As a teenager I went to a school whose motto is cui servire est regnare
, which can be roughly translated as "whom to serve is to reign." This phrase is from a prayer attributed to St. Augustine: "O God...teach us how to know you--and live, where to serve you--and reign, when to praise you--and rejoice..."
The phrase "whom to serve is perfect freedom" is also from a prayer attributed to St. Augustine: "Eternal God...grant us so to know you, that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom."
Servanthood is an ideal promoted by a variety of religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
In the gospels, Jesus says he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45). He also washes his disciples' feet as an example of his servanthood (John 13:1-17).
True servanthood may be found when we can freely choose to serve others. To serve is to help, to fulfill the needs of others, to obey, or to be useful to others. Perfect freedom may be found in serving freely. The true servant helps others to fulfill themselves as human beings. The true servant doesn't serve in order to be rewarded by others, because serving others is rewarding in itself. The true servant acts to promote the happiness, fulfillment, and well-being of others, and acts to promote peace and justice in society.
In order to truly serve others, we must have humility. We can't serve others if we put our own needs before the needs of others. Humility enables us to respond to the needs of others before responding to our own. When we know the importance of humility, we can serve others without using others to serve our own needs.
The true leader is also a servant. The true leader serves those whom they lead. True leadership is servanthood. When we freely serve others, we show our concern for them. If we love others, then we truly care about them. If we love others, then we also feel the need to serve them.
Robert K. Greenleaf (1970), a management researcher and consultant who coined the term "servant-leadership," says that a servant-leader is a servant first, whose primary motivation is to serve, rather than a leader first, whose primary motivation is to lead. The servant-leader takes care to ensure that the highest-priority needs of others are always being served.
Ken Blanchard (2001), a management consultant and leadership expert, explains that most organizations are hierarchical or pyramidal in nature. Leadership is from the top down, and new approaches to management can't emerge from those at the bottom of the hierarchy who have the closest contact with the organization's clients. A solution for this problem is servant-leadership, in which the organizational hierarchy or pyramid is inverted or turned upside down, so that employees at the ground level who have the closest contact with clients can better contribute to the organization's goals.
However, Jacquelyn Grant (1993), an American theologian, scholar, and minister of the AME Church, criticizes the language of servanthood as having undergirded structures of power and domination that have caused suffering for oppressed people. She says that, historically, women have been seen as servants of men, and politically disenfranchised peoples have been seen as a servant class for the wealthy and powerful. Servanthood language has camouflaged servitude and subordination, instead of promoting empowerment and liberation. She therefore prefers a model or language of Christian discipleship, in which justice is seen as an integral part of the quest for unity and community.1
Theresa Corbin (2022), an American Muslim writer and editor, says that a Muslim perspective on servanthood is that we can serve God by following the example of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and serving others, whether they are our children, parents, neighbors, or other members of our community. We all have leadership roles to fulfill by serving others. Servanthood is the meaning of leadership as it was exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).2
Ibn 'Arabi (1165-1240), an Arab Andalusian Muslim philosopher, poet, and mystic, says that we're created by God to be servants of God, and that we should never abandon our servanthood (ubûdîya). The servant loves God, and God loves the servant. Servanthood is our true reality, whereby the face of God is revealed to us.3 Through servanthood, we attain humility and recognize that we depend on God for our being.
Ernest C.H. Ng (2019), a professor of Buddhist Studies and Economics at the University of Hong Kong, explains that a Buddhist perspective on servant leadership is that the Buddha(s) and Bodhisattvas are "the embodiment of profound compassion and wisdom in their selfless mission and unrelenting effort to teach and heal all sentient beings."4 We can become servant leaders by following their example, and by acting in accordance with the Buddha's teachings.
Greenleaf (1977) also says that servant leadership may be characterized by such capabilities as listening, understanding, imagination, empathy, intuitive knowledge, foresight, awareness, perception, persuasion, action, conceptualizing, and healing.5
Andrey Shirin (2014), a professor of divinity and Director of Transformational Leadership at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Virginia, notes that some workplace settings may be more receptive to servant leadership than others. Some leaders may have a greater desire to serve than others, and workers may vary in their receptivity to servant leadership.6 He explains that the modern model of servant leadership may truncate the nature of leadership by making service the single determinative criterion aligned with Christian spirituality, and that St. Augustine viewed service as just one dimension of his leadership approach.7
Mitch McCrimmon (2010), a Canadian management consultant and writer, argues that servant leadership is a bad idea, because the reality in the business sector is that all managers must serve business owners if they want to keep their jobs, and they must also serve customers. If servant leadership is the idea that traditional, autocratic, and hierarchical modes of leadership should yield to newer modes of leadership that are more inclusive, and that are based on teamwork and community, then it's a true but trivial idea, and it presents nothing new or distinctive. It may also have paternalistic overtones. McCrimmon therefore argues that it's possible for managers to develop collaborative, supportive, empathetic, engaging, and empowering relationships with employees without taking on the servant model.8
1Jacquelyn Grant, "The Sin of Servanthood: And the Deliverance of Discipleship," in A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering, edited by Emilie M. Townes (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 1993), p. 214.
2Theresa Corbin, "Prophet Muhammad: Leader & Servant," at aboutislam.net, 23 December 2022, online at https://aboutislam.net/reading-islam/about-muhammad/muhammad-pbuh-prophet-leader-servant/
3Stephen Hirtenstein, ""Ibn 'Arabi's Bequest" and Two Other Passages from the Kitab al-Wasâ'il by Isma'il Ibn Sawdakîn," (Newsletter of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Spring 1977), online at https://ibnarabisociety.org/ibn-arabis-bequest-stephen-hirtenstein/
4Ernest C.H. Ng, "Servant Leadership Beyond Servant and Leader: A Buddhist Perspective on the Theory and Practice of Servant Leadership," in Servant Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship and the Will to Serve, edited by Luk Bouckaert and Steven van den Heuvel, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, online at https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-29936-1_3#citeas
5Robert K. Greenleaf, "The Servant as Leader" , in Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977, pp. 30-49.
6Andrey V. Shirin, "Is Servant Leadership Inherently Christian?", in Journal of Religion and Business Ethics (Volume 3, Article 13, Oct 9, 2014), p. 7.
7Ibid., pp. 21-24.
8Mitch McCrimmon, "Why servant leadership is a bad idea," in Management.Issues, August 16, 2010, online at https://www.management-issues.com/opinion/6015/why-servant-leadership-is-a-bad-idea/
Ken Blanchard, "Servant-Leadership Revisited," in The Sixth Annual Worldwide Lessons in Leadership, 2001, online at online at https://new.svdpusa.org/Portals/1/Servant-Leadership%20Revisited.pdf.