Servant Leadership

An Overview of How Stewardship Brings Out the Best in People

While the concept of Servant Leadership is relatively new to the field of organizational behavior studies, many historians contend that it has been in practice for thousands of years. By way of definition, Servant Leadership places the good of those led over the self-interest of the leader. That is, Servant Leaders lead by serving their associates. Central to Servant Leadership is the valuing and development of people, the building of community, and the practice of authenticity. Servant Leadership also promotes the sharing of power between leaders and associates as the primary means to benefiting each individual, the total organization, and the broader community.

Lao-Tzu wrote about servant leadership in the fifth-century BC: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware…. 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!’”

The modern era of servant leadership began with a paper, The Servant as Leader, written by an AT&T executive, Robert K Greenleaf, in 1970. In it, he said: “The servant-leader is servant first. Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead… The best test is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” According to Robert Greenleaf’s earliest descriptions of Servant Leadership, a servant leader, realizes, “My success comes from your success.” He further emphasized the need for all leaders to be worthy of their authority: “The only authority deserving our allegiance is that which is freely granted by the led to the leader in proportion to the servant stature of the leader.”

Stephen R. Covey from “Servant-Leadership from the Inside Out” provides a very strategic overview of how Servant Leadership will drive organizations to their full potential versus their less inspiring competitors: “You may be able to buy someone’s hand and back, but you cannot buy their heart, mind, and spirit. And in the competitive reality of today’s global marketplace, it will be only those organizations whose people not only willingly volunteer their tremendous creative talent, commitment, and loyalty, but whose organizations align their structures, systems, and management style to support the empowerment of their people that will survive and thrive as market leaders.”

In his Foreword to Insights on Leadership, Stephen Covey also emphasized the competitive importance of Servant Leadership as it relates to the empowerment of employees. He said:
“The deepest part of human nature is that which urges people—each one of us—to rise above our present circumstances and to transcend our nature. If you can appeal to it, you tap into a whole new source of human motivation. Perhaps that is why I have found Robert Greenleaf’s teaching on Servant Leadership to be so enormously inspiring, so uplifting, so ennobling.”

“A great movement is taking place throughout the world today. Its roots, I believe, are to be found in two powerful forces. One is the dramatic globalization of markets and technology. And in a very pragmatic way, this tidal wave of change is fueling the impact of the second force: timeless, universal principles that have governed, and always will govern, all enduring success, especially those principles that give ‘air’ and ‘life’ and creative power to the human spirit that produces value in markets, organizations, families, and, most significantly, individual’s lives.”

“One of these fundamental, timeless principles is the idea of Servant Leadership, and I am convinced that it will continue to dramatically increase in its relevance….You’ve got to produce more for less, and with greater speed than you’ve ever done before. The only way you can do that in a sustained way is through the empowerment of people. And the only way you get empowerment is through high-trust cultures and through the empowerment philosophy that turns bosses into servants and coaches…”

“Leaders are learning that this kind of empowerment, which is what Servant Leadership represents, is one of the key principles that, based on practice, not talk, will be the deciding point between an organization’s enduring success or its eventual extinction.”

Servant Leadership Definition

Servant Leadership begins with a vision. Today’s Servant Leaders see the big picture. They identify complex problems early and can implement workable solutions in a timely fashion by planning ahead. Servant Leaders are optimists with empathy for people. They lead through service. To invoke the words of American author Garrison Keillor, they “do good works.”

From initial project-planning stages to final implementation, Servant Leaders think about how they can best serve others.The objective of serving others encapsulates every facet of society – from establishing endearing homes and healthy communities to building prosperous businesses and worthwhile public entities.

Servant Leaders best function within a transformative society, where the majority of citizens find self-fulfillment by taking care of one another’s holistic needs. They are concerned with “teaching people how to fish,” with building autonomy among individuals and creating prosperity for future generations through lasting change.

Servant Leadership addresses the responsibilities and relationships between parents and children, educators and students, employees and customers, investors and shareholders. It entails placing the needs of others at the forefront of every organization, institution, business, agency, department and group. From initial project-planning stages to final implementation, servant leaders think about how they can best serve others.

In contrast, selfish leaders think about how others can best serve them.

Servant Leadership Oriented Quotes

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato or Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” ― Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it.” ―Mother Teresa

“One of the great ironies of life is this: He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.” ― Gordon B. Hinckley

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” ― Albert Schweitzer

We must be silent before we can listen. We must listen before we can learn. We must learn before we can prepare. We must prepare before we can serve. We must serve before we can lead.” ― William Arthur Ward

“A person who is worthy of being a leader wants power not for himself, but in order to be of service.” ― U.S. Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr.

“People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” ― John C. Maxwell

“Give of your hands to serve and your hearts to love.” ― Mother Teresa

“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” ― William James

“The noblest question in the world is, What Good may I do in it?” ― Benjamin Franklin

“Life’s most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” ― Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Organizations exist to serve. Period….Leaders live to serve. Period.” ― Tom Peters

“It has generally been my experience that the very top people of truly great organizations are servant-leaders.” ―Stephen Covey

Servant Leadership:The 10 Principles of Servant Leadership

Various organizational behavior observers have extensively studied the 10 Principles of Servant Leadership as described by Robert Greenleaf. Perhaps the most compelling case for Servant Leadership is made by Tom Taylor who used those 10 Principles of Servant Leadership as a framework for understanding the highly successful leadership approach of John R Wooden, UCLA’s legendary men’s basketball coach. The 10 Principles of Servant Leadership and their key functional characteristics are:

Listening: Servant Leaders are seen by their associates as active listeners;

Empathy: Servant Leaders display an understanding and genuine sense of empathy toward their associates;

Healing: Servant Leaders are recognized as having the ability to overcome the challenges of life, both for themselves and for those they are leading by generating a sense of well being and helping their associates achieve a balance between mind, body, and soul;

Awareness: Servant Leaders are attributed with a general sense of awareness of the contextual issues pertinent to the success of their associates and their organization;

Persuasion: Servant Leaders have personal power, they influence their associates through persuasion rather than relying on positional authority;

Foresight: Servant Leaders display the ability to foresee the potential outcomes and consequences of emerging situations;

Conceptualization: Servant Leaders use their imagination and conceptualize their dreams into meaningful missions and strategies that benefit their associates and organization alike;

Stewardship: Servant Leaders first and foremost display a commitment to a form of leadership that focuses on the needs of others;

Commitment to the Growth of People: Servant Leaders display a commitment to the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of each of their associates; and

Community Building: Servant Leaders genuinely seek to develop a sense of community and commitment to each other among the people they lead.

Servant Leadership Traits

Each leadership style has unique attributes. For Servant Leadership, these elements include the capability to transform an organization. This entails inspiring stakeholders, empowering employees, establishing foundational changes, and motivating people throughout an organization to want to be of service to others.

Robert Greenleaf identified vision, influence, credibility, trust and service as important leadership qualities, along with the above 10 Principles of Servant Leadership characteristics, as being critical components of the success of a Servant Leader. Perhaps the most insightful observation about Servant Leaders and their single greatest trait by Robert Greenleaf is that “Servant-leaders differ from other persons of good will because they act on what they believe.”