Servant Leadership

Is servant leadership actually doable? Here’s a summary of this idealistic leadership philosophy.


Servant leadership was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay called The Servant as Leader (1970). But the concept itself goes further into the past and can be reflected in ancient texts such as the Tao Te Ching and the Holy Bible. Today, some well-known advocates include Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, and M. Scott Peck. Just what is servant leadership and why is it so ideal?

A desire and decision to serve

At the heart of the best leaders is the choice to serve. Greenleaf puts it this way:

It begins the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  The conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.

Servant leadership is thus a subversion of traditional leadership concepts where the leader leads in order to satisfy his ego.  A servant leader intentionally takes himself out of centerstage.  He empowers others and lets them shine.

The Servant Leader mindset

How does a servant leader think and act? Greenleaf puts forward these 10 principles:

  • listening – identifies and clarifies the will of the group
  • empathy – understands others’ point of view and feelings
  • healing – brings about wholeness through healing of self and others
  • awareness – fosters self-awareness that brings inner security
  • persuasion – convinces rather than coerces
  • conceptualization –  dreams great dreams and goes beyond day-to-day realities
  • foresight – has an intuitive sense of how past lessons and present realities connect to bring about future decisions
  • stewardship – understands that each person in the organization is significant
  • commitment to the growth of people – recognizes that people have an intrinsic value and  nurtures their holistic growth
  • building community: creates a sense of community

Citing the likes of influential leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, William Wallace, and Jimmy Carter, Steve Murrell distills servant leadership characteristics into 3 points:

  • influence not position – influence is what makes others follow, not position
  • service not glory – concerned about service and not plaques or applause
  • guidance not authority – never demands;  guides by setting an example to follow

Does servant leadership work?

As Jim Heskett asks in the Harvard Business School Blog, if it’s so ideal, why isn’t it more prevalent? No doubt, servant leadership takes a lot of character.  Its very nature requires virtues that sound “utopian”. Perhaps Dan Wallace stated it best when he asked, “Where do you go to learn how to lead this way?”

But we argue that it’s still better to stick to a high standard when it comes to leadership. Research led by organizational psychologist Adam Grant shows that servant leadership is both effective and beneficial. Servant leaders are more highly regarded by others, more productive, and feel better about themselves at the end of the day.  Grant goes on to conclude that although giving can be exhausting, it is also self-replenishing.

Servant leadership may sound too ideal, but those who stick to it find that it also yields positive results.