Servant Leadership: the SALT of the Earth

Do you consider yourself a leader?

This is not a test, but a reflection. Take note of your answer and reasoning and we’ll come back to it at the end.

The subject of leadership is one that has long captivated me. I’ve studied it academically, witnessed it in practice, and countless experiences have shaped me as a leader. Such exposure has allowed me to see how dynamic the concept of leadership is, and also how it can be misunderstood.

My view of a leader once looked something like the cape-wearing hero you might find in popular movies. This perspective made leadership appear distant and inaccessible. I have since realized that leadership is far more simple.

Within the academic study of leadership, there are many varied definitions.[1] Outside of academia, the meaning of leadership may vary for different people. Yet, my favorite definition of leadership also happens to be the simplest I’ve ever encountered. It’s simply one word. Influence.[2]  As John Maxwell noted:

“True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that cannot be mandated. It must be earned. The only thing a title can buy is a little time-either to increase your level of influence with others or to undermine it.”[3]

One of the fundamental flaws that exist among many leadership models is that they focus on producing a desired behavioral or organizational outcome. As a result, even leadership models that value investing in people ultimately seek to align them with the organization in order to meet particular goals. Although group alignment to a mission is important, it can cause leaders to view each individual as the means to a corporate, collective end.

Four years ago, I came across a distinctly different leadership model: servant leadership. Take a moment to reflect on the name. Servant leadership? It sounds fairly paradoxical. How can a person be at once a servant and a leader?

Servant leadership is often attributed to the figure of Jesus Christ. However, the concept of servant leadership may be traced back at least 2500 years, centuries before Christianity emerged. The values and ideas embedded in servant leadership have been expressed by numerous writers, philosophers, historians, poets and playwrights, such as Lao-tsu, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.[4]

Although the roots of servant leadership are ancient, the term was coined by Robert Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader,” an essay first published in 1970. During his 38-year career at AT&T, Greenleaf participated in AT&T’s first management training program, created the first corporate assessment center, promoted the first women and African Americans to non-menial positions, and created a program to expose up-and-coming leaders to the humanities. He believed that, “the organization exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organization.” After his retirement in 1964, Greenleaf became a writer, consultant and teacher. He defined the servant leader as one who:

“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…The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Raised in the Coptic Orthodox Church, I quickly recognized this model as a unique way to align my entire life with my faith. The Coptic Orthodox Church is evidence of the power of servant leadership. Living a life of service is a core aspect of the Orthodox faith, built on the servant leadership of our Lord, Jesus Christ who accepted death on the cross as a sacrifice for us all. Christ developed servant followers who became servant leaders and spread His name through the power of the Holy Spirit. One of these servant leaders was St. Mark, who brought Christianity to Egypt as a missionary and founded the Coptic Orthodox Church.

In Mark 10:35-45, Christ addressed His disciples, in order to correct their misconception that leadership is a means to control others, and said: “whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to the first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Christ then serves in a practical way during the Last Supper. The act of washing feet was reserved for household servants (or in the absence of a servant, the person with the lowest status among the group). Despite this, Christ took this responsibility upon Himself to teach His disciples that leadership is selflessness through service. He washed the feet of one who would betray Him (Judas), one who would deny Him three times (St. Peter), one who would doubt Him (St. Thomas), and the rest, who would flee at His arrest. Christ demonstrated that servant leaders serve others not because, but in spite of, what they do.

I have learned a lot about servant leadership, and now practice it as the operations director of SALT (Serving Apostolic Love & Testimony), a non-profit missionary organization. SALT was founded in 2012 by two of my mentors on a mission trip to Tanzania and Kenya, organized by St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Minnesota. As we prepared for the trip, I didn’t know what to expect and what I would have to offer the people we would be serving. After arriving in Tanzania, I quickly realized that this trip wasn’t about what we could do, but what God would accomplish through us and how He would be glorified in the process. The accomplishment was the unity of the body of Christ across cultures, languages, and socioeconomic positions.

Today, SALT develops youth through mission work and helps them to understand their role as leaders. We help them to recognize that, as “the salt of the earth,” God has equipped them with unique talents and gifts to influence the world around them; whether on a local or international scale, by adopting a missional mindset to serve others.

If you’re waiting for a “defining leadership moment,” a moment where you’ll officially assume your role as a leader, I can tell you from experience that such a moment will probably never come. Most people who we identify as leaders began small, made mistakes, and grew from them. Their influence simply grew with time and experience. God, out of His divine grace, has equipped each of us with unique gifts, talents, and skills so that we may serve and influence those around us. The choice to use those gifts to serve others is yours to make. It is simple, but it is not easy. It requires one to continually seek God’s will to learn how to use those gifts to serve Him.

Seeing leadership as service in this way, is the most effective means to present it so that anyone may strive to become a servant leader. In the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr:

“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’ to serve. You don’t have to know the Second Theory of Thermodynamics in Physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” – in “The Drum Major Instinct”, a sermon by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, 1968.

Again, I ask: do you consider yourself a leader?


[1] Stogdill, R. (1974). Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research. New York: The Free Press.

[2] Maxwell, J. C. http://www.johnmaxwell.com/blog/7-factors-that-influence-influence

[3] Ibid.

[4] Valeri, D. P. (2007). The Origins of Servant Leadership.


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Andrew Gobran is a Human Resource Development MA candidate in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His Master Thesis focuses on servant leadership as a means to redefine what organizational leadership looks like and the impact it can have in navigating current and future organizational challenges.

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