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What is Servant Leadership?

There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of leadership. Leaders can succeed with all types of personalities, education, and theories. One popular leadership style is servant leadership, which will become more familiar when you recognize its characteristics.

Think about the terms “socially responsible companies” or “participative management” styles. Organizations and managers who fit these descriptions are the ones who typically fit the mold of servant leadership.

Examples of servant leaders include Stephen Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” and Richard Murphy, a legendary youth development leader in New York City.

Defining servant leaders

Servant leadership is “a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world,” according to the Center for Servant Leadership. If that evokes your ideal of socially responsible organizations, you’re probably thinking of places where servant leadership is the norm.

Servant leadership is a classic concept, but the term was coined in 1970, when Robert K. Greenleaf published his essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf maintained,  “The servant leader is servant first.”

Greenleaf believed that organizations — not just individuals — could also be servant leaders. His second major essay, “The Institution as Servant,” unequivocally reinforced that point.

Common features of servant leadership

Unlike authoritarian leaders, the servant leader does not depend on accumulating or exercising power within a company. Instead, the servant leader:

  • Considers the needs of employees first. Servant leaders focus on satisfying the highest-priority needs of others. Servant leaders feel a strong sense of caring and responsibility for their staff.
  • Commits to helping employees develop expertise and improve performance. Servant leaders prioritize the personal and professional development of others, ensuring they build their knowledge base and professional skills.
  • Insists that the organization make a positive contribution to society. While not losing their focus on a healthy bottom line, servant leaders make sure an organization improves its community, region, and nation.

Where servant leadership fits in traditional leadership styles

Many theories and curricula tend to focus on three classic leadership styles:

  • Authoritarian. This leader accumulates power and uses it to manage and lead the organization. Employees typically must follow strict rules and procedures with little deviation.
  • Participative. This leader empowers employees to be creative, offers suggestions and opinions, and encourages subordinates to provide input on senior management decisions.
  • Laissez-faire. Loosely translated from the French, laissez-faire means “let them do as they will.”  According to, these leaders discard authoritarian conventions, give minimal guidance to employees at all levels and leave subordinates alone to do their jobs as they see fit.

Servant leadership most closely resembles participative leadership. While history often cites few examples of any management theories beyond autocratic, or authoritarian, leadership until the 1950s or 1960s, servant leadership is actually an ancient approach. Lao-Tzu referenced servant leadership in the classic Chinese text “Tao Te Ching” as early as 500 BC.

Understanding servant leadership theory

There is no perfect leadership theory or technique. Leading as a servant comes with certain advantages and some downsides. Understanding the pros and cons of any philosophy is crucial to any leadership style you adopt.


  • Servant leadership can improve an organization and/or society over the long term.
  • Caring treatment of employees often encourages similar treatment of the organization’s customers and vendors.
  • Servant leaders attract employee trust, which can improve the credibility of the organization’s brand.
  • Servant leadership typically develops a positive corporate culture and can correct a prevailing negative culture over time.
  • This leadership style encourages and motivates high performance from employees.


  • Servant leadership requires time to achieve positive results.
  • Critics such as Deborah Eicher-Catt believe this leadership style is vastly overrated and gender discriminatory.

While servant leadership may not be a perfect fit in every situation, the style remains popular and is attracting more fans among organizational leaders. This leadership style is building a track record of success among managers who focus on improving their people and their community.

Education Leadership Programs


Paul Schmitz, “Richard Murphy: A Powerful Example of Servant Leadership

What is Servant Leadership?,” Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

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