Servant-leadership has overarching purpose: to help people to become who they most truly are and to do what they are most deeply called to do.

In 1919, D. J. DePree was named president of the company which soon became the Herman Miller Corporation (Miller was DePree’s father-in-law and a major investor in the business). 

DePree led the company to focus on innovative design of home and office furniture. As a part of that focus, he became intrigued with the architecture and design of both public buildings and private homes. He learned a great deal from designer Gilbert Rohde, who once said to DePree:

“You think design is the most interesting thing about a house.”  And DePree answered, “Yes, I guess I do.”  Rohde responded: “Then you’re wrong. The most interesting thing about a house is the people who live in that house. And I’m designing for those people.” (from Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors).

A house serves the people for whom it becomes a home. 

A company exists for the people who rely on its products and services, for its employees, for the communities of which it is a part, and for the benefit of its investors. Strategic plans, marketing campaigns, off-site management seminars, team meetings, and everything else about a company serve, not a merely financial bottom line (though that, too) but a human one.

A church exists for the sake of love for God and for everyone else. A church’s ministries, programs, buildings, staff, and, even, its doctrines all serve to help people experience the wonder and wholeness of divine love. 

Servant-leaders are riveted by, and committed to, the needs and potential of people.

Servant leadership is costly, because we can only help others grow by giving them something of ourselves. Choreographer Twyla Tharp said, “To be a great choreographer (or teacher) you have to invest everything you have in your dancers. You have to be so devoted to them and to the finished creation that your dancers become your heroes. Without that generosity, you’ll always hold something back” (The Creative Habit). 

Servant-leaders don’t hold back; they spend themselves for the sake of others’ becoming and flourishing. It’s this quality of self-giving which distinguishes authentic from inauthentic leadership.

Followers of Jesus find in him a model of leading-by-serving.  He cautioned his friends about the self-serving pursuit of position and power: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you.” He underscored his understanding of greatness: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” 

In the circle around Jesus, there is no “over and under.” Since he is Lord over all, there is no room for “lording” over others. We climb to genuine greatness on our knees.

We’re responsible for right uses of power, which can either be creative or destructive–as a weapon of domination or as a tool of liberation. Power is safe only in the hands of the one who views it as a stewardship, who engages in power-sharing, not power-wielding, and who desires to empower not overpower the people around them.