An overview of servant leadership and its origins.
Table of contents
The terminology 'Servant Leadership' became popular in a leadership context after Robert Greenleaf's book, Servant Leadership (1977). The concept of 'a leader who serves' has been expressed in many different ways for very much longer. Often cited, and perhaps the earliest notable reference to servant leadership, is recorded in the Biblical teachings attributed to Jesus Christ, when he said to his twelve disciples, "And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant." (Matthew 20:27) The same pronouncement is reported in the book of Mark, chapter 9:35: "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all."
The precise interpretation of the words is open to debate, but the fundamental Biblical portrayal and advocation of self-sacrificing leadership for the service and wellbeing of followers is obvious. This broad leadership concept of prioritising the interests of followers is of course seen in other religious codes, and the writings which support and promote them.
I am grateful to James Scouller, an expert coach, thinker, and writer on leadership, for the contribution of most of the technical content on this article, and for the collaboration in editing it and presenting it here. Aside from what follows here, Scouller's expertise in leadership theory is evidenced particularly in his 2011 book "The Three Levels of Leadership", which I commend to you.
Elsewhere in history, folklore, popular fiction and other creative works - and in modern news stories too - we see many and various examples of 'servant leaders'. These are leaders, for the purposes of this explanation, whose service towards others and/or a worthy cause - typically to the leader's own cost or personal disadvantage - is arguably the leader's driving force. These examples all offer characterisations of this leadership philosophy. There are arguments against many these examples if we delve more deeply, usually concerning wider issues of 'the greater good', but the examples are valid in illustrating the basic idea about a leader who serves others:
- Mother Theresa
- Florence Nightingale
- Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi
- Nelson Mandela
- Dalai Lama
- Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha)
- Martin Luther King
- Vyasa (to whom much of the Bhagavad-Gita and foundations of the Hindu religion are commonly attributed)
- Leo Tolstoy
- George Bailey (in the film It's a Wonderful Life)
- Aslan (the lion leader of Narnia in the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
The list could continue considerably. There would be arguments against many of these suggestions at a more deeply philosophical level, so please see them as simply icons, rather than absolutes. Also please note that while Robert Greenleaf popularised the term 'servant leadership', the examples above do not all necessarily fit neatly with Greenleaf's own definition of 'servant leadership'.
All that said, the idea of servant leadership is basically simple: that the leader serves the followers (or a cause, which benefits the followers in some way). A leader who embodies this is not leading for reasons of status, wealth, popularity or lust for power. Instead, they want to make a positive difference to the benefit of all - or at least the majority - of followers. Crucially, a servant leader also tends to do this knowingly and willingly at his or her own cost.
Returning to Robert Greenleaf's popularisation of the concept, Greenleaf asserts that leaders are not servant leaders where their actions cause suffering or disadvantage to others. Inevitably this opens a much wider philosophical question concerning 'the greater good' - whether for example the suffering of a very few people is warranted to achieve the freedom of very many more people, but this is not essential for a basic appreciation of what servant leadership is.
Some writers have attempted to extend this leadership philosophy by describing the characteristics and practices of servant leaders. For example, Larry Spears, a former president of the Robert K Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership has listed ten characteristics of a servant leader:
- Awareness (including self-awareness)
- Commitment to other people's growth and a community spirit
Kent Keith (author of The Case for Servant Leadership), James Sipe and Don Frick (Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership) have listed different characteristics. There are others. The concept of Servant Leadership has become a very popular area to develop and exploit one way or another.
The main point here however is that attempting to develop a character/behavioural set from servant-leadership philosophy inevitably shifts the ideas to being Trait-based leadership theory, with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of establishing a list of traits which can be widely agreed. They cannot.
This limitation does not undermine the value of this philosophy, or of leadership philosophies generally. All leadership philosophies show us important aspects of leadership, while reminding us that a leadership philosophy is not in itself adequate (structurally, definitively, process-wise) for understanding, teaching and applying leadership methods in the fullest sense.
I am grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.
James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and trained in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.
James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill". It was published in May 2011. I commend it to you, and his thinking too.
You can learn more about James Scouller's book at three-levels-of-leadership.com.
Details of James Scouller's executive coaching work are at TheScoullerPartnership.co.uk.