Healthy Leaders


Listening Is an Attribute of the Servant-Leader

Gina BurgessGina Burgess

Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) is recognized as the founder of the modern servant-leader movement. He described leadership this way:

The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve.

However, servant-leadership did not begin with Greenleaf. Though Greenleaf was right, Jesus exemplified servant-leadership qualities first. Many of the great leaders of history were servant-leaders. Jesus certainly exhibited leadership in many different ways, yet He stated that He did not come to be served, but to serve. (Matt. 20:28) Better than any other leader before or since, Jesus displayed these 10 qualities.

L.C. Spears (Greenleaf’s virtual successor) brought together the ideas of Greenleaf in numerous books and articles. In Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders, Spears highlights 10 of Greenleaf’s characteristics of a good servant-leader, with very little reference to the biblical foundations of these attributes. Let us examine the greatest servant-leader, Jesus Christ.


A good leader is a good communicator. Spears notes that while communication and decision-making are often represented as the main job of leaders, these skills “need to be reinforced by a deep commitment to listening intently to others … to seek to identify the will of a group [or individual] and help to clarify that will.”

One of the foremost of a great servant’s qualities is being able to listen and act upon what is heard. A great server will get your food order correct. A great server thinks of the small things such as remembering if you like cream in your coffee. These actions cannot be done without first listening. Good leader-listening is the same both from a person-to-person standpoint and from a God-to-person standpoint.

Listening to God is the same as listening to your spouse, your kids, or your co-workers. The trouble with that is we usually are not good listeners even to our friends or family. While I was writing this article, my daughter called. I was in the middle of a thought, and so kept typing, all while she was telling me something. I should have paid attention to her, which I eventually did. The snag was that I missed those few crucial words from her, and then I gave a wrong response to what she was saying. That resulted in her huffing in anger and me growling in frustration at myself. All that emotional upheaval could have been avoided if I’d listened.

Listening is deciding that the other person is important, and what that important person is saying is more important than what you are doing at that precise moment. It also involves a great deal of trust that God will bring back to mind what you were doing if you need it. But too often we don’t listen very well to God either. Come on now, I know I’m not the only one that has this problem!

Jesus was an astute listener.

There was a Canaanite woman who ran after Jesus and His disciples (Matt. 15:22-28) crying out for help for her daughter. Jesus did not answer her cries, and the disciples implored Jesus to send her away. But Jesus listened to her and finally told her that He was sent to the “lost sheep of Israel.” She worshiped Him and begged again for help. When He told her that it wasn’t good to take the children’s bread and give it to the little dogs, she replied that even the little dogs receive the crumbs from the Master’s table. Jesus listened, and He acted upon the woman’s great faith, giving her help for her daughter. At that exact moment, the demons left her daughter.

Jesus did not barge into a situation and announce a solution. He never told someone he needed his eyes fixed, or that she needed demons removed. He first got input from the person with the need. He asked questions. He tested thoughts and feelings, as with Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) who was blind and sitting beside the road from Jericho. He heard that Jesus was near, and he began shouting for Jesus’ mercy. People hushed him, but he cried out more insistently. Jesus listened. He stopped what He was doing (walking), and told the man to come to Him. Then He asked him point blank, “What do you want of Me?” The man wanted his sight, and Jesus gave it to him. Making assumptions can kill good communication, and Jesus never made that mistake.

Leadership-listening means observing closely and imparting truth as well. In the case of Martha, Jesus and His disciples visited Martha’s home in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42). She was stressed out getting dinner on the table and entertaining so many. She asked Jesus to tell Mary to get up and help her. The Lord listened to what Martha was not saying, too!

Jesus empathized with her, noting her distress, “Martha, Martha, you are stressing out over too much, being worried and troubled about all these things!” Then He replied with truth, “Mary has chosen the good thing, and that will not be taken from her.” Martha was not expecting that response, I’m sure. However, sometimes the harshness of truth is softened because the leader has taken the time to listen, observe, and empathize.

Servant-leaders should decide that what God has to say is more important than the TV or newspaper or social media. God speaks to us in many different ways: mostly through His Word, but sometimes He is that still small voice, and  sometimes He speaks through our close and trusted friends, our pastors, or our parents. Sometimes He speaks things we just do not want to hear because we have our own agenda.

Being silent with the intent to hear what God is saying has become nearly impossible in our world of noise. In our age of information technology, constant entertainment, and social networking, we seldom hear silence. Listening to God is vital to our spiritual health, and listening to others is vital to our leadership health. Listening, as well as reflection, leads to the growth and well-being of the servant-leader. God designed it this way for a purpose.

Spears also notes that leaders need to take time to listen to that inner voice. This is about the need to be reflective – finding private moments or hideaways to realign, to hear our own renewed hearts, and to hear what God is saying. Jesus did this, spending a night (at least) in prayer before He selected or named “the Twelve.”

Leaders listen. We listen to find out the needs of those we lead. We also listen to learn and grow. Above all, we carefully listen to the true Leader, Who cares deeply for those we are leading.

Are you interested in writing for Head on over to our Write for Us page to submit an article!