Proposed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, the servant leadership theory defines a form of leadership where the leader’s primary role is to be of service to others first. Workspirited gives you an explanation of the servant leadership theory with some examples.
“True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not to enrich the leader.”
― John C. Maxwell
The term, servant leadership is such an oxymoron that when first come across, immediately attracts complete attention. Servant, and leader in the same term? How is this even possible? Hold on, we’re here to tell you how, and why.
Even before Robert K. Greenleaf who introduced the concept in 1970, servant leadership has been promoted and encouraged since ancient times. However, it is Greenleaf who has been attributed with coining this term in the modern times. There are several different kinds of leaders, but only the servant leader acts for his people, and not for his personal benefit. Servant leadership promotes and emphasizes on the need for the leader of a group to put the needs of others before his own, and to motivate others to develop and perform in the best way possible. Greenleaf’s theory argues that the best leaders are those who are the ‘servants’ of the people. Though he was aware of the negative connotation of the word ‘servant’, Greenleaf purposely used it in order to create a new way of thinking when it came to leadership, as opposed to the traditional pyramid hierarchy that was generally the image of leadership.
Characteristics of a Servant Leader
A servant leader is one who considers himself to be one of his followers, and a servant of the people who follow him. This does not mean anything in the negative sense; rather, it means that a leader belongs and works for his people, which makes him selfless, sincere, and a true leader. Servant leadership can exist in any scenario― be it a business organization, a government office, or anyone else who has a position of authority. A servant leader has ten primary characteristics or skills that distinguish him from other leaders, as specified by Greenleaf.
The main characteristic of a true servant leader is that he is a good listener, and listens to understand. Traditionally, that is what leaders were meant for― to listen attentively, receptively, understand, and provide solutions if need be.
The listening skills of a servant leader are so great that he can pick up the unsaid talk of the rest of the people in his group, and can immediately intervene with the appropriate help or advice. Servant leaders help the rest of their team members to feel as though there is someone looking out for them, all the time.
Along with listening comes expressing the right emotions, and that’s exactly what a servant leader does. Empathizing is actually being able to spot and understand the feelings and emotions being felt by others. Servant leaders do not shy away from understanding and accepting the members of their group for what they are, including appreciating each unique characteristic of every person. Showing empathy to group members helps them feel appreciated, and cared for, too.
Servant leaders are typically also known as ‘healers’. No, this does not mean that they actually physically ‘heal’ someone. Healers in this case refers to a servant leader who has the ability to ensure the overall well-being of not only himself, but also the others in his group. Servant leaders help support and develop their members’ emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
Servant leaders are always aware of their personal strengths, as well as weaknesses, and know what they should or shouldn’t do. They are also aware of the individual strengths and weaknesses of every member in their group. They do not expect anything from the group members or from themselves that they know is unrealistic.
A servant leader is known for being able to pursue his group members for a particular thing, rather than force them. Servant leaders use their persuasion skills to convince group members of what it is they should do, and why, instead of just ordering them to do something without any specific reason.
Servant leaders also refrain from using force and compulsion on their group members, and instead convince them in a positive manner to co-operate. This one point largely distinguishes servant leadership from the other leadership styles, which tend to use force or obligation some time or the other.
Servant leaders are not afraid to dream big. Nor are most leaders, but here’s a difference― servant leaders dream big for the benefit of the entire group, while other leaders generally dream big in a way that will benefit them first, the group later. Servant leaders look beyond the daily life of the group and strike a balance between the probable future and the present. In this way, the servant leader can help the group work towards the probable future while also taking care of the present.
This is a largely intuitive characteristic in a leader. Servant leaders take lessons from the past, understand the present, and then predict the future. The servant leader is capable enough to understand the relationship between all three time phases, and knows how each one will affect the other. This helps the leader base his decisions and actions accordingly.
Along with being ‘one’ of the rest of the group, servant leaders are also stewards of the group, meaning they hold and handle the group’s resources in order to ensure complete well-being and harmony. Servant leaders are never biased towards the use of these resources. They hold them only for the greater good, and nothing else. Also, servant leaders are stewards only to take responsibility of the group, and not to force their views and plans on the members.
Commitment to Growth
Servant leaders do not care solely about their personal growth and development, or even development of the organization or group that will indirectly result in their personal growth. Rather, servant leaders strive to bring about steady progress and development of each and every group member.
A servant leader values unity and harmony in his group, and thus strives to foster a sense of community in the organization. He promotes the sense of community, and belonging among the group members, with each other, and with the organization so that each group member values not only the leader, but also themselves, the organization, and each other.
