What is a servant leader?

In an online article by Matthew Lynch, “What MLK Jr. Teaches Us About Servant Leadership,” he quotes James Perry, former New Orleans mayoral candidate: “A servant leader is one who offers an inclusive vision; listens carefully to others; persuades through reason; and heals divisions while building community.”[1]


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is known by several monikers, including pastor, theologian, civil rights activist, and foot soldier for justice. One title, however, isn’t commonly recognized, and it is “servant.”


Non-violent principles of protest and activism

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

King graduated high school at age 15, In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, at age 35 he was the youngest recipient at that time. Using Christian doctrines and Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, King’s nonviolent principles of protest and activism turned a spotlight on the burden and brutality of racism and segregation in the United States.


His dedication to obtaining political and economic justice, and fighting disenfranchisement, discrimination, segregation, and police brutality against African Americans led to more than twenty arrests, four assaults, and the bombing of his home. Between 1955 and 1956, he led a 382-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.


From 1957 to 1968, he traveled more than six million miles worldwide speaking in excess of 2,500 times. Undaunted by threats and imprisonment, King emerged as an unwavering leader who paid the ultimate price. While supporting striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee, he was assassinated April 4, 1968, at the age of 39.


Guided by what would benefit the people

In the truest sense, King was a servant leader. His decisions were guided by what would benefit the people in his community and his country, not his personal best interests. Today, taxpayer dollars fund lavish excursions and public servants are paid to lie to our faces. Moral and ethical leadership are traded for expediency and popularity. In an era where the unprincipled line their pockets and set policies that benefit a chosen few, King’s leadership style would be an anathema.


Authentic leaders

Authentic leaders go last, not first. The needs of their constituents, teams, and organizations are in the forefront of their strategic plans. They realize that small sacrifices on the frontend lead to great gains in the future. Not just leaders—they are servant leaders. As pastors, their sermons are transformative, and their members answer clarion calls to serve alongside them. As managers and directors, their teams don’t work under the thumb of blame and intimidation but with a view of shared ownership in successes and triumphs.


Celebrated, a role model

More than fifty years after his assassination, we celebrate Dr. King. Countless monuments, boulevards, libraries, and schools are designated in his honor. His model of servant leadership enables his legacy to continue as a testimony to equal justice and speaking truth to power. Although an imperfect man, King’s sermons and letters blaze with eternal truths.


Higher quality leaders

Recognizing those who truly serve, secures the selection of a higher quality of leaders because serving others keeps us humble and paves a path for authentic and moral leadership. Understanding how to serve is a timeless and vital life lesson for everyone and helps to answer the question, “What is servant leadership?”


[1] https://www.theedadvocate.org/what-mlk-jr-teaches-us-about-molding-student-servant-leaders/, accessed January 16, 2020.



Melanie Houston has more than twenty years’ grant and proposal writing experience with non-profit and for-profit organizations. Her passion for serving and expertise has garnered more than $7 million in client awards. Her other hats include an award-winning author and Indie publisher and part-time jewelry designer.





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