What is Servant Leadership and Why Should I Use It?

April 5, 2011

I’m not sure about you, but over the last couple of years I have been hearing about Servant Leadership more and more. I’ve always had a vague idea of what Servant Leadership meant. However, after hearing Carol Olsby speak on the topic at this weekend’s Women’s Leadership Summit (which was absolutely amazing by the way), put on by Shandel Slaten of True Life Coaching, I decided that I should dig a little deeper. I wanted to find out what Servant Leadership really is and figure out how it’s worked for companies that have incorporated this mindset.

What is Servant Leadership?

For those of you that don’t know, the phrase “Servant Leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in as essay that he published in 1970. In that essay, he said:
“”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?”
To put it plainly, Greenleaf is stating that a servant-leader is much less concerned about themselves and much more concerned about the happiness and well-being of others on his/her team. The servant leader takes the time to ask the questions that can determine whether every person on that team is best equipped to get the job done.

Why Would I Implement Servant Leadership?

More often than not, leadership positions are used for personal gain rather than to serve others and bring out the best in them. Servant Leadership emphasizes trust, empathy, and collaboration between a team and it’s leader. Now, can you honestly point me to one leader that wouldn’t want more trust, empathy or collaboration in their team environment? I sure can’t.
Servant leaders are typically more in-tune to their company’s mission. A servant leader will work to align themselves and their team with the mission and goals of the company instead of always striving for their own wealth, power or fame.
Servant leadership even goes beyond personal interactions within a company. “In business [practicing servant leadership] would start with your customers and ultimately [involve] serving society through the good work you’re doing on behalf of your customers,”says Bill George, a professor of management at Harvard Business School and the former CEO of Medtronic, a large medical technology company.
It seems that because servant leadership is such a great idea, we might be hearing about more people practicing it, right? No necessarily. There are a lot of companies out there practicing servant leadership, but they just might not be using the word for it. In fact, on Saturday, Carol was able to think of a number of large corporations who have practiced servant leadership, including Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, and FedEx.

What If…?

I learned so much at this year’s Women’s Leadership Summit. But, I would have to say that my greatest takeaway was the information that I learned on servant leadership and the curiousity that it sparked for me. What would this world look like if we all took a serving approach to our leadership? And not just in our daily jobs, but what about even at home or in our communities. How do you think this world might be different?


Picture of Alyssa Magnotti

Alyssa Magnotti