The aforementioned characteristics of a servant leader are not traits that are exhaustive, in any case. Servant leaders have all these traits, and many more, which distinguish them from other leaders, and make them leaders in the true sense of the word, as was specified and desired by ancient philosophers and scholars. Given below are a few examples of famous servant leaders and their leadership―
Examples of a Servant Leader
Abraham Lincoln would be a good example of a servant leader, according to experts, considering all his actions in the US Civil War. Him striving so hard to free the slaves in the South is an action of servant leadership. It would have been very easy for him to let the Union dissolve, or let slavery continue just like it had for so many years. Yet, he looked at the bigger picture and did what he could do that would help the country in the long run. Though not everybody realized it at the time, his actions were selfless and for the people, and not for himself.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr King’s efforts in the Civil Rights Movement are certainly an example of servant leadership. Dr King chose to give importance to the non-violence approach when demanding civil rights, knowing that this approach would be very beneficial for those he was fighting for, in the long run. He cared more about his people, and about what he could do for them, than all the prizes and recognition he earned for his efforts.
Mother Teresa spent her life working selflessly for the destitute, ill people in India who nobody really cared about. She is a wonderful and inspiring example of a servant leader, as she always chose to put others before herself, and shied away from praise and recognition, as the well-being of her people mattered more to her than any praise. She even donated the money of her Nobel Peace Prize to the unfortunate, insisting that she did not need it.
Her work attracted and inspired several other people who joined her in her mission, making her a true visionary, a great servant leader.
Nelson Mandela was too, a true servant leader. He always put the need for achieving equality in South Africa before his personal gains. He considered himself a ‘humble servant’ of the people; protested, put his own well-being aside, and served time in prison in order to make a statement on behalf of his people. His selfless efforts for his people make a statement of how one can be a great leader by putting the needs of others before oneself.
Servant leadership was present in Mahatma Gandhi too, as evidenced by his non―violent, and yet strenuous efforts to free India from British rule. Despite the fact that he gained international recognition for the same, his main aim was always to work for the welfare of the people. It wasn’t easy to stand up against the mighty British rule with non-violence techniques, but he did it.
He was actually a lawyer and could have chosen to live a successful, sound life, but he chose to put the needs of the Indian people before his own.
However, though experts agree it has its advantages, some experts have also pointed out a few disadvantages or cons of the servant leadership theory. Let us have a look at both the pros and cons of servant leadership in brief.
- Valuing the group members for who they are
- Not treating them as a tool to achieve something for personal benefit
- Promotes a sense of unity and belonging in the group
- Does not force or obligate any member to do something against his will
- Promotes individual growth and development along with the development of the group as a whole
- Seeks to improve through encouragement and appreciation as opposed to force and discouragement
- Creates a personal bond in an otherwise impersonal environment
- Can be perceived to be more philosophical and religious than practical
- Disturbs the concept of hierarchies
- Upsets the authority in the group
- Can be used to take undue advantage of the leader
- Not appealing to every worker and every leader
- Can be humiliating in certain professions
- Humble behavior can be perceived as a sign of weakness.
Servant leadership is a timeless concept, and has been used and mentioned in several notable ancient works all over the world. Let us look at the concept of servant leadership before Robert Greenleaf introduced it through his essay in 1970.
In Ancient History
Ancient philosophers and scholars emphasized on the need for servant leaders in order to bring about progress and development in society, as is evidenced through the following quotes that have been passed on from generation to generation.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
― Lao Tzu
“The wise man does not lay up his own treasures. The more he gives to others, the more he has for himself.”
― Lao Tzu
“If you want to govern the people,
You must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead people,
You must learn how to follow them.”
― Lao Tzu
“If the king is pious, the subjects become so; but if the king is vicious, the subjects become the same. If he be indifferent to both (virtue and vice), then they too bear the same character. In short, as is the king so are his subjects.”
“In order to control over one’s senses, one has to be humble and modest. It is the learning that makes man humble. A ruler with an inflated ego and arrogance cannot be a good ruler. If he gets down to solving the people’s problems, he has to become humble to succeed.”
Servant leadership has been emphasized in the Bible, too.
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
1 Peter 5:3
History has shown us that there is no dearth of servant leaders all over the world, and there are countless servant leaders who are away from the spotlight, and who have shunned recognition completely. All of us, (including you, we’re sure!) have immense respect for these servant leaders who have made working for the welfare of others their life’s purpose.
To quote Greenleaf, “The servant-leader is servant first… Becoming a servant-leader 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… 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….”
Very true, isn’t it?