Posted on July 13, 2015 in: Articles


Some leaders fear that servant leadership means letting prisoners run the prison, letting students run the school, or even letting patients run the asylum. That’s not how servant leadership works.

True servant leadership — the kind modeled by Jesus — incorporates two dimensions: vision and implementation.

  • Vision is a leader’s first responsibility. Others can be consulted, and often that’s a good idea because it brings greater buy-in from team members. But this task cannot be delegated. Leaders are, first and foremost, providers of and keepers of the vision. (Think back to when Jesus gathered his apostles. Did he ask them, “Now that we’re all together, what do you think we should do?”) When it comes to vision, the organization looks very traditional — like a pyramid with leadership at the top and followers below.
  • Implementation is the ultimate test of an organization, but it cannot be accomplished by leaders alone. When it comes to implementation, the leader’s role is to make sure followers succeed. So now the pyramid is turned upside down, with leadership at the bottom supporting and trying to lift up followers as they implement the vision.

True servant leadership addresses both dimensions — vision and implementation.

Effective servant leaders value a diversity of knowledge and skills when they build their teams. And they also seek all the feedback they can get so that each of the team member’s unique perspective is brought to bear in accomplishing the task at hand. But that is not the same as assuming all perspectives are equally valuable all the time.

For example, when it comes to launching the space shuttle, safety considerations must trump all other concerns. We know what happens when timeliness, cost or a single mission objective takes precedence over safety. The leader’s unique responsibility is to weigh all the different types of expertise and recommendations team members bring to the table and then make a decision in light of the organization’s overall vision and values.

Each team member is expected to evaluate and advocate courses of action from their unique perspective, given their particular expertise and area of responsibility. But the leader or leadership team is expected to decide a broad course of action based on the team’s overall vision and values.

For example, in the case of the space shuttle, it’s essential to know the cost of everything — including every hour of delay in launching the shuttle. But it’s even more important to know that no astronauts’ lives will be put in jeopardy to save any amount of money.

Group performance improves as the expertise of individual team members improves and they are able to share their expertise in a safe environment that permits the free exchange of insight from a variety of informed perspectives.

Effective leaders, then, focus on three things when it comes to implementation:

  • helping team members continually develop their expertise;
  • building nurturing environments where team members can bring their respective knowledge and information to the table and creatively interact with one another; and,
  • keeping the big picture — the group’s vision and values — in mind and making decisions on the basis of that big picture rather than on any one part of it.


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