Is Servant Leadership Just for Western Cultures? Complexities, Gaps, and Challenges

Abstract: Servant leadership was originally proposed as an ethical way of leading and has become a near-synonym for Christian leadership. This is problematic, however, because cultures with differing “power distance” vary regarding their view of the ethical use of power in leadership. Further, most of the research and writing on servant leadership has been conducted in Western, professionalized cultures. This article proposes that the way servant leadership is currently being conceptualized is not applicable to all cultural settings, which may mean that there are other “Christian” ways to lead.

Keywords: servant leadership, Western culture, Western Christianity, Christian leadership

The term “Christian leadership” is an accepted and frequently used phrase. There are courses, books, blogs, coaches, and even educational degrees that claim to teach and refine this practice. This is where I have spent most of my vocational life, as a pastoral leader, educationalist, global mission leader, and leader of a faith-based agency. Yet, despite the preponderance of content, or perhaps because of it, Christian leadership is not easily defined. Is leadership a distinctive practice within a set of human practices? If so, is there such a thing as “Christian” leadership, or is Christian leadership simply leadership practiced by Christians?

We often hear the term “servant leadership” used as a descriptor of Christian leadership, sometimes even as a near-synonym. Why do we attach the term “servant” to the leadership gifting and role but not to other gifts and roles, such as preaching or hospitality (i.e., servant preaching or servant hospitality)? Perhaps it is because leadership explicitly deals in the currency of power (as we shall see) that our human mistrust of power has compelled us to add an ethical word such as “servant” to the role of leadership. However, when we do this, we must acknowledge the reality that different cultures have varied understandings of the ethical use of power; this may lead us to question whether servant leadership, as it is currently conceptualized, might be a Western construct, emerging out of cultures with lower acceptance of power differentials. We might then ask whether servant leadership looks different in contexts that have differing ethical frameworks around power, and whether it is even an appropriate term in all situations.

These questions are of vital importance for Western churches and parachurch organizations, such as agencies that engage in leadership training in non-Western countries and churches that were started by first-generation immigrants but now have two or three generations present. These questions have permeated my journey in leadership as I have worked alongside Christian leaders from cultures with varying understandings of the ethical use of power. This article will explore these questions by mapping out issues related to the core question of how servant leadership is articulated and practiced in cultures that vary in their ethical understanding of the use of power. We will consider gaps that remain and areas requiring further research.

Is Leadership a Practice?

At first glance, to conceive of leadership as a practice seems daunting. The term can be used to describe a wide breadth of activities in diverse contexts, from leading a child to leading a corporation to leading a prayer. Leadership as a practice is not as bounded as practices that are nested within professional frameworks, such as medicine or law. Yet, given the preponderance of books, degrees, and research, clearly there is something there that is of deep interest and about which we are still learning. Many leadership theories have emerged over time, only to be critiqued and deconstructed in order for new theories to be formed (Dugan, 2017). While there are many definitions and framings of the practice of leadership, given the amount of popular and academic interest in the topic, we can state with some confidence that a distinctive practice (or set of practices) exists. It may be helpful to think of it as a meta-practice within which numbers of different concrete practices exist.

What Makes Leadership Christian?
What Makes Leadership Ethical?

If leadership is a practice, what makes it distinctly Christian, and is there, in fact, a specifically Christian way to lead? This question goes beyond the scope of this paper, but at a basic level we could say that, as with all human practices, for leadership to be Christian means that it is grounded in a worldview and enacted in a way of life that is rooted in the narrative found in the Christian Scriptures. In other words, it is not a practice that is disconnected from the missio dei but one that participates in and is shaped by it.

Given that the term “Christian” derives from Christ, we could more simply say that Christian practices (in general) and Christian leadership (specifically) emerge from and are shaped by the life, teaching, and story of Jesus. How this is enacted will vary by context. A Christian leader may lead differently depending on whether the organization being led is self-consciously seeking to be shaped theologically (e.g., a church) or not (e.g., a public company).

