The Leader as Servant

“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. . . . The best test, and difficult to administer is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit, or at least not further be harmed?”

--Robert Greenleaf (1904-1990), the leading scholar on servant leadership

Leaders often need to fulfill many roles:

  • A leader is a coach who helps employees hone their work skills and improve performance
  • A leader is an influencer who uses different tactics to get employees to achieve a goal or complete certain tasks
  • A leader needs to be a strategist to form and communicate the organization’s vision to prepare it for the future
  • A leader is a motivator who encourages and enables employees to overcome hardships and difficulties
  • A leader is many other things.

However, people seldom talks about another important role of a leader — a servant. In fact, a great leader is seen as a servant first.[1] It is his/her strong desire to see people grow and be better off that serves as his/her motivation to be in a leadership position — because only by being at a higher position can he/she better serve the people.

Being people-oriented is the core value of servant leaders. They genuinely care about the development of their followers. They will use organizational resources to help followers grow, instead of using them for self-gain. Their ultimate goal is the well-being of the organization and the followers.

They are also the caretakers of the whole unit and the role models for followers. They act and make decisions consistently based on their intrinsic ethical norms/values. As a result, their followers see them as reliable, trustworthy, supportive and principled.

Here are some important features of a servant leader:[2]

Empowering and developing people is the key character of a servant leader. Through the action of empowerment, the leaders give their followers a sense of power and being supported.

Humility refers to the ability to put one’s own accomplishments and talents in a proper perspective.[3] It also includes senses of responsibility and modesty. A leader provides support for followers to successfully complete tasks. He/she will then retreat to the background when the task has been completed.

Authenticity means “true to self.” In other words, one should express oneself in ways that are consistent with their inner thoughts and feelings. Such authenticity is consistent, disregarding the situation or the targets of communication.

Interpersonal acceptance is the exhibition of empathy, understanding, compassion, warmth and forgiveness toward other people.

Providing direction lets others know what the leader expects of them. It is about the clarity and transparency during the organization’s day-to-day operations. It also concerns a leader’s ability to give the right task to the right person and hold others accountable.

Stewardship is the willingness to go beyond one’s self-interest to take responsibility for the greater good of the collective.

Servant leadership has been found to be related to many positive organizational outcomes: better employee performance, higher levels of employee engagement and commitment, higher levels of job satisfaction and senses of empowerment, higher team effectiveness, a more sustainable organization and stronger senses of corporate social responsibility. It also leads to better leader-follower relationships, which feature more trust, respect and loyalty.

If you want to be a leader, be a servant first.

[1] Greenleaf, R.K. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Paulist Press.

[2] Van Dierendonck, D. (2011). Servant leadership: A review and synthesis. Journal of Management. 37, 1228-1261.

[3] Patterson, K. A. 2003. Servant leadership: A theoretical model. Doctoral dissertation, Regent University. ATT No. 3082719.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.