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Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader's main focus is the thriving of their company or organizations. A Servant Leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership inverts the norm, which puts the customer service associates as a main priority. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. As stated by its founder, Robert Greenleaf, a Servant Leader should be focused on "Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"[1] When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they benefit as well as their employees in that their employees acquire personal growth, while the organization grows as well due to the employees growing commitment and engagement. Since this leadership style came about, a number of different organizations have adopted this style as their way of leadership. According to a study done by Sen Sendjaya and James C Sarros, Servant Leadership is being practiced in some of the top ranking companies today, and these companies are highly ranked because of their leadership style and following.[2]



Servant leadership is an ancient philosophy. There are passages that relate to servant leadership in the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao-Tzu, who is believed to have lived in China sometime between 570 BCE and 490 BCE:

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When you are lacking in faith,
Others will be unfaithful to you.

The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’[3]

Chanakya wrote, in the 4th century BCE, in his book Arthashastra:

the king [leader] shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects [followers] (Ch. 19: The Duties Of a King)
the king [leader] is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.

Servant leadership can be found in many religious texts, though the philosophy itself transcends any particular religious tradition. In the Christian tradition, this passage from the Gospel of Mark is often quoted in discussions of servant leadership:

42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.
43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,
44 and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all.
45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45.[4])

Robert K. Greenleaf and the modern movementEdit

The phrase Servant Leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf. Greenleaf first set forth the idea in "The Servant as Leader", an essay that he first published in 1970. In this essay, Greenleaf explains how and why he came up with the idea of Servant Leadership, as well as what a Servant Leader should be. Greenleaf gave this idea an extensive amount of thought before bringing it to life. Larry Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, stated in a interview:

"Greenleaf credited his reading of Hesse’s book, Journey to the East, as the personal source of inspiration in his coining the term, “servant-leader” in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader."[5]

In this story, the main character named Leo is a servant just like all the others. They all work well together, until one day when Leo disappears. When the servants realize that things weren't the same without Leo, they came to the realization that Leo was far more than a servant, better yet he was actually their leader.

Greenleaf came to the realization that a new found leader should be someone that servants or workers can relate to. Leo was seen as a servant, but when the other servants realized that things fell apart without him he became far more than just a servant to them. Hence Greenleaf's idea of what a Servant Leader should be.

The most important characteristic in being a Servant Leader, according to Greenleaf, is making your main priority to serve rather than lead. Ginny Boyum states that Greenleaf proposed that a servant leader should serve first, the needs of others are their main priority, they find success and "power" in the growth of other, and "A servant can only become a leader if a leader remains a servant"[6]. In simpler terms, a Servant Leader should seek to be a servant first and care for the needs of all others around them. In possessing these traits, an individual would be classified as a servant leader because, overall, they are causing the servants to become healthier, wiser, achieve self-improvement, and eventually possess the traits of a Servant Leader as well.

Robert Greenleaf recognized that organizations as well as individuals could be servant-leaders. Indeed, he had great faith that servant-leader organizations could change the world. In his second major essay, "The Institution as Servant" (1972), Greenleaf articulated what is often called the “credo.” There he said:

“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.” [7]

Formulations after GreenleafEdit

Most writers see servant leadership as an underlying philosophy of leadership, demonstrated through specific characteristics and practices. The foundational concepts are found in Greenleaf’s first three major essays, "The Servant as Leader", "The Institution as Servant", and "Trustees as servant and homecoming.

Building on Greenleaf's work, these writers have offered a variety of formulations of servant leadership.

  • Larry Spears identified ten characteristics of servant leaders in the writings of Greenleaf. The ten characteristics are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. Leadership experts such as Bolman, Deal, Covey, Fullan, Sergiovanni, and Heifitz also reference these characteristics as essential components of effective leadership.
  • James Sipe and Don Frick, in their book The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, state that servant-leaders are individuals of character, those who put people first, are skilled communicators, are compassionate collaborators, use foresight, are systems thinkers, and exercise moral authority.
  • Joe Iarocci, author of Servant Leadership in the Workplace, identifies 3 key priorities (developing people, building a trusting team, achieving results), 3 key principles (serve first, persuasion, empowerment) and 3 key practices (listening, delegating, connecting followers to mission) that distinguish servant leadership in the workplace context.[8]
  • Kent Keith, author of The Case for Servant Leadership, states that servant leadership is ethical, practical, and meaningful. He identifies seven key practices of servant leaders: self-awareness, listening, changing the pyramid, developing your colleagues, coaching not controlling, unleashing the energy and intelligence of others, and foresight.'
  • The Center for Servant Leadership at the Pastoral Institute in Georgia defines servant leadership as a lifelong journey that includes discovery of one’s self, a desire to serve others, and a commitment to lead. Servant-leaders continually strive to be trustworthy, self-aware, humble, caring, visionary, empowering, relational, competent, good stewards, and community builders.

In the context of leadership stylesEdit

The most common division of leadership styles is the distinction between autocratic, participative and laissez-faire leadership styles. The authoritarian style of leadership requires clearly defined tasks and monitoring their execution and results. The decision-making responsibility rests with the executive. In contrast to the autocratic, the practice of a participative leadership style involves employees in decision-making. More extensive tasks are delegated. The employees influence and responsibility increases. The laissez-faire style of leadership is negligible in practice.