Servant leadership is often used as a descriptor of Christian leadership. Servant leadership (as we shall see below) was initially conceptualized as an ethical way of leading. This evokes the question of what makes leadership ethical; that is, how is leadership enacted in an ethical manner? Dugan (2017) notes that early leadership theories assumed the right of leaders to lead and did not even consider the ethical ramifications that were present. Leadership theories have become more values-laden and ethically grounded over time (Dugan, 2017), with greater attention given to leadership’s functioning in the context of relationality. These theories cluster into various categories, but overall, they have a commonality in that they take into consideration the power dynamics that are present in leadership. The three key pieces at play in any leadership theory are: (a) person (the identified leader and others), (b) process (what happens), and (c) purpose (the end goal) (Dugan, 2017, p. 70). Leadership theories cluster together depending on the extent to which they are attentive to these three pieces (Dugan, 2017).

Leadership is intrinsically relational; it is people that are led. This means that leadership involves influence; we could also use words such as “power” and “agency” (Sykes, 2006). Leadership is a specific type of relationality that involve influence (or power or agency) to affect something. Thus, power can be seen as the currency of leadership. The term “power” does not necessarily mean controlling or coercive power; it simply means that a person, group, or system has the agency to effect some change—regardless of whether they can control the change or force it to happen.

By raising the issue of power, we come to a key ethical question: what right does a person have to influence another person? Can power be used ethically within relationality in order to affect something? Much of the philosophical and sociological discourse around power has seen it negatively, associating it with the use of force (Paseward, 1993) or with using knowledge to oppress (Foucault, 1995). However, some thinkers see power more positively. For example, Hannah Arendt (1969) identifies another strand of thought, grounded in the ancient Greek Athenian city-state’s notion of republic. This strand sees power positively, “where the rule of law, resting on the power of the people, would put an end to the rule of man over man” (p.14). Penta (1996) describes Arendt as moving the locus of power away from the political realm by situating the political self within relationships.

While power is most often seen in its external effects when someone is overtly or implicitly compelled to do something, it is a deeper reality that exists in encounters with another. Nietzsche’s famous “will to power” phrase is, in Tillich’s (1982) reading of Nietzsche, “neither will nor power . . . but . . .is the self-affirmation of life, overcoming internal and external resistance” (p. 36). It is life itself (Nietzsche, 2016) that is the power of identity being formed over and against other identities. This could be seen as wholly negative. This negative perspective changes, however, if we re-think this from a Trinitarian perspective. In God, each person of the Trinity is distinct but has identity only in relation to the others. For example, the Father is the Father because there is the Son. Seeing the Trinity as the “social Trinity” has been a contribution of thinkers such as Stanley Grenz (2006), who constructs an anthropology based on the sociality of the Trinity (p. 86). Might we say that God’s power is in the relationality within the Trinity, and that this power, among other things, forms the identity of each Person of the Trinity? An undifferentiated, monadic God could only exert power outside of Godself, onto others, while a Trinitarian God exerts power within Godself, in an act of continuous inter-relating and inter-formation. If this is the case, then God’s creation would reflect this same sort of pattern, meaning that power is not intrinsically power “over” but power “with” since it is the action found in the space of relationality (Penta, 1996, p. 213). Whether power is seen as good or bad (or both) depends on one’s view of reality, including reality’s beginning (creation), purpose (telos), and whether one considers reality to be based on a plurality-in-unity (Trinity) or monadic individuality. As we consider Scripture, power is both creative and destructive—used to evoke flourishing and used to oppress. In a post-Genesis 3 world, Foucault’s (1995) assertion that knowledge is power is partially true. However, the Christian narrative does not end with the warping of power. As Jonathan Tran (2011) notes in distinguishing the Christian narrative from Foucault, “Foucault thinks the world belongs to power. Christians think the world belongs to God” (p. 106).

Since power is the fundamental currency of leadership, and since power can be shaped in good and bad ways, this means that leadership itself can be both positive and negative. It can evoke flourishing or suppress through domination. This, then, may be why there has been such a strong interest in ethically-grounded theories of leadership and why Christians aspire to practice leadership in a way that is shaped by Jesus; it is because there is a conscious (or subconscious) desire for leadership that is aligned with God’s generative intent, in contrast to leadership that dominates coercively.

