we carry with us “the smell of the sheep.”

Jesus-like Leadership is not something we accomplish from a hilltop or a pedestal. Good shepherds don’t lead their sheep like that.

Putting it all together

When we look at Jesus’ teaching and example in the Gospels, we realize that he was the model Servant Leader – and more than that, he was the model Steward Leader and the model Shepherd Leader.

He was the archetype S3 Leader.

If Jesus is your model for leadership – and why wouldn’t he be? – keep in mind that he was ideal Servant, Steward and Shepherd.

Embrace all three and you’ve taken a first, huge step toward becoming the most effective leader you can ever be.