Servant-Leadership (Robert K. Greenleaf)

Knowledge Center

Summary, forum, best practices, expert tips and information sources.

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.) -

Special Interest Group

Servant-Leadership Special Interest Group.

Special Interest Group (498 members)


Forum about Servant-Leadership.

The Servant-Leadership Model Should Be Taught to Anyone in a Position of Authority
I believe that each CEO, political leader and anyone in a position of authority should be taught the servant leadership (...)
4 reactions
🔥 NEW Values-based Leadership
We propose a reflection about the fact of values-driven organizations being successful. In order to understand this sub (...)
2 reactions
Egalitarianism and Servant Leadership
This topic is so near and dear to me that I just wanted to share following tidbit with visitors. Mr. Greenleaf referenc (...)
2 reactions
Best Practices

The top-rated discussion topics about Servant-Leadership. Here you will find the most valuable ideas and practical suggestions.

🥇 Examples of Great Servant Leaders
In studying the bible, the most concise history of the world and our existence, it becomes evident that the most amazing (...)
4 reactions

🥈 Servant vs Charismatic Leaders
Are Servant-Leadership and Charismatic Leadership opposites? (...)
11 reactions

🥉 Quotes on Servant Leadership and Servanthood
Here are some good quoatations I collected on servant leadership: - To manage, one must lead. To lead, one must underst (...)
2 reactions

The Leader is an Enabler
Within the context of the Mission-Men-Self ethos of servant leadership, the Leader enables those around him or her to tr (...)
5 reactions

Influence of Culture on Servant Leadership
In an article, Dierendock discusses how culture might influence servant leadership, mentioning two (Hofstede) that (pos (...)
2 reactions

Serving and Educating
A leader should begin by the aphorism ‘to serve.’ This he integrates by developing character and responsibility in him (...)
1 reactions

Difference between Style and Leadership
If any can answer my question, which is, what is the difference between "style" and "leadership?" For example, a charis (...)
2 reactions

Followers Empower Servant Leaders
Whether paid or volunteer, cooperation is a choice followers make. The better the leaders serves the followers, the more (...)
1 reactions

Do not Confuse Kindness and Humility of Servant Leaders with Weakness
Kindness and humility are often confused for weakness in today's competitive world. (...)
2 reactions

Servant Leaders can Turn into Manipulators
Humans are intrinsically selfish, power seekers. And even when one starts out to seek the welfare of others, sometimes i (...)
4 reactions

Servant Leadership at the Top Position
For me this way of leadership is generally the best, but it sometimes depends of the position. The best way to serve peo (...)
2 reactions

Servant Leadership Paradox
The paradox, or seemingly contradicting statement of servant leadership, in the context of leadership and management, ca (...)
1 reactions

Is Servant Leadership a Seperate Style?
I'm wondering whether servant leadership can be considered a leadership style of its own, or is it a portion of every le (...)
2 reactions

Needed! Servant Leaders for the Corporate World
Too often we see corporates turning to the "new buzz" in corporate management concepts almost like cows in a herd. Henc (...)
4 reactions

Servant Leadership Blended with Quantum Leadership and Diversity
I have discovered that diversity is "primus inter pares - first among equals." Women and minorities have and will contin (...)
2 reactions

Expert Tips

Advanced insights about Servant-Leadership. Here you will find professional advices by experts.

Write a Personal Mission Statement

Establish focus on who you want to be in your life... (...)

Why can Servant Leaders have such Strong Influence?

Understanding the Mechanisms behind Servant Leadership (...)

Exactly How Does the Servant-leadership Lead to Need Satisfaction of the Followers?

Servant Leadership, Organizational Justice Satisfaction (...)
Information Sources

Various sources of information regarding Servant-Leadership. Here you will find powerpoints, videos, news, etc. to use in your own lectures and workshops.

Primer on Servant Leadership

What is it? Skills? Relevance? (...)

Servant Leadership Models and Research

Teaching Servant Leadership, Coaching, Mentoring (...)

Two Recent Trends in Leadership

Leadership Development, Leadership Styles, Coaching, Mentoring, Servant Leadership, Vision, Business Model Innovation (...)

Servant Leadership Models and Characteristics

Teaching Servant Leadership (...)

Reflection for Business Leaders

Leadership Reflection, Servant Leadership, Values, Moral Leadership, Vocation, Leadership Ethics, Bounded Ethicality (...)

Authentic Leadership: Your Own Style?

Authentic Leadership (...)

Servant Leadership and Trust

Servant Leadership, Leadership (...)

Interview Desmond Tutu: Introduction to Servant Leadership

Initial Understanding of Servant Leadership, Trainings, Workshops (...)

Stewardship and Leadership

Stewardship, Leadership, Family Businesses, Family Firms, Servant Leadership (...)

Ineffective Leadership and Unethical Leadership

Leadership Types, Management, Ethics (...)

10 Leadership Theories in a Nutshell

Leadership Theories Overview, Leadership Development, Management Development, Leadership Styles, Coaching, Mentoring (...)

Summary by Deepak Chopra on 'True, Enlightened Leadership'

True Leadership, Enlightened Leadership, Servant Leadership, Authentic Leadership, Visionary Leadership, Leadership Valu (...)

Introduction to Leadership

Leadership Training (...)

Introduction Into Welfarenomics

Welfarenomics (...)

Compare with Servant-Leadership: Level 5 Leadership  |  Appreciative Inquiry  |  Hagberg Model of Personal Power  |  Change Model Beckhard  |  Changing Organization Cultures  |  Bases of Social Power  |  Charismatic Leadership  |  EPIC ADVISERS  |  Core Group Theory  |  Leadership Styles  |  Leadership Continuum  |  Contingency Theory  |  Competing Values Framework  |  Expectancy Theory  |  Seven Surprises  |  Seven Habits  |  Situational Leadership

Return to Management Hub: Change & Organization  |  Ethics & Responsibility  |  Leadership

More Management Methods, Models and Theory

Special Interest Group Leader

Are you an expert in Servant-Leadership? Sign up for free

Link to this knowledge center

Copy this code to your web site:


About 12manage | Advertising | Link to us / Cite us | Privacy | Suggestions | Terms of Service
© 2020 12manage - The Executive Fast Track. V15.6 - Last updated: 27-11-2020. All names ™ of their owners.