The Grey Chronicles


Understanding Servant Leadership

In a previous post, Leading At A Higher Level, one of the four key steps mentioned was that leaders have the right kind of leadership. Blanchard (2008) notes, “These kinds of leaders seek to be serving leaders instead of self-serving leaders.”

Robert K. Greenleaf (1977) The Servant as LeaderThe phrase Servant Leadership was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader (1977: 27), an essay that he first published in 1977. Although servant leadership is an ancient concept with Biblical origins, Robert K. Greenleaf inspired renewed interest in the subject. In his essay, Greenleaf proclaims:

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?” [Emphasis added.]

Donald Philip Valeri’s research (2007) finds that the origins of this concept can indeed be traced back at least 2500 years ago, starting in ancient Greece and Rome—most naturally in democratic institutional environments. Servant leaders “ voluntarily choose to take on in their journeys through life. Its source is not egoism but a selfless regard for others.” Olivier Serrat (2009) states: “The general concept is ancient, with roots in China (Lao Tzu) and India (Chanakya).” Moreover, Jesus Christ lived and taught these basic concepts 2000 years ago (Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002).

Indeed, servant-leadership plays a significant role in many religious traditions. Robert H. Jerry II in his Reflections on Leadership (2007: 544) states:

“There are several points embedded in the statement of the Dalai Lama and in Islamic and Judeo-Christian teachings, but a prominent one is that servant leadership involves the leader recognizing that authority and power are not to be used for the leader’s satisfaction or to secure the leader’s privileges. Rather, effective leadership involves using authority and power in the service and promotion of the well-being of the entire community.”

Greenleaf clarifies elements of servant leadership in his revised The Servant as Leader (1991) book as listening, empathy, healing (of self and others), awareness (of others, situations, and self), persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth of others, and building community. These behaviors create the practice of principled leadership, the kind of leadership capable of transcending human misery by enabling creativity to blossom.

Servant Leadership is different from helping or fixing. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals. Fixing is a form of judging. Servant leaders exhibit characteristics that are different from those of “traditional” leaders. First, servant leadership is a conscious choice to serve first and then to lead. The focus is on the “followers”, not the leader; the focus is “we” instead of “I”. A servant leader strives to discover and develop the capacities of individual group members. They work to share the power, responsibility, and rewards of the group. In addition, they understand that relationships are crucial for accomplishing a task. If people do not feel comfortable with and trust each other, they will not effectively work together. Finally, servant leaders create more servant leaders simply through leading by example.

Brian Yeoman (2004) rereading On Becoming a Servant Leader (1996) finds Greenleaf’s four major assumptions articulated in the early 1970s about leadership to be worthy of consideration even now, and these are:

“1) We are in a leadership crisis because not enough of those who have the opportunity and the obligation to lead have kept themselves contemporary;”

2) Our educational systems are not designed to prepare for leadership, most particularly our colleges and universities. They have failed. They have failed because they discourage leadership and focus, instead, on training critics and experts;”

3) The value system of the Western World has been shattered, particularly our concept of moral law;”

4) The forces for good and evil in the world operate through the thought, attitudes, and the actions of individual beings. .”

Servant leadership is characterized by a belief that leadership development is an on-going, life-long learning process (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2007). It is not, Serrat (2009: 4) adds, “an explanatory or quick-fix theory: it cannot be readily instilled in an organization. But it is a long-term, transformational approach to life and work that has the potential to generate positive change in its milieu: when followers see evidence that their leaders truly follow the ideals of servant leadership, they are more likely to become servants themselves” . Furthermore, Sarah L. Bodner’s essay (2006) examines the complexity of this simple idea:

“The premise appears to be simple—yet it is highly confusing to most individuals who are used to being given a formula to follow. There is no formula for Servant Leadership; it is a journey for the leader and for his or her followers. The journey is not easy, but it is filled with learning and growth. One of the more simple foundations of Servant leadership is that it is based on love and caring for all fellow beings and the desire to help them, not to accumulate power or prestige—Servant Leaders are focused on helping others and society. In order to be a Servant Leader, the leader needs to start with pure motives. Granted, it is rare to find an individual with absolutely pure motives, so semipure motives are a good start” (Bodner, 2006: 2).


Barbuto, John E. & Wheeler, Daniel W. (2007). Becoming a Servant Leader:Do You Have What It Takes?, NebGuide. Nebraska: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, October 2007. back to text.

Blanchard, Ken(2008). Leadership Is a Higher Calling. Dallas, TX: Success From Home, Vol. 4: 6. (June 2008). pp. 51-52. back to text.

Bodner, Sarah L. (2006). Servant Leadership: The Complexity of a Simple Idea. Pyramid ODI, February 2006. pp. 2—9. back to text.

Frick, Don M. & Spears, Larry C. (1996). On becoming a servant-leader: The private writings of Robert K. Greenleaf. D. M. Frick & L. C. Spears, [eds.]. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996. 37pp. back to text.

Greenleaf, Robert K. (1977). The servant as leader, Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Larry C. Spears [ed.]. New York: Paulist Press, 1977. pp. 21—44. back to text.

Greenleaf, Robert K. (1982). The Servant as Leader. Robert K. Greenleaf Center, June 1982. 37pp. back to text.

Greenleaf, Robert K. (1991). The servant as leader. Revised ed. Indianapolis, Ind.: Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1991. pp. 9—20.back to text.

Jerry, Robert H. II (2009). Reflections on Leadership. Toledo: University of Toledo Law Review, 38 (Winter). 27 March 2007. pp. 539—545. back to text.

Sendjaya, S., & Sarros, J. C. (2009). Servant leadership: Its origin, development, and application in organizations, Journal of Leadership and Organization Studies, 9:(2). 2002. pp. 57—64. back to text.

Serrat, Olivier (2009). Exercising Servant Leadership, Knowledge Solutions : 63. Manila: Asian Development Bank, September 2009. p. 3. back to text.

Valeri, Donald Philip (2007). The Origins of Servant Leadership. Dissertation. St. Louis, Missouri: Publisher, February, 2007. back to text.

Yeoman, Brian (2004). Leadership in Transformational Times, NAEB Journal, Fall (October) 2004. pp. 18—19. back to text.

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 LicenseDisclaimer: The posts herein do not necessarily represent any organization’s positions, strategies or opinions. Read the full version of self-imposed rules for this blog: A New Year; New Rules. Unless otherwise expressly stated, the posts are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
Comments are moderated to keep the discussion relevant and civil. Readers are responsible for their own statements.



  1. Very nice information.

    Comment by higher education — 2010.September.17 @ 07:52 | Reply

  2. A great article on leadership. When we serve, we are already leading in our own ways. Cheers!

    Comment by servefirst — 2009.November.28 @ 11:20 | Reply

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