What is Servant-Leadership?

Servant-Leadership is a practical philosophy which supports people who choose to serve first and then lead, as a way of expanding service to individuals and institutions

Servant-leaders may or may not hold formal leadership positions.  Servant-leadership encourages collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment.

Robert Greenleaf, the man who coined the phrase, described servant-leadership in this way:

“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. 

He or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.  For such it will be a later choice to serve – after leadership is established. 

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, will they not be further deprived?”

Taken from The Servant As Leader published by Robert Greenleaf in 1970.

Larry Spears, the CEO of the Greenleaf Center, describes servant-leadership in this way:

“As we near the end of the twentieth century, we are beginning to see that traditional autocratic and hierarchical modes of leadership are slowly yielding to a newer model – one that attempts to simultaneously enhance the personal growth of workers and improve the quality and caring of our many institutions through a combination of teamwork and community, personal involvement in decision making, and ethical and caring behavior.

This emerging approach to leadership and service is called servant-leadership.”

Taken from the introduction to Reflections on Leadership published by John Wiley in 1995.