Servant Leadership

Servant leadership

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, build better organizations, and ultimately create a more just and caring world. The concept of servant leadership was first coined and defined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.” In this essay, Greenleaf proposed that the servant-leader is primarily motivated by a desire to serve others, and that this inherent desire is the characteristic that is most important in a leader.

Core Principles of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership revolves around several key principles that distinguish it from traditional leadership models which often prioritize the organization or leader above the individuals within it. 

Service to Others: Servant leaders prioritize the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. The main goal is to fulfill others’ needs and enhance their growth while achieving the organization’s goals.

Holistic Approach to Work: They promote the well-being of people and the community. Their approach is holistic, considering the personal and professional growth of team members.

Listening: Effective listening is essential in servant leadership. Leaders listen actively to understand the needs, concerns, and suggestions of others, which forms the basis for effective decision-making.

Empathy: Servant leaders strive to understand and empathize with others. They acknowledge the personal viewpoints and emotions of their team members, which fosters a supportive team environment.

Healing: One of the great strengths of servant leadership is the potential to heal one’s self and others. A servant leader seeks to help people solve their problems and conflicts in relationships, promoting a healthy and cohesive environment.

Awareness: Self-awareness and the awareness of others and the environment are critical. It includes understanding issues involving ethics, power, and values.

Persuasion: Instead of using authoritative decision-making, servant leaders rely on persuasion to influence team members. This involves making convincing arguments and building consensus within the group.

Conceptualization: Servant leaders are visionary; they have the ability to see beyond the day-to-day realities of managing an organization and focus on long-term goals.

Foresight: The ability to foresee the likely outcome of situations is important in servant leadership. It involves understanding the past and the current realities of the organization, which helps in predicting future outcomes.

Stewardship: Servant leaders hold their institution in trust for the greater good of society. They encourage a sense of responsibility and commitment among their team members.

Commitment to the Growth of People: Servant leaders believe in the intrinsic value of each person. They are committed to the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of everyone within their organization.

Building Community: A servant leader fosters a sense of community and team spirit within the organization, which creates a secure and supportive environment conducive to personal and professional development.

Impact of Servant Leadership

Organizations that embrace servant leadership often experience a transformative impact. These impacts include increased employee satisfaction, reduced turnover, and deeper trust and engagement across all levels of the organization. Furthermore, servant leadership can lead to higher levels of creativity, innovation, and performance as team members feel genuinely valued and empowered.

Servant leadership is not only applicable in corporate settings but also in non-profits, educational institutions, and government. Its principles can deeply influence not just the organizational culture but also the broader community, promoting a more participatory and empathetic society.

The concept of servant leadership, though popularized in the modern era, traces its roots back through centuries of philosophical and religious texts that emphasize service to others as a primary virtue. The contemporary understanding of servant leadership as a formal leadership model, however, is attributed primarily to Robert K. Greenleaf.

Early Philosophical and Religious Influences

Servant leadership is evident in various ancient texts and teachings across different cultures and religions. For example:

Christianity: Jesus Christ is often cited as a prime example of a servant leader, emphasizing service to others as a leader’s highest duty.

Eastern philosophies: Concepts similar to servant leadership are present in Taoism and Buddhism, which emphasize humility and serving others as part of ethical living.

Islam: The idea of leadership as a form of service is also present in Islamic teachings, which stress the responsibility of leaders to serve their community.

These teachings suggest that the concept of putting others first, serving, and leading by example is a timeless and universal principle.

Robert K. Greenleaf and the Modern Concept

The formal concept of servant leadership was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf, who introduced the term in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf’s ideas were influenced by his reading of Hermann Hesse’s novel “Journey to the East,” in which a character named Leo, who appears to be a servant, is actually leading a group on a spiritual journey.

Greenleaf spent most of his organizational life at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) and found traditional hierarchical management to be ineffective. After his retirement, he began to further develop and write extensively about his ideas of servant leadership, focusing on the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.

Evolution of the Concept

Since Greenleaf introduced these ideas, the concept of servant leadership has been embraced and adapted by various leaders and organizations around the world. It has been promoted as an alternative to command-and-control leadership styles and has been adapted across sectors, including corporate environments, education, non-profit organizations, and government.

Academic and Practical Development

In academia, servant leadership has been the subject of numerous studies and has become a significant area of leadership theory and research. Institutions and leadership scholars have examined its impact on organizational culture, employee satisfaction, and overall effectiveness.

Various leadership development programs now incorporate principles of servant leadership, emphasizing traits like empathy, listening, and community building. These programs highlight the effectiveness of servant leadership in fostering environments that promote high levels of employee engagement and loyalty.

Legacy and Modern Applications

Today, many contemporary leaders and writers such as Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, and Simon Sinek have discussed and advocated the principles of servant leadership. Organizations worldwide have adopted these principles, finding that they lead to more cooperative environments, greater business ethics, and increased team performance.

Servant leadership continues to grow as an influential and respected leadership approach that fundamentally challenges the traditional notions of hierarchical and authoritarian styles, emphasizing instead the power of leading by serving.

Robert K. Greenleaf





Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) was an influential American thinker, writer, and consultant who is widely recognized as the founder of the modern servant leadership movement. His ideas have had a profound impact on leadership theory and practice, promoting a leader’s primary role as serving others.

Early Life and Education

Robert Greenleaf was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1904. He completed his education at Carleton College in Minnesota, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1926. His academic and personal background was instrumental in shaping his philosophical outlook on leadership and organizational structure.

Career at AT&T

Greenleaf spent the bulk of his professional career at American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), where he worked for over 38 years. Starting in the early 1920s, he held various positions in management and development. During his tenure, he developed a deep interest in issues of management, development, and education. He was particularly focused on how organizations could nurture the growth and potential of their employees. His experiences at AT&T led him to question traditional hierarchical and authoritarian management styles and to explore more collaborative and empathetic forms of leadership.

Development of Servant Leadership

After retiring from AT&T in 1964, Greenleaf founded the Center for Applied Ethics, which was later renamed the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. The center was established as a resource for studying and spreading his ideas on servant leadership. Greenleaf’s philosophy was crystallized after reading Hermann Hesse’s novel “Journey to the East,” which deeply influenced his thinking about leadership roles.

In 1970, he published his first essay, “The Servant as Leader,” which introduced the term “servant leadership.” In this essay, he proposed that the best leaders are those who serve others, a stark contrast to the traditional power-centric leadership model. He argued that a servant leader focuses first on the needs of colleagues and other stakeholders, and through serving, the leader helps people to achieve their highest potential both personally and professionally.

Publications and Influence

Greenleaf wrote extensively on the theme of servant leadership throughout his life, contributing further essays such as “The Institution as Servant” (1972) and “Trustees as Servants” (1974). His work culminated in several books, including “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness” (1977), which detailed his philosophy and its application to both personal and organizational development.


Robert Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership has influenced a wide range of leadership development programs and has been embraced by many modern organizations and leaders across the globe. His work continues to inspire studies and practices focusing on ethical leadership, community building, and the holistic development of individuals within organizations. The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, still active today, serves as a testament to his enduring impact on leadership theory and practice.