From Philosophical Framework to Academic Theory: Servant Leadership as an Ethical Approach to Leadership’s Use of Power

The philosophy of servant leadership was created as an attempt to use power ethically in leadership (Frick, n.d.). Robert Greenleaf pioneered the use of the term in a seminal essay in 1970, followed by a book in 1976. Greenleaf said that his Judeo-Christian beliefs informed his approach but that servant leadership was applicable for people of all faiths, in all types of institutions. His thinking has gained popularity in the business and organizational world as a way of leading, and the term is commonly used in the ecclesial world. In his 1970 essay, Greenleaf wrote:

The servant-leader is servant first……..It 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……The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. (Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, n.d., n.p)

It is not difficult to see how servant leadership as an aspirational philosophy came to be associated so closely with Christian leadership, to the point where the terms are almost synonymous. It is hard to imagine a Christian leader self-describing as not being a servant-leader! Yet, the two-word term does not appear as a singular concept in Scripture. The word “leadership” does (Rom. 12:8; 1 Tim. 3:1–13, 5:17; Heb. 13:17), and the servant motif is also present (as we shall see below), but the words do not appear as a combined term.

The servant motif is obviously present in Scripture. Don Howell (2003) conducted an extensive survey of the Old and New Testaments to trace how the terms “servant” and “slave” were repurposed into positive terms, used to describe service to God. This repurposing climaxes in Jesus, who is the Servant who fulfills the Servant songs in Isaiah. In the New Testament, the meaning is expanded to include service to the household of faith (Howell, 2003). The notion of “servant” is strongly related to how Jesus used power in relation to others. Jesus took a towel and washed the disciples’ feet, filling the role of a servant. He then explains His actions:

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” He asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:12–15, NIV)

This happened during Passover week, after Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, which itself subverted normal expectations of leadership (i.e., a king would return from triumphant battle riding a horse, not a donkey). Jesus retained the title of “Lord.” He did not abdicate His power but used that power to serve. This example that Jesus set for His disciples embodied His self-description from the Gospel of Mark, when, after James and John requested seats of honor in His kingdom, Jesus said,

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 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 10:42–45, NIV)

Clearly, Jesus saw Himself as one who served, but He also was Lord. Jesus served His Father and served His disciples but not in identical ways. He did not take orders from His disciples or seek their input. He still used power. This must mean that using power and serving are not opposites. Power is neither ignored nor abdicated but is used to serve God and others, not to serve one’s self. There is no indication that this is relinquishing power or that this is equivalent to weakness. Even the well-known hymn in Philippians does not speak of Christ giving up power but of giving up glory, becoming a servant, and sacrifice (Phil. 2:6–11). Perry Shaw (2006) stated, “It is noteworthy that the central act of power recorded in the New Testament is an act of humiliation—the cross of Christ, the power [emphasis added] of God unto salvation” (p. 126). Humiliation is not the giving up of power; in fact, in the Cross, it is full of power. The Cross is an act of love. Love and power are not opposites (Tillich, 1982).

Thus, while servant leadership, as a singular concept, does not appear in Scripture, it is certainly informed by Scripture. However, as we shall see, given the way that servant leadership is being formed into a theory, it would be inaccurate to see servant leadership as the only form of Christian leadership. It may be more accurate to describe Christian leadership as “leadership that serves” instead of using the phrase “servant leadership,” since the latter has come to be associated with a particular form of leadership. All leadership that is Christian should serve. Depending on how narrowly or widely servant leadership is defined, there may be forms of Christian leadership that serve but are not classic servant leadership.

One of the challenges related to servant leadership is that, while it has been an aspirational philosophy since Greenleaf coined the term in the 1970s, it has not been studied seriously at an academic level until the last decade. As recently as 2008, Liden, Wayne, Zhao, and Henderson write that, “Although Greenleaf eloquently articulated the potential of servant leadership to fulfill individuals and energize organizations and communities, conspicuously lacking is formal theory and research designed to test the claimed strengths of servant leadership” (p. 162). In recent years, research has finally begun that explicitly uses the terminology and thinking of Greenleaf to test servant leadership in real-life settings.

This leads to some challenges. For example, there is no common consensus on an operational definition of servant leadership. Greenleaf’s description is philosophical and values-based, but a commonly accepted, operational definition remains to be produced. There is also no consensus as to the practices that comprise servant leadership. Several research studies have intersected similar leadership theories with Greenleaf’s vocabulary to identify and test practices, and thus there is forward direction in this area.

However, unlike other leadership theories that were conceptualized and tested as coherent theories from their inception, servant leadership is not “owned” by any one organization or theoretician, and there are a variety of perspectives and voices (van Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2011).

