Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership: Definition and Applications

A wise leader is a leader who serves. The term “servant leadership” was coined in a paper titled The Servant as Leader by Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of the Greenleaf Institute for Servant Leadership. It refers to a concept of leadership where the leader is a servant first. The philosophy is based on an idea that when leaders serve, both the leaders and the followers collectively enrich the lives of individuals. They build better organizations and create a more positive world.

The concept of servant leadership centers on the idea that people have a natural tendency to serve and want to serve.

Thus, leading starts with serving first. Due to its utopian philosophy, servant leadership received numerous criticisms. Among which are the reasons why it’s not (yet) prevalent among leaders and the public. In this article, we will discuss how servant leadership is applied in business and organizations, We will discuss the facts and misconceptions, the criticisms surrounding both the philosophy and the application, and moving forward with servant leadership as a part of human nature.

The Philosophy

The simplest way to explain “servant leadership” is that servant leaders focus on identifying and meeting the needs of others rather than attempting to acquire as much power, wealth, and fame for themselves, according to the CEO of the Greenleaf Center Kent Keith. More importantly, such leadership goes beyond serving internal stakeholders, such as employees and contractors. A good servant leader also cares about the external stakeholders, including the customers, the community, and the whole society. It’s a positive influence through and through.

It’s the direct opposite of tyrannical leadership. A tyrant leader is served and continues maintaining the status quo to ensure its longevity. Such a leader  has a “short fuse.” Things that don’t go according to a plan are punished and criticized negatively. In politics, it’s the most dangerous type of leadership, as it leads unnecessary wars and on-going conflicts.

The origins

The origin of “servant leadership” itself was the brain child of Robert Greenleaf, whose past position at the AT&T allowed him to observe two types of leadership. In the first type, the leaders serve themselves. In the second, the leaders serve others. Between the two, the latter was more effective. The first type is much more common worldwide, especially in profit-making corporations and organizations.

The first model of leadership places emphasis on how the leader can acquire more power, wealth, and fame for themselves. Every activity is intended to increase the three elements, as the “self” is at the center. By contrast, the second model of leadership puts the people at the center and serving is the primary activity. The position of the leader, thus, isn’t at the center, but all around.

In servant leadership, hierarchies aren’t important. The only exception is for ensuring that technical and administrative tasks are performed satisfactorily. Upending hierarchies allows feedback and information to flow fluidly and dialogues can occur more seamlessly. This would increase employee morale and sense of ownership. When employees feel that they’re respected and valued, they will likely work more productively and create higher-quality outputs.

Every person is believed to have leadership within. Thus the leader’s ultimate task is to awaken this trait and its supporting qualities. When everyone grows, the organization and the society will grow favorably as well. Think of seeds; when they’re watered and fed soil nutrients, they would grow beautifully. Servant leadership provides “nutritional values” to the soul.

Applications in Organization

Applying servant leadership doesn’t require any blueprint or manual. It’s a practical philosophy that’s more intuitive than technical. You simply need to be reminded in every activity that what you do affect all stakeholders and your primary job is ensuring that everyone grows optimally.

It’s like being a coach who cares about the coachee’s progress. The only difference between a professional coach and a servant leader is that the former usually coaches in specific sessions, while the latter must also be aware of their influence in the corporate culture and all stakeholders. A servant leader, thus, is a lifestyle 24/7/365, not just a job or an honorary designation.

Servant leadership isn’t limited to certain uses or applications. It can be applied in any organization both for-profit or non-profit in public and private sectors across various industries. It can even be applied in online, remote, and distributed work arrangements. The key is for the leader to have a big heart in accepting feedback and being a facilitator instead of a sage on the stage.


In the hierarchical type of leadership, communication generally flows vertically, and it takes extra effort for feedback from the bottom to reach the C-level due to the middle management serving as “gatekeepers.” The term isn’t used negatively, as it’s just the way it works in most hierarchical leaderships. This being said, servant leaders do the opposite: they encourage flow of information to and from all directions.

As a facilitator, a servant leader welcomes feedback and complaints, which only serve to make the organization better and people grow. People would understand that it’s never about the servant leader, so the environment occurs more naturally. The stakeholders’ success is the leader’s success. Moreover, there are no hard feelings when something unpleasant occurs. After all, everyone’s status is equal. Thus, in an organization with servant leadership, office politics is likely to happen to a lesser degree. This alone is a reason worth applying this style of leadership.

Facts and misconceptions

The typical notion of “a leader” is someone who is self-centered and whose words must be followed to avoid “punishments” is, actually, already obsolete. The human evolution has brought forth servant leadership style to steadily dissipate out-of-date leadership styles that can hinder the evolution progress. However, of course, like other new concepts, it has also been misunderstood.

Several misconceptions about servant leadership:

  1. It only works in certain types of organization, like non-profits and educational institutions.
  2. It takes a long time for a leader to adopt this style, as it’s uncommon.
  3. It’s against the “nature” of leadership, which is to lead with power and control.
  4. Not many leaders have such benevolent traits.
  5. It must be fostered in the right place with the right existing culture.

The arguments for servant leadership focus on the belief that every individual is born positive, benevolent, humble, open-minded, open-hearted, and has a high degree of self-control. It may sound utopian, but human beings are hardwired with compassion and benevolence. Neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns from Emory University found that in a research,  participants were given a chance to help someone else while their brain activity was recorded. It later proved that helping others triggered activity in certain parts of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. This was a remarkable finding that human beings get satisfaction from helping others.

Emma M. Seppala, PhD wrote an article for Psychology Today, where she cited scientists at the Max Planck Institute Michael Tomasello whose research concluded that human beings have compassion trait as a part of the evolution. He posited that humans need to be compassionate to one another to survive, hence “the survival of the kindest.” Thus, servant leadership is actually following nature’s instinct, not against it.

Criticisms Surrounding the Philosophy and Applications

One of the most popular criticisms surrounding servant leadership is that there is no such thing and it’s a contradictio in terminis or an oxymoron, which means a contradictory term. “Servant” is the opposite of “leader,” thus a “servant leader” is simply impossible, according to some critics. The correct term should have been “serving leader,” which is a leader who serves or someone who leads by serving.

Richard Greenleaf argued that this term isn’t an oxymoron, Thus “serving leadership” is different from “servant leadership.” In servant leadership, the leader’s need to lead with power and control simply doesn’t exist. In serving leadership, however, the leader maintains the traditional “power and control” concept and uses serving as a tool to reach such goal.

Many types of leadership have incorporated servant leadership characteristics, but retain the hierarchical structure. In transformational leadership, for instance, the leader focuses on the best ways to transform an organization from its obsolete state to a more progressive state. And among the tools used are inviting feedback, listening attentively to all stakeholders, and increasing employee morale with positive rewards, encouragements, and exciting learning opportunities.

Moving Forward with Servant Leadership

It takes courage just to live and breathe every single day. It takes more courage to lead and make every single day meaningful. A servant leader thinks and breathes positivity, compassion, benevolence, and open-mindedness. When there are negative criticisms around, they remind people around them that it’s human nature to maintain compassion and benevolence around us, including in businesses and organizations.

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