During the 1970s, Robert Greenleaf, an executive at AT&T, began popularizing a concept that challenged the idea of a heroic leader. He advocated for leaders who embraced humility and empowered their followers to lead.
According to Greenleaf, great leaders see themselves as servants first, and this fundamental understanding sets them apart. He taught, “Servant leadership begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
Interestingly, this notion of “leader as a servant” aligns closely with the principles and teachings found in Christian scriptures, where Jesus Christ is often regarded as the ultimate example of a servant leader. Jesus exemplified humility, compassion, and selflessness in his interactions with others. In the Gospel of Mark, he declared, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, NIV.)
While Christianity inspires its leaders to emulate the servant leadership model by prioritizing people, valuing service, and fulfilling their role as stewards, it is essential to note that servant leadership is not exclusive to Christianity. The concept can be found in other religious traditions as well. For instance, even the Śvētāmbara Jain Jñātādharmakathāḥ Sūtra (“Stories of Knowledge and Righteousness”) monastic texts contain elements of servant leadership.
In a past life, the monk Megha was an elephant. Frightened by a forest fire, he created a clearing to provide refuge when the fire next hit. He rushed to the clearing with all the other animals during a future fire. At one stage, he lifted his foot to scratch himself, and when he came to put it down again, he saw that a hare had squeezed into the space. So he stood on three legs for the entire duration of the fire — several days — and as a result, he fell over and died. This exceptionally compassionate act resulted in a human rebirth.
The story runs that the Bodhisattva was born as a monkey, ruler of over 80,000 monkeys. They lived near the Ganges and ate the fruit of a great mango tree. King Brahmadatta of Benares, desiring to possess the mangoes, surrounded the tree with his soldiers to kill the animals, but the Bodhisattva formed a bridge over the stream with his own body and, by this means, enabled the whole tribe to escape into safety.
Devadatta, the jealous and wicked cousin of the Buddha, was one of the monkeys in that life and, thinking it was a good chance to destroy his enemy, jumped on the Bodhisattva’s back and broke his heart.
The king, seeing the good deed of the Bodhisattva and repenting of his own attempt to kill him, tended to him with great care when he was dying and afterward gave him royal obsequies.
Servant leadership goes beyond any specific faith and encompasses a broader philosophy of putting others and organizations before oneself. It emphasizes the importance of valuing and prioritizing the interests and well-being of others. As the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4, NIV.)