The Importance of Servant Leadership

Several years ago, I participated in a program called Leadership Broward.  The program is designed to encourage business leaders to become active community stewards.  One of the concepts shared during the program was the concept of servant leadership.  I found it fascinating.

A while back, I was reminded of the virtues of servant leadership after seeing a quote from Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines.  “To be an excellent leader, you have to be a superb follower.”  This is the essence of servant leadership.

To give you a little history, servant leadership was started in the 1970’s by Robert Greenleaf, Director of Management Research at AT&T. Greenleaf’s job was to study how the best leaders emerged in organizations. During the same time, Greenleaf was personally troubled by the student unrest on college and university campuses.

So, Greenleaf decided the best way to understand the youth movement was to read a novel that was very popular with youth at the time. The novel was The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse.

SPOILER ALERT: “The Journey to the East” is about a group of people traveling to a new land. Accompanying the group is their servant, Leo, who sings songs and takes care of their stuff. During the trip, Leo disappears. The group struggles to stay together and eventually disbands. Several years later, it’s discovered that Leo – the group’s servant – was really their leader.

Inspired by Leo’s character, Greenleaf realizes the key to leadership lies in “serving” (aka focusing on the people you manage) and writes what’s considered to be his most famous essay, The Servant as Leader, outlining 10 basic competencies associated with servant leadership. I’ve highlighted a few of them below.

  1. Commitment to developing people – Leaders help others become good leaders.
  2. Empathy – Leaders not only identify with others, but accept them for who they are.
  3. Listening – A leader responds to a problem by listening first.
  4. Conceptualization – Leaders articulate a clear vision with passion, which engages and energizes the rest of the team.
  5. Foresight – Leaders can sense the future.  It’s what Greenleaf says gives leaders their “lead.” As leaders, we must use good decision making skills. And we should remember that a lack of decision making can be perceived as an ethical failure.
  6. Awareness – We’ve heard the term perception is reality.  Leaders must open the doors of perception and see what’s inside. This can be pretty scary. But it’s necessary to provide reality and see things in perspective.

Greenleaf’s writings have taken some knocks over time.  But in reading his words, I find it amazing that over thirty years later, many (if not all) of the characteristics are still associated with leadership.  Maybe not called by the same name, but the traits are similar.

There’s no silver bullet to being a good leader.  But if there was, maybe first serving the people around you is it.

Image courtesy of Qtea


  1. says

    I agree that many of the leadership principles and approaches that people want to see in a Leader are based, at their core, on the parts of Authentic Leadership.
    While we may not be able to hit the bull eyes with everyone agreeing on the exact competencies, I think that we are getting closer to the same idea!

  2. says

    Thanks for the comment! You’ve raised an interesting point…can we all agree on the competencies for leaders? Every time I turn around, there’s another one added to this list. Hmmm…

  3. Avi Singer says

    Can there really be one list of competencies for leaders? I work in the online space and have been for the past 6 years. Leaders here look very different than the ones leading F100 companies.

    In my mind there is a long list of potential competencies that can be used/applied in the right situations and settings. Leaders that can flex those competencies effectively can lead in multiple organizations. Those that cannot need to stick with organizations that fit their strengths.

    It’s kinda like parenting. You hope to always balance being both a friend and parent simultaneously, but sometimes they need more of your friend side and sometimes they need you to be the parent. In some stages of their lives you may need to be one or the other for an extended period of time.

  4. says

    Great post! I’m always interested in people’s takes on “a good leader.” We had our first users conference in May and one of the speakers was Bob Kelleher – he did an entire presentation on Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Voyage. It was really interesting and he also presented some very compelling competencies of a good leader. You are right – everywhere you turn around – there’s another one added to the list! haha!

  5. Meghan says

    This is an excellent post. I’ve worked with various senior leadership teams over time and saw that the best are committed to developing their teams to become leaders.

  6. says

    Great post, Sharlyn! Though the concept has definitely been around for many years, there is still much to be done to bring it into the collective awareness as one in the same with leadership! There is no better leader that that which is aware that her role is to serve others and improve their lives. Kudos for highlighting this issue in a clear, concise and contemporary way! :)

  7. says

    Thanks to everyone for the comments.

