Servant King: Reigning Through Serving

Ford Madox Brown

Robert K. Greenleaf’s idea of the servant as a leader sprang forth from his reading of Hermann Hesse’s short novel Journey to the East. In Hesse’s mythical journey account, Greenleaf encountered a domestic servant Leo, who was the main character, accompanying a band of men on a spiritual quest. In the story, Leo turned out to be the great leader, according to Greenleaf, because when Leo went missing, the whole group fell apart and the journey was abandoned. It was not until they found Leo again that the band of men discovered that Leo was not only their servant, but also their guiding spirit, their great leader (Greenleaf 1998: 3). Greenleaf explained,

The Servant-Leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. 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. ¹ (Greenleaf 1991: 7)

From Leo’s account Greenleaf concluded that, “the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness.”(1998: 3 emp. original) What Greenleaf encountered in Leo, is what Christians have encountered and are encountering in Christ Jesus for the past two thousand years. Hesse’s mythical journey is fascinating because it mimics the Grand journey. The Grand narrative. God’s story.

The epoch of the grand narrative was when God in Christ Jesus entered the story. Shakespeare meeting Hamlet². According to the Gospel of John, the Creator of all things took on flesh and dwell among His people (Jn 1:14).  The God and King of Israel emptied himself by taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7) and dwell among His people. He came not to be served but to serve (Mk. 10:45).

His mission was the restoration of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Christ Jesus served His people by putting down the crown of gold, his infinity worthy glory, and putting on the crown of thorns, our shame, and nailed them on the cross. “On a cross,” in Timothy J. Geddert insightful words,  “Jesus is taking his throne. In weakness, God is unleashing power.”(Geddert 2001: 251)

This King came to serve. He was the servant first. He came to restore God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven through serving. Through serving He reigns.


[1] First published in 1970

[2] “If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Hamlet could initiate nothing.”(Lewis 1955: 227) He footnoted: “Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The “Shakespeare” within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation.”

Geddert, T. J. (2001). Mark. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

Greenleaf, Robert K. (1991). The servant as leader. Indianapolis: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1-37.

______________________ (1998) The Power of Servant Leadership. Larry C. Spears(Editor). The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, CA.

Image: Ford Madox Brown’s  Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet( 1852-56)

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3 thoughts on “Servant King: Reigning Through Serving

    • Yes, what irony. A leader who serves. Whoever thought of that?! And when the leader fails? I see from your own blog that this is a situation very rarely dealt with – pastors/priests/leaders who fail ( for whatever reason ) or simply suffer total burn-out and drop by the wayside. It appears that most times the Church – and that means you and me – fails a person hit so hard.

  1. One of the lessons to be learnt from Hermann Hesse’s story,( and he writes of this in almost all his books ), is that of humility. He was of course writing within a particular culture at a particular time. I have a sense that in this age Hesse would not use words such as ‘great’ or ‘king’ or even ‘power’. I think too, leaving his roots behind, that ‘love’ is a word he would more frequently use, ( a word/expression rather skilfully disguised in much of his writings ).

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