Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership is a practice of leadership, coined by Robert Greenleaf and supported by many leadership and management writers. Servant-leaders achieve results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organization’s resources (human, financial and physical).

Larry Spears, who served for seventeen years as the head of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, identified ten characteristics of servant leaders in the writings of Greenleaf. These ten characteristics are:

  • listening
  • empathy
  • healing
  • awareness
  • persuasion
  • conceptualization
  • foresight
  • stewardship
  • commitment to the growth of others
  • and building community

Acquiring these qualities tends to give a person authority versus power.  Unlike leadership approaches with a top-down hierarchical style, servant leadership instead emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. At the 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.

It’s quite a difference from the oft-paraphrased, abused, and dare I say, impractical (unless you’re a thug) Machiavellian leadership advice that states “It is safer to be feared than loved.”

In fact, Servant Leadership is very similar to – or rather inherent in – Jim Collins‘ definition of “Level Five Leadership” as described in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.  [Yes, I mention this book a lot.  It really is that full of so many wonderful insights.]  He characterizes Level Five Leaders by their humility, their regular praise of their team, and their attributing success to such things as luck rather than themselves.  They also happen to possess – or maybe these qualities make it possible for them to possess – the abilities to transform companies from ho-hum to amazing.  Conversely, megalomaniacal, crack-the-whip type of leaders toot their own horns, blame their team rather than owning up to failures, and have a knack for taking companies with promise and driving them into the ground.  A coincidence?  Jim Collins thinks not.

And while Good to Great was only published in 2001 and  Robert Greenleaf’s essay, The Servant As Leader, was published just slightly further back in 1970, these concepts aren’t exactly new.  There are traces of this philosophy going as far into history as:

6th century BC…

“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware… When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!”
Lao-Tzu,Tao Te Ching

4th century BC…

“The king shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects … the king is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.”
Chanakya, The Arthashastra

And Biblical times…

“But let it not be so with you; but he who is greater, let him become like the younger; and he who is chief, like a servant.”
– Luke 22:26

Consider how you might uplift others and advance your mission by adopting Servant Leadership in your own field.

Post-Script:  I have to extend tremendous gratitude to servant leader, Emilya Cachapero, Theatre Communications Group Director of Artistic Programs, for first introducing me to this concept and essay.  Thank you!

You may read Robert Greenleaf’s The Servant As Leader essay (pdf) in its entirety here.