    There are so many lists of leadership competencies, it’s hard to know where to start. Especially when a quality on one list contradicts another. Avi is spot on with the mention of balance.

    That being said, I’ve never seen a leader go wrong when they share their experience and demonstrate a commitment to developing others.

  8. says

    This is a fabulous post, Sharlyn! As you point out, Greenleaf coined the phrase, servant leadership, in the 70’s. He did so, in part I believe, because we needed a way to describe the other-centered nature of a leadership that serves. Across the vast sea of time, great leaders, in all cultures, emerge first as servants. For as long as people have built communities, there have been leaders — some good, some bad, and some ugly. But one kind of leader, a serving leader, stands apart. That’s because the authority of a serving leader, a great leader, is the esteem of the people. Said differently, a serving leadership — servant leadership — derives its power from the people; its traditions hail from the Middle East and the Orient, and its recorded history precedes the Pharaohs.

    We all know servant leaders, the Leo’s of the world. They just don’t call themselves that. Their every thought and consideration is for another. For them, leadership has everything to do with relationship; it’s a journey shared by those who choose to be led and those they choose to lead them. Greenleaf picked up on this and we see it time and time again throughout history: it is up to the people to determine just who, in their hearts, has the capability to truly lead them. This capability can only be demonstrated in one’s ability to serve. There is no other way.

    John C. Maxwell teaches, “The measure of a leader is not the number of people who serve the leader, but the number of people served by the leader.” Leadership doesn’t just happen. “Leadership,” according to Marian Anderson, “should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.” “Only when service for a common good is the primary purpose,” suggests Sheila Murray Bethel, “are you truly leading.” “If leadership serves only the leader,” Sheila goes on to say, “it will fail.” I say a leadership that serves only the leader is not leadership.

    Kouzes and Posner point out, “Leaders do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires; they respond to needs, interests of [others].” George Barna, a contemporary research scholar, reminds us leadership “is not about position, power, popularity, or perks; it’s about servanthood.” Native American wisdom can help us here. The Cherokee say, “To lead is to serve ….” Their Kiowa brothers and sisters put it this way: “A leader is a servant of the people.” Leaders serve because leaders, great leaders, love.

    Leadership without love is no leadership at all.

    I appreciate you, Sharlyn, and I thank you for sharing this post and for giving us the opportunity to ‘pull up a stool’ and join your conversation.


    The last post here is almost three years ago; but to my mind the posts, contributions, and arguements are as fresh as the day they were posted! Thanks Sharyln for connecting a few dots for me between Mr.Greenleaf, the book The Journey to the East, and the student uprisings of that time; I couldn’t make this connection earlier; no author I had read made this clear. Thanks. Everyone, particularly Dr. King, seems to have contributed meaning to the concept of Servant Leadership.

    I live in Nigeria and I bring to the table a contextual factor that we may have overlooked – corporate culture. The majority of our organizational cultures here insist on authoritarian leadership, perhaps out of experience or other factors. I have not found any organization, apart from religious organizations, where servant leadership is practiced or is a guiding organizational philosophy. Granted, there are individuals in many organizations that practice SL, one wonders if that is their life style or practiced out of learning SL. The large majority of institutions pay, at best, lip service to the concept. In an atmosphere of considerable unemployment, employees have few options when it comes to policies and rules, even when they are not as friendly. Rick Pierce (2010?) points out that one of the desired outcomes of servant leadership is employee retention; it is obvious the employed in the midst of unemployment will not want to leave the organization for ‘manageable’ reasons. I agree with Dr. King, leadership without love is no leadership at all. And finally, Benjamin please send me a copy of your ”one page” book!

  10. says

    Thanks for the comment. Greenleaf’s work is often associated with religious organizations. But I’ve also found many for-profit corporations adapting his thinking as well.

  11. Christy C A. says

    I appreciate everyones’ comments especially you sharlyn, i realy appreciate but i want know “how can someone be a servant and a leader as well” please educate me more. Tnx