What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leaders are ideal managers. Learn what attributes to look for, and how servant leadership helps the entire team.

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Have you started a small business, or promoted to a leadership or management position for the first time (congrats!)?

If so, you’re probably contemplating what kind of leader you want to be (and if you’re not, you probably should). There are all kinds of leadership philosophies. Servant leadership has seen a resurgence of popularity recently.

Never heard of it before? Or are you familiar with the term but have no idea what it actually means? Here’s a crash course on the basics of servant leadership.

What is the definition of servant leadership?

The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay titled The Servant as Leader. First published in 1970, the essay offers and explains the idea of servant leadership:

“The servant-leader is a servant first,” Greenleaf writes.

The concept “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.”

While he notes that the servant leader and the leader-first attitude are “two extreme types” and that “between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

Servant-first leaders, according to Greenleaf “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?”

As you can probably tell, the servant leadership philosophy is all about serving others, chiefly those on your team. The central element of servant leadership is the growth and well-being of the people on a team or under your charge, but also the communities to which they belong.

Greenleaf asks leaders to consider, as they evaluate their efforts and work, “what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

What are the advantages of servant leadership?

Many believe that the servant-first leadership style and perspective can lead to everything from increased innovation, engagement, and trust between team members and other stakeholders as well as stronger relationships.

What are the principles of servant leadership?

Servant leadership principles overlap with transformational leadership approaches as well as with democratic and other less hierarchical ways of working.

According to Larry C. Spears, the former president and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center from 1990 to 2007, there are 10 principles of servant leadership:

  1. Listening: making a deep commitment to listening intently to others
  2. Empathy: striving to understand and empathize with others to help them feel accepted and recognized as individuals
  3. Healing: Spears considers learning how to heal to be “a powerful force for transformation and integration”
  4. Awareness: being aware in general, but particularly being self-aware, is a strength of a servant leader
  5. Persuasion: convincing others to join you rather than administering orders or commands
  6. Conceptualization: the ability to think beyond daily realities into what could be with a delicate balance between dreaming and managing day-to-day activities
  7. Foresight: the ability to learn lessons from the past, understand present realities, and conceive of likely consequences of a decision in the future
  8. Stewardship: for Greenleaf, all leaders and staff are responsible for holding their companies accountable to the greater good of society
  9. Commitment to the growth of people: an anchor of the servant leader is the belief that people have value beyond their utility as a worker and that leaders should help those they’re responsible for thrive as whole people
  10. Building community: Greenleaf saw loneliness as the result of shifting away from communities and towards institutions as the shaper of human lives, so servant leaders are charged with building community within their institutions

Who is a good example of a servant leader?

Sometimes getting your head around a new concept is easier with examples Some famous examples of people who are considered to be servant leaders include:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Mother Teresa
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Mahatma Gandhi

Model your approach to work after these folks, and you’ll almost certainly be on the right path to servant leadership

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