An Urgent Call for Servant Leadership

I used to watch a show called “What Would You Do?” The host, John Quiñones, would narrate scenes of actors appearing in need of advocacy or support. Scenarios included everything from a pregnant woman who couldn’t afford to pay for a meal to a person facing discrimination. The show investigated why some passersby would stop to help and others would quicken their pace.

The theme of this show is analogous to the leader-focused versus servant-focused leadership model Robert V. Greenleaf (1970) explored over fifty years ago. When I lecture about servant leadership, students often ask whether servant leaders can exist in our fast-paced times. After all, many people don’t stop to help others because they’re in a hurry. Aren’t we all?

Globally, it seems many leaders are more self-focused. Some rise to power in a quest for a very specific and exclusive set of beliefs and often rise specifically because they are unwavering. Any self-serving leader can speak of clearly defined values, but if these values don’t consider a wider-lensed image of reality, the message leads to myopia and exclusion.

Greenleaf mentioned the need for leaders to pause striving and focus on others over everything in The Servant as Leader: “Pacing oneself by appropriate withdraw is one of the best approaches to making optimal use of one’s resources. The servant-as-leader must constantly ask: How can I use myself to serve best?”

The trend of a more leader-focused style happens overtly in the political realm with the rise of nationalism, but it also touches industry, academia, and myriad communities. Research by Stone et al. (2004) highlights distinctions of servant leadership, indicating that while a leader-focused style may seem efficient but not as effective. This is because myopia is easy. A leader-focused style is efficient; there’s less reliance on discussion.

But there’s hope, even in our fast-paced world. While self-focused leaders seem prevalent, research by Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) suggests that servant leaders are, too. Thinking about the teachers and community leaders in our lives, we see a different model of leadership. Perhaps one that is less visible, but this can change.

By platforming self-focused leaders, we are denying the more sustainable and impact-driven leadership style. It seems vital that we not only recognize servant leaders we know but cultivate servant leadership ourselves.

The servant leader slows down and listens, exercises empathy, and remembers to think about the broader lens of reality. Leading is about more than being at the front of the line or getting the biggest salary. It’s about cumulative impact. And, perhaps ironically, this is what will leave lasting legacies.


Barbuto, J. E., & Wheeler, D. W. (2006). "Scale development and construct clarification of servant leadership."

Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The Servant as Leader

Stone, A. G., Russell, R. F., & Patterson, K. (2004). "Transformational versus servant leadership: A difference in leader focus."

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


March 26, 2024 at 3:47 pm
A. Davis

I have seen this concept pop up more in leadership discussions and I think it is very important. Leadership is not about accumulating power, it is about lifting up others and setting an example. This concept of "servant leadership" has been a part of Christian teaching for thousands of years. When Jesus' coached his followers about what kind of leaders they should be he said, "But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:26-28). This sounds foreign to human sensibilities because we're often about promoting ourselves and being first. We need to revisit this wisdom from Jesus that "anyone who desires to be first, he should be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35).


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.