Power Distance as a Conceptual Framework for how Cultures Vary in Their View of Legitimate Power

The term “power distance” was coined by social psychologist Geert Hofstede in his seminal research in the early 1980s. Hofstede looked at various national cultures to identify differences and similarities in how they engaged with the world around them. He identified four spectrums onto which he mapped the cultures, one of which is power distance (Hofstede, 1985, pp. 347–357). His work has generated many follow-up studies that expand on the concepts, many of which continue to this day (see Power distance is the degree to which a culture encourages and rewards unequal distribution of power, accepting it as legitimate and normal. People from a lower power distance culture would view higher power distance as hierarchical, likely with a negative connotation.

The concept of power distance enables us to locate cultures in relation to one another in terms of their view of the ethical use of power. It is worth noting that Western cultures, in general, are lower in power distance than are, for example, Asian cultures. This cultural variation in acceptance of legitimate power produces complexities when considering existing research into servant leadership, given that servant leadership is, at its core, meant to be about the legitimate use of power. Thus, what is legitimate may vary by culture.

Most academic research in servant leadership has been in Western cultures that tend toward being lower power distance. As recently as 2012, Mittal and Dorfman stated that “to date, there is an almost complete absence of country comparisons on servant leadership” (p. 555). Their 2012 study is a notable exception. They started with cultural dimensions that, based on current academic theory, might interface with servant leadership and produced several hypotheses as to how these dimensions would be mapped in cultures that fell in different places on the power distance scale. After testing these hypotheses in various cultures, they concluded that while “overall servant leadership is viewed as being very important for effective leadership across cultures” (Mittal & Dorfman, 2012, p. 562), how this is conceptualized, articulated, and accepted varies by culture.

The fact that most servant leadership research has been conducted in Western, professionalized, and institutionalized cultures is a serious deficit if it is seen as the Christian way to lead. “Leadership that serves” may indeed be a Christian value, but it is not the same as “servant leadership” as it is currently being conceptualized and tested.

How, then, might we close the gap related to cultural differences? I would suggest two approaches for future research.

One approach is that, after we identify key servant leadership practices as they are currently being conceptualized in the literature, we should discover if and how these practices are self-consciously being enacted in contexts with varying power distance. It would be important not to get locked into certain terminology in terms of specific practices, since, as noted before, much of the research has been in Western cultures using Western terminology. Rather, the approach should be to let leaders themselves identify their expressions of servant leadership, then map those expressions onto a currently conceptualized set of servant leadership practices to see if there is alignment or difference among the cultural groups.

The second approach to research, and perhaps the more important and fruitful one, is to not immediately link with servant leadership practices as currently conceptualized but instead focus on the idea of leadership that serves. By using images of serving from Scripture, leaders could be asked open-ended questions about how these images are expressed in their practices. We may discover that leaders are engaging in practices that may not look like servant leadership to the eyes of Western lower power distance people and have not been conceptualized as servant leadership practices in the current literature but which are self-conscious expressions of service in that culture. Or we may discover that the culturally contextual practices of leaders in non-Western cultures have overlap with practices that have been identified in the literature but that a different conceptual map and vocabulary set is being used. We don’t know what we will discover by asking open-ended questions of Christian leaders relating to how they respond to the image of Jesus as the Servant in their practice of leadership.


To conclude, despite the complexities associated with this topic, it is important for the Christian church to continue to study and learn in the area of servant leadership. The notion of “leadership that serves” is certainly a theologically informed and important value to help ground the use of power and ensure that it is accountable so that leadership participates in God’s evoking of flourishing and avoids the opposite. The idea of serving has a high value in ecclesial communities, and it has significant basis in Scripture, so it would be helpful to retain this image as a key part of leadership. It would certainly help, though, if more words were used (rather than simply using the term “servant leadership”) to articulate the type of leadership that serves that is required in a particular cultural setting. If this is done, it would help ensure that when Western mission agencies and schools engage in leadership training in non-Western contexts, they are not inadvertently exporting Western notions of lower power distance leadership under the guise of servant leadership. It would also help multi-generational immigrant churches have conversations among the generations about how each leads and why.

In the end, being more explicit about the practices that enact leadership that serves in each context will allow the gift of leadership to flourish—in service to God, God’s mission, and God’s people.

Sam Chaise, MDiv, has served as a pastor, mission leader, and social service agency leader. Sam is a Doctor of Practical Theology student at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.


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