What About a Servant Leader for President?


“We Need A Servant Leader” for President, wrote Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in his New York Times op-ed piece prior to the first Republican candidate’s debate.  To correct reports of his intentions he announced that he is not running for the Democratic nomination.

Schultz doubts that any of the candidates has the courage to ‘rise above petty politics.’   They all, in his estimation, represent the ‘antithesis’ of the example Pope Francis set when washing the feet of prisoners in Rome.

Given the urgency of the times, he believes the country is in desperate need for a President willing to break with the prevailing mold of ego-centered, self-serving leadership in politics and the rest of society. ‘Too many of our political leaders,’ he writes, ‘are putting power before principle, party before country and cynicism before civility.’

For Schultz a ‘servant leader President’ would,

‘kneel and embrace those who are not like them’
‘unite all of us’
‘select a member of the other party as a running mate’
be ‘humble enough to see leadership not as an entitlement but as a privilege’

He believes that the nation needs, in fact deserves servant leaders everywhere – ‘putting others first and leading from the heart – from every corner of American life, including the business community.’

I agree but wonder, will it happen, can it happen?   Will servants run for President and will they emerge in the nonprofit sector, in religious communities, the military as well as in business?

Servanthood is more than a leadership style or role for particular situations.   It can’t be turned on or off to make an impression. It’s more than washing the feet of prisoners, as indelible as that image is. It can be seen in a wide variety of individual leaders in everyday settings. Servanthood is the life or character that individuals bring to leadership.

Some of the signs of servant leaders – they:

  • Treat their followers and/or subordinates as partners engaged in a common mission or purpose
  • Collaborate rather than dictate to reach decisions for the common good
  • Are vulnerable enough to welcome and learn from feedback including criticism
  • Humbly acknowledge and own their own mistakes, flaws and sins
  • Respect and promote diversity, eliminating bias, often hidden, that disadvantages women and minorities

In the mid-‘70’s Robert K. Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive, initiated the servant leadership movement.   He urged that when choosing leaders we select from those among us who have served well.   Thus the title of his original monograph – The Servant as Leader.

But can leaders learn to be servants?   I hope so.   A lot depends on it.



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7 Responses to What About a Servant Leader for President?

  1. Oliver says:

    Tom, your conclusive question is worth our attention, “Can leaders learn to be servants?” Considering that so many leaders have come to their present position without a servant leadership worldview, teaching the present leaders to become servants might be radically remedial and salvific. Sadly, much of the leadership material we have decries such values as compromise and collaboration. These two qualities are considered as being weak and vacillating. Servant leadership might be the hope of tomorrow, but, for the immediate future, training must be given to those already in leadership positions.

    Unless those in leadership positions acknowledge the importance of the new modalities, the path would not be open for the leaders who embrace servant leadership. Great post!

  2. Bob Prescott says:

    I would vote for the servant leader you describe, regardless of political affiliation, but that person must also have the strength of character and purpose to influence/lead the free world.

    I am intrigued by your proposal that a presidential candidate select a member of the other party as a running mate and potential vice-president. Has this ever happened? They would have to share common interests and values that transcend party platforms, and be able to weather a storm of protest from both parties.

  3. Tom Nees says:

    Bob – Choosing a vice president from the other party is an idea from Howard Schultz’s article. I don’t think it has ever happened and unlikely to happen under our current system.

  4. Gary Morsch says:

    What a novel idea, Tom! A President who is also a Servant Leader? I hope that’s not an oxymoron!

  5. Keith Wright says:

    YES YES! Would it make a difference if pastors who believe in servant leadership would teach and preach on the subject? Just a thought.
    Thanks for writing this. Maybe if a number of us began to discuss it, then maybe it would begin to catch on.

  6. Carl Summer says:

    Tom, thank you for the excellent thoughts about Servant Leadership and our Nation. I love the subject of Servant Leadership and the truth of becoming excited about helping somebody else succeed. There are at least nine sections of Scripture that speak directly to this truth as exampled in the life of Jesus.

    The original monograph that you referenced –The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf mentions not only the Servant as Leader but also the Institution as Servant. It seems to me that a recent book titled Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge written by James Kouzes, Barry Posner, John Maxwell, David McAlliaster-Wilson, Patrick Lencioni, Nancy Ortberg and Ken Blanchard highlights one quality that is assumed but not necessarily highlighted in much of the material on Servant Leadership.

    The authors state that Christ-quality leaders do five things. They Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. They Challenge the Process is the one quality it seems to me that is assumed but not necessarily highlighted in much of the material on Servant Leadership. Jesus certainly challenged the religious institutions of His day.

    It would seem to me that without that quality or characteristic churches, institutions, and nations tend to go astray. It was Max Dupree who said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”

    Thank you for your excellent article!

  7. Tim Evans says:


    I have have been inspired for many years now by you and your example of what a servant leader is like. Somehow it is not attractive to many to live such a life but I believe it is attractive to people who observe and experience servant leaders.

    Servant leaders don’t necessarily garner the most votes or followers, particularly in the political arena. It is more than time to experience a servant leader in the top echelon of our political system but it will be a difficult road for them to get there. I think the president who came closest to being a servant leader was Jimmy Carter but he was only around for one term. He didn’t “respect” the “system” and became an outsider, even while being president. (I’m not making any political statement or saying he was the best president, just that he was closest to being a servant leader.)

    I would like to dream of our country being led by servant leaders. It sure would make a difference. We all need to make that a matter of prayer… and action.

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