Want to encourage servant leadership in your child? The Bible turns the idea of power upside down with examples of leadership from the life of David, Jesus, and more. And research shows us that leadership skills can and should be taught to our children starting at an early age.
So how do we teach our kids to lead with love when they still haven’t learned to clean their rooms? Let’s grab two thoughts, put them together and see where we land. Cue the music and . . .
First up: Kids. Playful, silly, me-focused, determined, curious, and always-learning kids.
Next: Servant Leaders. Intentional, others-focused, generous, thoughtful, and patient leaders.
What about kids who are servant leaders? Record scratch, anyone?
Odds are, your kids fall into one of two camps when it comes to leadership.
Maybe your kid is a born leader. She’s always coming up with ideas and walking around with a trail of kids behind her, telling them what to do. Or maybe your child is more reserved. He loves to help and tends to hold back from pushing his own opinions onto others. You might even have a kid who goes back and forth between the two.
But a child who leads naturally and with humility? That’s harder to come by. After all, kids are simply little humans. And try as we might, it’s tough to overcome the very real human urge to be in control and to manipulate situations to our advantage.
Still, developing the heart of a servant leader in our kids is worth our every effort. And there’s no better time to start than when they are small—curious and always learning.
What is Servant Leadership?
Before we get into what research and the Bible tell us about servant leadership, it might help if we agree on a working definition. Let’s take a moment to define servant leadership and talk about what it requires of our kids.
An essay from 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf titled, “The Servant as Leader” first introduced the idea of servant leadership to the public. In it, Greenleaf explained the concept in this way:
“The servant-leader is servant first . . . That person is sharply different from one who is leader first. 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.”
A servant leader is both servant and leader, but meeting the needs of others takes priority.
Related Content: Young David: King Episode
When David tries to rescue a trapped sheep it turns out to belong to King Saul and Doeg, the king’s shepherd, is annoyed at David’s interference. David offers to buy the sheep, but is he willing to pay the price Doeg demands?
What might this look like for our kids? And what does it require?
Servant leadership in children, for example, can mean letting go of your own big idea while still rallying friends to accomplish a task proposed by someone else. This can be incredibly challenging for both natural born leaders and for kids who are more inclined to serve.
That’s because servant leadership requires both humility and courage.
Max Lucado says true humility doesn’t mean thinking of yourself less, but thinking of yourself accurately. A servant leader recognizes his true place in the world—even if his current world is the recess playground. He knows that he is not worth more than the people he leads. Instead, he sees that both he and his followers are deserving of love, attention and grace.
Yes, a servant leader must be humble.
He must also be courageous. After all, in order to be a servant leader, a child must be confident that he can effectively lead others without cajoling, bossing, or manipulating. The life of young David offers us a wonderful example of this kind of courage as he cares for the well-being of a lowly sheep at his own potential for peril, in the end, sacrificing something very dear to him.
Growing in these two qualities—humility and courage—means that the child who is naturally prone to lead can learn to serve and the child who is prone to serve can learn to lead.
But should we as parents even be concerned about cultivating servant leadership in our children? There’s plenty of time for them to learn how to lead well, right? Let’s take a look at what the research has to say.
Kids and Servant Leadership: What the Research Tells Us
Research supports much of what we’ve discussed so far. First, often, children who are natural born leaders tend to lead with an inflated sense of self and a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.
A study to this effect published in 2021 also found that kids who were less inclined to lead were considered just as effective by their peers compared to their bossy counterparts.
In other words: children who are natural born leaders but lack the servant component lead no better than kids who tend to be more willing to serve but are reluctant to lead.
It’s that beautiful combination of humility and courage that enables a servant leader to be effective. And we’re not just talking about feel-goods. Servant leadership is proven to produce better outcomes both for the individual and for the team as a whole.
But when should we introduce the idea to our kids?
Consider this 2023 piece from Forbes which encourages parents to begin teaching the skill of servant leadership in elementary school or sooner. In it, they reference new research out of Canada which followed 250 children for thirty years. The conclusion? Soft skills, like servant leadership, “are critical in preparing young pupils for their personal and professional destiny, cultivating democratic citizenship and other non-academic objectives.”
Encouraging our kids to develop the skill of servant leadership is not wasted on youth. Instead, it sets the foundation for a lifetime of learning and growth.
What Does the Bible Say About Servant Leadership?
Of course, even more important than the research, the teachings of the Bible on servant leadership offer Christian parents encouragement for raising humble and courageous leaders. While the term “servant leadership” may not have been part of common conversation before 1970, Jesus lived the life of a servant leader more than 2,000 years ago.
In fact, He offers clear and direct instruction on the way we ought to lead in Mark 10:42-46. These verses find Jesus with His disciples on His way to Jerusalem. In just one week He will be crucified. Two of His disciples, James and John, ask Jesus for a position of power. His reply speaks volumes.
Jesus called them together. He said, “You know about those who are rulers of the nations. They hold power over their people. Their high officials order them around. Don’t be like that. Instead, anyone who wants to be important among you must be your servant. And anyone who wants to be first must be the slave of everyone. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served. Instead, he came to serve others. He came to give his life as the price for setting many people free.” Mark 10:42-46 (NIRV)
Jesus had courage and humility in spades. He spoke of servant leadership and then, just one week later, He put the ultimate action behind His words.
For another visual representation of biblical servant leadership, check out Young David: King.
Everyday Opportunities for Kids to Practice Servant Leadership
When it comes to learning new skills, there’s nothing quite like practice. And practicing soft skills and the way of Jesus alongside a loving parent provides a safe space for kids to make mistakes, learn, and grow. You can be that safe space for your kids as you encourage them to practice servant leadership in the following areas of life.
On the field or in the gym: Sports give kids an opportunity to shine and parents the chance to beam with pride. They also serve as one of the best places to practice courage and humility in leadership. Talk to your kids about how they can be a servant leader for the team both on and off the field. Brainstorm together, ask questions to gain insight and check in regularly.
With siblings: Power dynamics among siblings can be a real doozy, with older brothers and sisters lording their authority over younger brothers and sisters. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if you taught your older children the value of servant leadership in your home. You might focus on how this technique is not only crucial for building a lifelong friendship among siblings, but it can also be more effective in helping siblings build peace in the here and now.
In the neighborhood: Beyond sibling relationships, neighborhood pals seem to be the next most-fraught with hierarchy among children. We all want our kids to have the courage to stand up for what’s right and to lead a group toward greatness while also willingly accepting others as well as their thoughts and ideas. Encourage your children to step outside of their comfort zone when it comes to servant leadership in your yard and the surrounding streets.
Why Your Example Might Be the Most Powerful of All
Of course, nothing quite beats the power of a parent’s living example. Kids will often forget about what we say and simply do as we do. When we make a commitment to being servant leaders ourselves, our kids take notice and hopefully, put these modeled skills into practice. At work and in our other adult relationships, sure, but most importantly at home.
Look for ways to embrace humility in your role as parent—to see yourself accurately. And call on your courage to help you stay the course. After all, a servant leader parent need not force their children to behave as perfect little soldiers but can instead trust that, with God’s help, they will learn to lead well.