What is Servant Leadership? Achievement Through Service to Others

What is a Servant Leader?

Servant leadership is a very social leadership style. It places the needs of others in high regard. Servant leaders address the responsibilities and relationships in society, organizations, and companies.

Servant leaders are constructive, persistent, and motivating. They are also the leaders who see complex, big pictures. They permeate all areas of our culture.

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Servant leadership defined

Servant leaders are focused on service to others. Servant leadership begins with a vision for providing a resource such as employment, public service or education and requires leaders to be optimists with empathy for people in many types of situations. Servant leaders identify complex problems and are able to implement workable solutions in a timely fashion by planning ahead. To invoke the words of American author Garrison Keillor, they “do good works.”

From initial project-planning stages to final implementation, servant leaders think about how they can best serve their community. The objective of serving others encapsulates every facet of their activities, from establishing healthy communities to building prosperous businesses and worthwhile public entities.

Servant leadership addresses the responsibilities and relationships between parents and children, educators and students, employees and customers, and investors and shareholders. It entails placing the needs of others at the forefront of every organization, institution, business, agency, department, and group.

Differences between servant leadership and other leadership styles

There are major differences between servant leadership and bureaucratic leadership. Servant leaders do the following:

  • Serve followers, help them grow as individuals and cultivate future servant leaders
  • Value the community, especially its less fortunate members
  • Use commitment as a way to facilitate activities

In contrast, bureaucratic leadership style includes:

  • Facilitating a strict top-down relationship of authority with followers
  • Following a set, easily-reproducible structure
  • Managing people who do repetitive tasks, like working on a manufacturing line or stocking shelves

History of servant leadership

This leadership style has a rich history in many cultures. Fifth-century Chinese philosopher and poet Lao-Tzu included passages relating to servant leadership in “Tao Te Ching,” one of the founding texts of Taoism. Ancient Indian teacher and philosopher Chanakya was one of the authors of the “Arthashastra,” which talks about servant traits. The Bible discusses servant leadership in the book of Mark. The Quran also emphasizes the value of servant leadership.

Robert Greenleaf is credited with coining the phrase “the servant as leader” and explaining it in detail through his written essay, “The Servant as Leader,” initially published in 1970. As he described the process, “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

Greenleaf spent nearly four decades as director of management development at AT&T, where he played a central role in launching the company’s groundbreaking vocational situational judgment testing program for executives. When he retired in 1964, Greenleaf was considered one of the nation’s leading experts on corporate leadership development. “I concluded that we in this country were in a leadership crisis and that I should do what I could about it,” he wrote in the preface to a 1970 essay.

Examples of servant leadership

Some of the best-known altruistic leaders throughout society provided exceptional examples of servant leadership before it became a business model.

Ken Blanchard

Management author Ken Blanchard discusses servant leadership in many of his books. According to Blanchard, this style neatly incorporates the following servant traits:

  • Selling: These are leaders who may create the roles and objective for others, but they are also open to suggestions and opinions. These leaders sell their ideas to others in order to gain cooperation.
  • Participating: Leaders who pass the decision-making to their followers. Although they may participate in the decision make process, the ultimate choices are made by followers.

William C. Pollard

One way to view institutional servant leadership is through what ServiceMaster CEO William C. Pollard frequently referred to as an “inverted pyramid.” From Pollard’s perspective, effective organizations place individual employees at the top of the hierarchy.

Rev. Donald K. Muchow

Muchow was a rear admiral and Chief of Chaplains in the U.S. Navy. He recalled several mentors who taught him the importance of building character through self-improvement while recognizing the diverse cultures and faiths of everyone.

“It is clear to me there are essential elements of leadership that distinguish successful and effective chaplains,” Muchow said. “Above all, a chaplain must have a servant heart. Others have to come first… To be a good leader, you need to be a good servant and follower first.”

Servant leadership quotations

Servant leaders are frequently viewed in terms of how they transformed others, including organizations and entire nations. Through their accomplishments, they empowered others and created lasting change. Here are quotes from high-profile servant leaders:

Max De Pree: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

Ken Blanchard: “Servant leadership is key to surviving and thriving in the 21st century.”

Dr. Albert Schweitzer: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

William C. Pollard: “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”

Nelson Mandela: “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.”

Mahatma Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Servant leadership style requirements

To be a servant leader, an individual must possess or cultivate certain skills. Characteristics of exemplary servant leaders include the following:

  • Listening: Listening intently to what others are saying, as well as understanding their meaning
  • Empathy: Understanding people’s intentions and perspective
  • Healing: Supporting people emotionally, mentally, and physically
  • Self-awareness: Looking inside and being able to be introspective
  • Persuasion: Using influence and persuasion to move mountains and get people’s willing cooperation
  • Conceptualization: Visualizing the big picture and being able to move beyond day-to-day realities
  • Foresight: Knowing what will happen in the future by learning from the past
  • Stewardship: Taking responsibility for the actions and performance of your team
  • Commitment to team growth: Committing to teaching and training staff and allowing them to learn
  • Community building: Building a sense of oneness and wholeness in the organization

Listening leads the list because it is a crucial yet frequently absent trait in natural leaders who are self-oriented rather than devoted to service. “A true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first,” Greenleaf wrote. “True listening builds strength in other people.”

Personal qualities of effective servant leaders

In addition, there are many personal qualities a servant leader must develop throughout his or her career. Here are three examples.


Servant leaders are constructive, self-actualizing, transformative types. To borrow a nautical concept, they can turn large ships around. Because they are visionaries – perhaps in spite of their lofty ideals – servant leaders are mindful of what it takes to change direction, chart a different course, and navigate unexplored waters.


Servant leaders typically have overcome substantial obstacles in their own lives, often at a young age. Consequently, they possess the determination to meet demanding challenges throughout their careers. This characteristic inspires others to follow them. Whether they’ve overcome physical handicaps, financial setbacks or life-threatening illnesses, servant leaders turn adversity into wisdom and use it to motivate others to perform above their own perceived capabilities.


Servant leaders surround themselves with good people, then motivate them to achieve greatness. Because servant leaders often have extremely ambitious plans, they are good delegators. Simply put: servant leaders don’t build dams, canals and bridges—they get them built.

Advantages and disadvantages of servant leadership

Like all styles of management, servant leadership has advantages and disadvantages.

Servant leadership pros

  • Servant leaders build strong teams
  • Excel at seeing the big picture
  • Build excellent relationships and rapport with workers
  • Personify a style of leadership that creates a high degree of loyalty from followers
  • Bind people together with trust and encourage high levels of engagement
  • Define success by their service to followers

Servant leadership cons

  • Seen as a long-term strategy that depends on building trust and loyalty in order to get the most from workers, which often takes time
  • Not the leadership style of choice in companies that are in need of structure and a high degree of organization to survive
  • Not a good style for companies that need to be turned around very fast

Benefits of servant leadership

The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership points to Ann McGee-Cooper and Duane Trammell as contemporary experts who expand on the theme of inspiring others. The authors of “Focus on Leadership” conclude that servant leaders exhibit these five practices:

  • Listening without judgment
  • Being authentic, open and accountable
  • Building community and showing appreciation
  • Sharing power
  • Developing people
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