Servant-Leadership (Robert K. Greenleaf)

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Leading by serving first. Explanation of Servant-Leadership of Robert K. Greenleaf. (1970)

Contributed by: Ietze Oostinga MA MGM

What is Servant-Leadership? Description

Servant-Leadership is a practical altruistic philosophy which supports people who choose to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals and institutions. Servant-leaders may or may not hold formal leadership positions. Servant-leadership encourages collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment.

Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990)In 1970, AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) coined the term in a short essay entitled: "The Servant As Leader". In the essay, Greenleaf describes some of the characteristics and activities of servant-leaders:

The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. He or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve - after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.
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. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, will they not be further deprived?

Origin of Servant-Leadership. History

In the East, Chanakya or Kautilya, a strategic thinker from ancient India, wrote in his 4th century book Arthashastra: "The King (leader) shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects (followers)". 

In the West, the concept of servant leadership can be traced back to Jesus, who taught his disciples: "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 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)

Characteristics of Servant-Leaders. Traits

A servant-leader has ten characteristics (Greenleaf, R. K., 2003):

  1. Listening. The leader has a deep commitment to listening intently to others. Listening also encompasses getting in touch with one's own inner voice and seeking to understand what one's body, spirit and mind are communicating. Listening, coupled with regular periods of reflection, is essential to the growth of the servant-leader.
  2. Empathy. The servant-leader strives to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits.
  3. Healing. Learning to heal is a powerful force for transformation and integration. One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing one's self and others.
  4. Awareness. General awareness and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader.
  5. Persuasion. A servant-leader relies on persuasion, rather than using one's positional authority.
  6. Conceptualization. Servant-leaders seek to nurture their abilities to 'dream great dreams'. The ability to look at a problem (or an organization) from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities.
  7. Foresight. The ability to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and likely consequences of a decision for the future.
  8. Stewardship. Holding something in trust for another.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people. The servant-leader is deeply committed to the growth of each individual within his or her institution.
  10. Building community. Among those who work within a given institution.

Strengths of the Servant-Leadership philosophy. Benefits

  • Servant-leadership is a long-term, transformational approach to life and work - in essence, a way of being - that has the potential for creating positive change throughout society.
  • Servant-leadership is often compared with transformational leadership approaches, which also emphasize collaboration. While transformational leaders and servant-leaders both show concern for their followers, the overriding focus of the servant-leaders is on service to their followers. Transformational leaders have a greater concern for getting followers to engage in and support organizational objectives. Compare: Appreciative Inquiry. The extent to which the leader is able to shift the primary focus of this or her leadership from the organization to the follower is the distinguishing factor in determining whether the leader may be a transformational or servant-leader.

Limitations of the Servant-Leadership concept. Disadvantages

  • It is not a quick-fix approach. Nor is it something that can be quickly instilled within an institution.
  • Can be perceived by some as rather 'soft'. Listening and empathizing too much with others may lead to indecisiveness or a lack of vision.

Book: Robert K. Greenleaf (1998) - Insights on leadership: Service, stewardship, spirit, and servant-leadership (L. C. Spears, Ed.) -

Book: Robert K. Greenleaf (2002) - Servant-leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (L. C. Spears, Ed.) -

Book: Robert K. Greenleaf (2003) - The servant-leader within: A transformative path (H. Beazley, Julie Beggs, & Larry C. Spears, Eds.) -

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