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What is Servant Leadership?

  • Amruta Bhaskar
  • Mar 10, 2021
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Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which an individual interacts with others—either in a management or fellow employee capacity—with the aim of achieving authority rather than power. The system embodies a decentralized organizational structure.

The authority figure intends to promote the well-being of those around him or her. Servant leadership involves the individual demonstrating the characteristics of empathy, listening, stewardship, and commitment to personal growth toward others.

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“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. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…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 not be further deprived?”

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Servant leadership seeks to move management and personnel interaction away from "controlling activities" and toward a more synergistic relationship among parties. The term "servant leadership" was coined by Robert Greenleaf, a twentieth-century researcher who was sceptical about traditional leadership styles that focused on more authoritarian relationships between employers and employees.

According to Greenleaf’s observations, the servant leader approaches situations and organizations from the perspective of a servant first, looking to lend their presence to answer the needs of the organization and others. They seek to address wants and requirements as their priority, with leadership to be pursued secondarily. This contrasts with the leader-first perspective, wherein a person aims to gain control quickly often driven by the desire and prospects for material gain or influence.

Developing and mentoring the team who follow their instructions, or the clients’ and customers’ needs, take precedence over personal elevation. Even upon attaining a position of governance, a servant leader typically encourage their subordinates to look to serve others as their priority over-focusing on personal gains. A servant leader may aim to share power with others and encourage the development and growth of others. This trait can extend to listening to followers carefully to better understand their needs, but it also involves leaders holding themselves and others accountable for their words and actions.

Like traditional leaders, servant leaders will create a vision and values for the organization. They will set goals and objectives for employees to achieve. Servant leaders, however, share power with employees to enable them to achieve the vision, live the values, and hit the goals.

Unlike traditional leaders, servant leaders use their power to:

  • Empower more and micromanage less
  • Coach more and direct less
  • Involve more and exclude less
  • Ask questions more and assume less
  • Listen more and talk less

People unfamiliar with the servant leadership style might focus on the word “servant” and think of a butler, dutifully serving his lord and master with total obedience. The butler is beneath his employer, and he does as he’s asked, without question. It’s therefore natural for some corporate leaders to reject the concept out-of-hand, thinking that by adopting a servant leadership approach they must become the butler, give up all their power, and let their employees run the company.

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