The 7 Signs to Look For in a Servant Leader

Published March 24, 2020


Leading OthersServant Leadership

What do executives at Starbucks and philosopher Lao Tzu have in common with Greek writer Plutarch and business author Jim Collins? They all at some point talk about servant leadership, which has become a popular idea today.

  • Starbucks attributes much of its success to a servant leadership culture.[1]
  • Jim Collins in Good to Great talks about how Level 5 leaders have a humble, servant mindset.[2]

But what does it actually mean to lead in such a way that demonstrates you are a servant leader?

This is the approach Jesus modeled, so the right place to start with servant leadership is with Jesus. But I want to be careful here. Our greatest need is not a great organization, and Jesus didn’t come to be our leadership guru. Jesus came to die on the cross for our sins and in our place. Let’s always keep that before us.

Having said that, Jesus is the one to go to when we want to learn about servant leadership. Jesus taught that the greatest among us would be a servant (Matt. 23:11). He declared that he came to serve (Mark 10:45). He set the example for us by washing the disciples’ feet, and ultimately by giving up his life on the cross. We see in the teaching and example of Jesus the path we would want to follow to learn how to lead.


Let me offer seven signs to look for in a servant leader.

1. First, a servant leader desires to honor the Lord in everything she or he does.

Our first and best service is unto the Lord. A Christian leader, regardless of title, ultimately seeks to love and honor the Lord in all things. This is the mark of devotion.


2. A servant leader is driven to lift up others.  

A servant leader always looks to elevate and give credit to other people in the organization. This leader will give more praise to others than they deserve and take more blame than he or she deserves. This is the mark of humility.

A servant leader always looks to elevate and give credit to other people in the organization.

I try to do this, though imperfectly—to take the blame for our mistakes and give away the praise for our successes. I think in doing so it gives our team a sense of confidence that if they make mistakes while trying to do good things, I’ll be there to support them.


3. Servant leaders are thankful.

Dr. Margaret Diddams is my provost (and direct supervisor). I’m constantly struck by the fact that no matter what happens, she consistently thanks me for the things I do, even when she is busy or in another academic crisis. Jim Collins talks about a mix of self-confidence and humility in great leaders. Thankfulness is a key piece of that, because an attitude of thankfulness leads you to distribute the praise and the credit. This is the mark of gratitude.


4. Servant leaders are even-tempered.

When I teach leadership to graduate students at Wheaton College, I often say that you can lose your temper one time in front of your team and it will end your leadership effectiveness. People don’t forget when a leader loses it. Being the calm voice in the room is a way to serve others.

Losing your temper may feel good for a moment, but it has long-term consequences. This is the mark of composure.


5. Servant leaders protect other people and what they do.

Over the years, we have all stood up for some folks who we think are worthy of the investment. Sometimes, this means we stand up for people trying new things that may not be received well by some. This is the mark of encouragement.

Administration is necessary to run all those things. I protect my leaders by saying if I need to be the bad guy let me be the bad guy. I don’t want to be the bad guy—who wants to be the bad guy? But in doing so I can take on some of that challenge that they might otherwise experience. That protects them.


6. A servant leader is a good steward of his or her influence and power.

Authority and influence come with leadership, and a leader should use them to help and empower others. I’ll use my provost again as an example—she says her job is to help “prosper the way” so I can be successful in my job. And she has.

In the same way I think my job is to prosper the way for my leaders so they too can be successful. I’m thinking of Genesis 24:42, where Abraham’s servant asked God to “prosper his way.” This is the mark of stewardship.

We will become better leaders the more we become like Jesus. Jesus came to serve. Let’s lead by serving others.


7. Servant leaders exercise an empathetic approach to leadership.

We ask, “Hey, is everything okay?” It’s being able to see in that other person what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, to help them to be more successful. This is the mark of empathy.


We will become better leaders the more we become like Jesus. Jesus came to serve. Let’s lead by serving others.


[1] Accessed February 9, 2020.

[2] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).

About the Author
Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D.

Executive Director & Dean of School of Mission, Ministry & Leadership

Wheaton College Billy Graham Center

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, and as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America and publishes research through Mission Group. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Founding Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible study. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays. He also serves as Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has taught at many other colleges and seminaries. He serves as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church located in Naperville, IL.