Definition

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While the idea of servant leadership goes back at least two thousand years, the modern servant leadership movement was launched by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 with the publication of his classic essay, The Servant as Leader. It was in that essay that he coined the words "servant-leader" and "servant leadership." Greenleaf defined the servant-leader as follows:

"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?"

Greenleaf said that "the servant-leader is servant first." By that, he meant that the desire to serve, the "servant's heart," is a fundamental characteristic of a servant-leader. It is not about being servile, it is about wanting to help others. It is about identifying and meeting the needs of colleagues, customers, and communities.

Robert Greenleaf's concept of the servant-leader was stimulated by his reading of Journey to the East by Herman Hesse. It is the story of a group of travelers who were served by Leo, who did their menial chores and lifted them with his spirit and song. All went well until Leo disappeared one day. The travelers fell into disarray and could go no farther. The journey was over. Years later, one of the travelers saw Leo again—as the revered head of the Order that sponsored the journey. Leo, who had been their servant, was the titular head of the Order, a great and noble leader. In The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf said:

...this story clearly says—the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness. Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside. Leadership was bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant. It was something given, or assumed, that could be taken away. His servant nature was the real man, not bestowed, not assumed, and not to be taken away. He was servant first.

If there is a single characteristic of the servant-leader that stands out in Greenleaf's essay, it is the desire to serve. A walk through The Servant as Leader provides a fairly long list of additional characteristics that Greenleaf considered important. They include listening and understanding; acceptance and empathy; foresight; awareness and perception; persuasion; conceptualization; self-healing; and rebuilding community. Greenleaf describes servant-leaders as people who initiate action, are goal-oriented, are dreamers of great dreams, are good communicators, are able to withdraw and re-orient themselves, and are dependable, trusted, creative, intuitive, and situational.

Scholars are identifying characteristics of servant leadership in order to develop and test theories about the impact of servant leadership. For example, Robert C. Liden and his colleagues identified nine dimensions of servant leadership that they used in their research: emotional healing, creating value for the community, conceptual skills, empowering, helping subordinates grow and succeed, putting subordinates first, behaving ethically, relationships, and servanthood. Dirk van Dierendonck reviewed the scholarly literature and identified six key characteristics of servant-leader behavior: empowering and developing people, humility, authenticity, interpersonal acceptance, providing direction, and stewardship.

 

Key Practices

 

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Servant leadership works because of the specific practices of servant-leaders, practices that help them to be effective leaders and get positive results for their organizations. Seven of these key practices are self-awareness, listening, changing the pyramid, developing your colleagues, coaching not controlling, unleashing the energy and intelligence of others, and foresight. Here is a summary of each of these practices:

Self-Awareness

Each of us is the instrument through which we lead. If we want to be effective servant-leaders, we need to be aware of who we are and how we impact others. Other people are watching and reacting to our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses, our biases, our skills and experiences, and the way we talk and move, and act. What we learn about ourselves depends on feedback from others and our own reflection—taking the time to think about how we behave, and why, and when, and consider whether there are other, better, more appropriate, more effective, more thoughtful ways to behave.

Listening

In his classic essay, The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf said that "only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first." Servant-leaders listen in as many ways as possible. They observe what people are doing. They conduct informal interviews, formal interviews, surveys, discussion groups, and focus groups. They use suggestion boxes. They do marketing studies and needs assessments. They are always asking, listening, watching, and thinking about what they learn. By listening, servant-leaders are able to identify the needs of their colleagues and customers. That puts them in a good position to meet those needs. When they do, their organizations are successful—their colleagues are able to perform at a high level, and they have happy customers, clients, patients, members, students, or citizens.

Changing the Pyramid

One of the obstacles to listening is the traditional organizational hierarchy—the pyramid. Often, members of the organization look up toward the top of the pyramid, and focus on pleasing their "bosses." But if everyone is looking up to please his or her boss, who is looking out, and paying attention to the needs of the customers? That's why servant-leaders talk about inverting the pyramid, or laying it on its side, so that everyone in the organization is focused on the people whom the organization is designed to serve.

Robert Greenleaf pointed out that the person at the top of the pyramid has no colleagues, only subordinates. As a result, it is hard to get information, and it is hard to test new ideas. The chief may be the only person who doesn't know certain things, because nobody will tell him. Or people may share information that is biased, or incomplete, and they may not share the bad news, for fear that the chief will shoot the messenger. It is also hard for the chief to test ideas. People are reluctant to tell the chief that his or her idea is a bad one. The solution is obvious—servant-leaders create a team at the top. The team consists of senior leaders who are committed to the mission and to each other, who will share information, and who will challenge ideas. The chief is still the chief and makes final decisions, but those decisions will be far better informed and more relevant to the needs of those being served.

Developing Your Colleagues

Robert Greenleaf proposed a new business ethic, which was that "the work exists for the person as much as the person exists for the work. Put another way, the business exists as much to provide meaningful work to the person as it exists to provide a product or service to the customer." Work should provide people with opportunities to learn and grow and fulfill their potential. When your colleagues grow, the capacity of your organization grows. Developing colleagues includes a commitment to extensive on-the-job training, as well as formal education, new assignments, and internal promotions.

Coaching, not Controlling

Coaching and mentoring is a good way to develop people. Organizations need rules and regulations, but trying to control people doesn't bring out their best. Servant-leaders bring out the best in their colleagues by engaging, inspiring, coaching, and mentoring. Servant-leaders help their colleagues understand the organization's mission and their role in fulfilling it. Servant-leaders make sure their colleagues understand the organization's goals, and have the training and tools they need to achieve those goals.

Unleashing the Energy and Intelligence of Others

After developing and coaching their colleagues, servant-leaders unleash the energy and potential of their colleagues. People need experience making their own decisions, because occasions may arise when they need to be the leaders, or make a decision that they normally don't make. Not unleashing the energy and intelligence of others is extraordinarily sad and wasteful. It doesn't make any sense to have lots of people in an organization, but let only a few people—those at the top—use their full potential. Servant-leaders unleash everyone and encourage them to make the maximum contribution they can make to the organization and the people it serves.

Foresight

Robert Greenleaf said that foresight is the central ethic of leadership. In The Servant as Leader, he said that "prescience, or foresight, is a better than average guess about what is going to happen when in the future." Greenleaf said that foresight is the "lead" that the leader has. If you aren't out in front, you really aren't leading—you are just reacting. And if you are just reacting, you may run out of options, and get boxed in, and start making bad decisions—including unethical ones. Greenleaf said that the failure of a leader to foresee events may be viewed as an ethical failure, because a failure of foresight can put an organization in a bad situation that might have been avoided.

While there are other practices that help servant-leaders to be effective and successful, these seven are fundamental. They are about paying attention to people, developing people, and looking ahead so that the servant-leader and his colleagues will be able to continue serving others, far into the future.