What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which an individual interacts with others—either in a management or fellow employee capacity—with the aim of achieving authority rather than power. The system embodies a decentralized organizational structure.

The authority figure intends to promote the well-being of those around him or her. Servant leadership involves the individual demonstrating the characteristics of empathy, listening, stewardship, and commitment to personal growth toward others.

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What Is Servant Leadership?

How Servant Leadership Works

Servant leadership seeks to move management and personnel interaction away from "controlling activities" and toward a more synergistic relationship among parties. The term "servant leadership" was coined by Robert Greenleaf, a twentieth-century researcher who was skeptical about traditional leadership styles that focused on more authoritarian relationships between employers and employees.

According to Greenleaf’s observations, the servant leader approaches situations and organizations from the perspective of a servant first, looking to lend their presence to answer the needs of the organization and others. They seek to address wants and requirements as their priority, with leadership to be pursued secondarily. This contrasts with the leader-first perspective, wherein a person aims to gain control quickly often driven by the desire and prospects for material gain or influence.

Developing and mentoring the team who follow their instructions, or the clients’ and customers’ needs, take precedence over personal elevation. Even upon attaining a position of governance, a servant leader typically encourage their subordinates to look to serve others as their priority over focusing on personal gains. A servant leader may aim to share power with others and encourage the development and growth of others. This trait can extend to listening to followers carefully to better understand their needs, but it also involves leaders holding themselves and others accountable for their words and actions.

Servant Leadership Example

Where the leader-first dynamic is oriented to appease a personal desire for power, the servant leader looks first to how their service benefits others. For example, a servant leader might question how their efforts uplift those who are underrepresented or are from lower economic standing before seeking to attain a position of control. Their progression to a position of leadership comes after their commitment to service.

This can be seen in the healthcare world, for instance, as medical practitioners work to benefit their patients and assist their peers and teammates in providing that care. In the business world, this can mean seeing that employees, customers, and all other stakeholders can prosper through their service.