Servant leadership can be most likely associated with the participative leadership style. The authoritarian leadership style does not correspond to the guiding principle. The highest priority of a servant leader is to encourage, support and enable subordinates to unfold their full potential and abilities. This leads to an obligation to delegate responsibility and engage in participative decision-making. In the managerial grid model of Blake and Mouton, the participative style of leadership is presented as the approach with the greatest possible performance and employee satisfaction. However, there is the question whether a leadership style can be declared as universal and universally applicable.[9] Situational contexts are not considered.[10]

The servant leadership approach goes beyond employee-related behavior and calls for a rethinking of the hierarchical relationship between leader and subordinates. This does not mean that the ideal of a participative style in any situation is to be enforced, but that the focus of leadership responsibilities is the promotion of performance and satisfaction of employees.

Unlike leadership approaches with a top-down hierarchical style, servant leadership instead emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. At heart, the individual is a servant first, making the conscious decision to lead in order to better serve others, not to increase their own power. The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement. A recent behavioral economics experiment demonstrates the group benefits of servant leadership. Teams of players coordinated their actions better with a servant leader resulting in improved outcomes for the followers (but not for the selfless leaders).[11]

Link with leadership theoryEdit

Researchers see a difference between a leadership philosophy (e.g. “servant leadership” or “ethical leadership”) and a leadership theory (e.g. functional and situational leadership theories). The former is a values-based view of how leaders should act whereas the latter is usually a way of teaching leaders how to be more effective.[12]

For decades, the older leadership theories (e.g. traits, behavioral/styles, situational and functional) did not explicitly support or address the philosophy of servant leadership. However, this changed with the emergence of integrated psychological leadership theory – as represented by James Scouller’s three levels of leadership model (2011). Scouller’s model – which attempts to integrate the older theories while addressing their limitations by focusing on the leader’s psychology – emphasizes the idea that leaders should care as much about their followers’ needs as their own and view leadership as an act of service.[13] Thus, the link between the philosophy of servant leadership and modern leadership theory has strengthened in the 21st century.


  • This concept is seen as a long-term concept to life and work and therefore has the potential to influence the society in a positive way.[14]
  • The exemplary treatment of employees leads to an excellent treatment of customers by employees of the company and a high loyalty of the customers.
  • There is a high employee identification with the enterprise.
  • An excellent corporate culture is developed.
  • Leaders of a company define themselves by their significance to the people.
  • Servant leadership can be used as a principle to improve the return on investment of staff, in all economic sectors. Managers who empower and respect their staff get better performance in return.[15][16][17][18]


  • Servant leadership is seen as a long-term application and therefore needs time for applying.[14]
  • Servant leadership assumes low level of control over team. (Considered an advantage in non-profit service group sector as it promotes open communication & group problem solving if combined with leadership accountability and delegating of work. Toastmasters International uses this model of leadership, called Service Leadership, as the type of leadership developed with the Toastmasters Educational programme)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Greenleaf, R. (1991). The servant as leader ([Rev. ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.
  2. ^ "Servant leadership: Its origin, development, and application in organizations" (PDF).
  3. ^ Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, trans. John C. H. Wu (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala, 2006),35.
  4. ^ "Mark 10:42-45 (New International Version Bible)". Bible Gateway (in Latin). 20 September 2013. Retrieved 10 August 2015.
  5. ^ Dittmar, James K. (September 2006). "An Interview with Larry Spears". Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. 13 (1): 108–118. doi:10.1177/10717919070130010101. ISSN 1548-0518.
  6. ^ "The Historical Development and Conceptual Influences of Servant Leadership" (PDF).
  7. ^ "What Is Servant Leadership?". Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Retrieved 10 August 2015.
  8. ^ Joseph J. Iarocci, Servant Leadership in the Workplace: A Brief Introduction (Atlanta: Cairnway, 2017), chs. 5, 6, 7.
  9. ^ Staehle, W.H.: Management, p. 842
  10. ^ Neuberger, O.: Führen und führen lassen, S.515
  11. ^ Gillet, J., Cartwright, E., & Van Vugt, M. (2010). Selfish or servant leadership: Testing evolutionary predictions about leadership in coordination games. Personality and Individual Differences. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.06.003
  12. ^ "leadership terminology definitions – models, philosophies, styles", Businessballs management information, website: Leadership Theories, 24 February 2012, retrieved 8 January 2018
  13. ^ Scouller, J. (2011). The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Knowhow and Skill. Cirencester: Management Books 2000., ISBN 9781852526818
  14. ^ a b ©2008 12manage B.V. "Dienende Führung (Robert K. Greenleaf)". Retrieved 2012-08-09.
  15. ^ "10 Ways to Improve Employee Satisfaction". Retrieved 2012-08-09.
  16. ^ "Five Steps To Increasing Employee Motivation". Retrieved 2012-08-09.
  17. ^ Pink, D. (2012).To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. New York: Riverbed Books. pp. 219-21.
  18. ^ Cairnway Center for Servant Leadership Excellence What is servant leadership?

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit