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servant leadership

Servant Leadership: Leading by Taking Care of the Workforce

servant leadership

Individual leadership

is “influencing people — by providing purpose, direction, and motivation — while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.” [1]  Effective leadership equates to effective team building. [2]  An organization working together as one team is in-step and striving effectively toward commonly held goals.  Therefore, the leadership’s ability to accomplish more from the employees than the individual sum of the parts is what defines the top management/ supervisor leadership. [3]

At the organizational level, the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM; 2009) defines leadership as “how leaders develop and facilitate the achievement of the mission and vision, develop values required for long-term success and implement these via appropriate actions and behaviors, and are personally involved in ensuring that the organization’s management system is developed and implemented.” [4]

Regardless of the level of leadership, leading is about relationships and behaviors.  The existing relationships within the act of leading are between the influencer and the influenced.  The behavioral component of leading is about changing the behavior or actions of other people. [5]

Servant leadership is not just the latest fad of various leadership styles.  Robert K. Greenleaf established Servant Leadership in his essay The Servant as Leader published in 1970. [6] According to Greenleaf: [7]

“The servant leader is servant first.  It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  The best test 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?”

Servant leadership

is purported to be applicable for any environment. [8]  The genesis of servant leadership evolved from Greenleaf’s view of a leadership crisis. [9]

The servant leader desires to serve and purports honesty and integrity as their personal value along with humility, equality, and respect for others. [10]  “The first impulse for a servant leader is to listen first and talk less.” [11]  He/she lives for serving those people within their sphere of influence.  Their greatest pleasure centers on attending to the needs of the people within their sphere of influence; they focus on these people’s well-being.  A servant leader “assists people in being their best, coaches, assists in their personal growth, listen well and build community.” [12] They help these people to grow cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally.  Servant leaders have a strong ethical compass.  Their compass’ needle points to focusing on their followers’ needs. [13] Their own self-interest is the farthest thought on their minds.  The end state of their followers’ lives, besides being better people, is they may desire to become servant leaders themselves.

At a higher level, Greenleaf expressed in another essay, The Institution as Servant, the ultimate objective of his concept of servant leadership is to the creation of a better community and society. [14]  “Servant leadership emphasizes increased service to others, a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community and the sharing of power in decision making.” [15] The better community and society could be defined as being kinder with everyone working for the betterment of others.

Some well-known individuals who exude servant leadership are:

  • Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln served to preserve the United States of America and to dismantle the institution of slavery. [16]
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: King thrived to improve the quality of life for Americans with cultural heritages as to be from such places as Africa, in the form of a civil rights activist. [17]
  • Nelson Mandela: Mandela went to jail for his principles regarding equality for all South Africans. [18][19]
  • Mahatma Gandhi: Gandhi lived his life to liberate India from colonialism through peaceful resistance. [20]

The above list of servant leaders may be, but probably is quite daunting because one may not relate to them.  Many ordinary people abide by the cognitions, behaviors, and emotions defining a servant leader.

These ordinary servant leaders can be identified if one knows what to look for.

What are the overarching themes through which the identifying specifics of servant leadership is based?  These themes includes valuing people, developing people, building community, displaying authenticity, providing leadership, and sharing leadership.  The descriptions of the overarching themes for servant leadership are: [21]

  1. Valuing People. Servant leaders believe people are important and should be appreciated.  People are not a resource to be used for the benefit of the leader.  Servant leader’s behaviors depict displaying activities focused on meeting the needs of others so the others can achieve optimal performance.  The process for learning what the needs of others are is through listening non-judgmentally and actively.
  2. Developing People. Servant leaders believe others, to reach their full potential, should be nurtured and assisted in the personal and professional growth.  They provide a safe environment in which is an atmosphere promoting learning and rewarding risk taking.  This growth is accomplished by the servant leader modeling desired behaviors for the others.  The servant leader works alongside the others to encourage and mentor them along the way.
  3. Building Community. Servant leaders believe in the power of the team.  The optimal team works from a perspective of a shared vision and mission and a focus of common goals and objectives.  The strength of the team is based upon the strength of the team members’ relationships.  Servant leader’s behaviors depict activities designed to create an environment whereas all want to work together and learn to support each other for the betterment of the whole team.  Servant leaders promote the strength of diversity and differences.
  4. Displaying Authenticity. Servant leaders believe leaders are genuine, open, approachable to others.  Servant leader’s behaviors depict transparency and hold themselves accountable to all in an accepting and trusting environment.  If they make mistake, they readily assume responsibility for it.
  5. Providing Leadership. Servant leaders believe in action and taking on initiatives while influencing others to do the same.  They are oriented to the future; they envision what can be and should be.  Servant leader’s behaviors depict their desire to make an impact.  They enable people and organizations to strive toward and to achieve optimal performance.
  6. Sharing Leadership. Servant leaders believe in accomplishing goals and objectives by enabling in others their leadership knowledge, skills, and abilities to emerge.  They promote the development of healthy, high-performance organizations and understand from a gestalt perspective, the whole will achieve greater results than the sum of the parts.  Servant leader’s behaviors depict the ability to brainstorm solutions, make decisions, and develop and implement plans.  They create and utilize performance metrics and utilize them to ensure results are achieved.

What are the identifying specifics of servant leadership?  The major attributes from Greenleaf’s writings [22] and identified accompanying attributes of servant leadership are: [23]

Major Attributes
·       Listening ·       Conceptualization
·       Empathy ·       Foresight
·       Healing ·       Stewardship
·       Awareness ·       Commitment to the Growth of People
·       Persuasion ·       Building Community


The definitions explaining each of the major servant leadership attributes are: [24]

  1. Listening: Servant leaders are listeners. Effective listening is being in tune with both verbal and non-verbal signals as well as having the ability to understand the message.  In addition, the servant leader must be aware of and understand their own thoughts and feelings.  Organizationally, servant leaders are able to listen to the team and determine what is being communicated.
  2. Empathy: Servant leaders are compassionate and accept people for the person they are. They are able to understand other’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions because they are able to put themselves in the other’s world.  They accept their organization and the individuals in which it is comprised of both strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Healing: Servant leaders work to enable others to live a fulfilled life. They enable others to grow as well as overcome situations, issues, and problems limiting their ability to maximize their performance.  They strengthen or heal relationships within an organization to improve its performance.
  4. Awareness: Servant leaders view situations, issues, and problems from a comprehensive and universal perspective. They see a follower’s environment holistically as integrated components.  They are able to view and understand the situations, issues, and problems facing an organization.
  5. Persuasion: Servant leaders lead not from a position of authority but rather from encouraging, coaxing, influencing, and convincing others on what the followers should do. From an organizational perspective, they use their skills to achieve consensus.
  6. Conceptualization: Servant leaders see situations, issues, and problems abstractly. Their vision’s foundation is based upon a futuristic view of the possibilities.  They think beyond the current day and sees what can be tomorrow.  Organizationally, they are strategic but are able to balance it with the tactical.
  7. Foresight: Servant leaders leverage the understanding of the past and combine it with knowledge of the present then applies this information to make decisions for the future. They make informed decisions with the propensity of making correct decisions.  In essence, they make data-based decisions as organizational leaders.
  8. Stewardship: Servant leaders are agents of their followers by living to meet their followers’ needs. They stress the use of persuasion and consensus rather than control and a position of authority.  As an organizational leader, they hold themselves accountable for the positions of trust they embrace.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people: Servant leaders extremely dedicated to the development of their followers. They encourage their followers to be active participants in their future.  They actively nurture the personal and professional growth of the individuals for the betterment of the organization.
  10. Building community: Servant leaders actively pursues the development of teamwork to create a sense of belonging. This action ensures the organization works as one to achieve goals and objectives because the followers have garnered buy-in and ownership in them.

In conclusion, servant leaders are people-centered.  “Doing menial chores does not necessarily indicate a servant leader.  Instead, a servant leader is one who invests himself or herself in enabling others, in helping them be and do their best.” [25]  They promote a positive leader-follower relationship within their organizations. [26]  Promoting servant leadership will enable a greater number of leaders to realize its benefits in their organization.

Employee learning implements the empowerment process; the organizational leaders must teach and mirror the cognitions, behaviors, and emotions to the employees so the employees will do the same to the customers [27]  Robert Greenleaf proposed a servant leadership model for employee empowerment leading to employee and customer satisfaction. [28]  Servant leaders focus on the needs of others more so than the organization’s vision, mission, goals, and objectives.  By focusing on the employees of the organization, the concept is, they ensure the organization is successful. [29] The ten attributes of servant leadership lays the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional foundation within organizations with the end state being high performance.

Effective leadership is an essential construct for organizations to achieve their strategic vision, mission, goals, and objectives. [30] The more challenging the industry is in which the organization must operate then the more critical it is to have effective leadership for the organization’s success. [31]  No matter what industry, for an organization to be successful in it, their customers’ needs must be met or exceeded; hence, their customer satisfaction must high.  For highly satisfied customers to exist, the organization’s employees must be willing and motivated to take care of their customers.  To take care of customers, the organization’s employees must be empowered to do so.

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[1] Department of the Army (1999).  Field manual 22-100: Army leadership — Be, know, do.  Washington, DC:  Department of the Army.
[2] Maddux, B., & Wingfield, B. (2003).  Team building: An exercise in leadership (4th ed.).  Menlo Park, CA:  Crisp.
[3] Doren, D., McCutcheon, A., Evans, M., MacMillan, K., Hall, L., Pringle, D., et al. (September 2004).  Impact of the manager’s span of control on leadership and performance.  Canadian Health Services Research Foundation Publication.  Retrieved on April 27, 2008, from doren2_final.pdf
[4] European Foundation for Quality Management (2009).  Leadership.  Retrieved on January 18, 2016, from
[5] Mullins, L. (1996).  Management and Organizational Behavior. London, UK: Pitman Publishing.
[6] Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership (n.d.).  What Is Servant Leadership?  Retrieved on January 9, 2016, from
[7] Greenleaf, R. K. (1977/2002).  Servant-leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness.  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
[8] Greenleaf, R. (1977).  Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness.  New York, NY: Paulist Press. [
9] Greenleaf, R. (1978).  The leadership crisis in L. Spears (ed.), The power of servant leadership.  San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
[10] Russell, R. (2001),  The role of values in servant leadership.  Leadership and Organization Development, 22 (2), 76-83.
[11] Lubin, K. (2001).  Visionary leader behaviors and their congruency with servant leadership characteristics.  Dissertation Abstracts International, 62(08), 2645.  (UMI No. 3022943)
[12] Servant Leadership.  Retrieved on January 10, 2016, from
[13] Pollard, C. (1996).  The soul of the firm.  Grand Rapids, MI: Harper Business and Zondervan Publishing House.
[14] Greenleaf, R. K. (1976).  The institution as servant.  Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.
[15] Spears L. & Lawrence M. (2004).  Practicing servant leadership: Succeeding through trust, bravery, and forgiveness.  San Francisco: Wiley.
[16] Hubbard, C.M. (May 31, 2011). Lincoln as a servant leader.  Retrieved on January 10, 2016, from
[17] Perry, J. (January 18, 2010). Martin Luther King, Jr: A true servant leader.  Retrieved on January 10, 2016, from
[18]Medhin, S. (n.d.).  Servant leadership: A leadership style whose time has come.  Retrieved on January 10, 2016, from
[19] Freed, J. (2013).  Remembering Nelson Mandela: A true servant leader.  Retrieved on January 10, 2016, from
[20] Ibid.
[21] Laub, J. (1999).  Assessing the servant organization: Development of the servant organizational leadership assessment (SOLA) instrument.  Dissertation Abstracts International, 60 (02), 308. (UMI No. 9921922)
[22] Spears, L. (1998).  Tracing the growing impact of servant leadership, in L.C. Spears (ed.), Insights on leadership: Service, stewardship, spirit, and servant-leadership.  New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.
[23] Russell, R., & Stone, G. (2002).  A review of servant leadership attributes: Developing a practical model.  Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 23(3), 145-157.
[24] Spears, L. (n.d.).  On Character and Servant-Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders. Retrieved on January 10, 2016, from
[25] Hall, A. (1991).  Why a great leader.  In K. Hall, Living Leadership: Biblical Leadership Speaks to Our Day.  Anderson, IN: Warner Press.
[26] Bass, B. (1990).  Bass & Stogdill’s handbook of leadership: Theory, research, & managerial applications (3rd ed.)New York, NY: The Free Press.
[27] Spencer, B. (1994).  Models of organization and total quality management: A comparison and critical evaluation.  Academy of Management Review, 19(3), 446-471.
[28] Greenleaf, R. K. (1977/2002).  Servant-leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness.  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
[29] Stone, A., Russell R., & Patterson, K. (2004).  Transformational versus servant leadership: A difference in leader focus.  Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 24(3/4), 349-361.
[30] Politis, J. (2003).  QFD: The role of various leadership styles.  Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 24(4), 181-193. [31] Chien, M. (2004).  A Study to Improve Organizational Performance: A View from SHRM.  Journal of American Academy of Business, 4(1/2), 289-291.