Servant Leadership Theory

Servant leadership theory, which dates to the 1970s, argues that leaders have a duty to focus primarily on meeting their subordinates’ needs rather than on their own or those of the organization. We take a closer look at this novel leadership theory.

By — on / Leadership Skills

paternal leadership, servant leadership theory

When considering various leadership models to emulate, leaders have a wide variety to choose from, including participative leadership, charismatic leadership, directive leadership, authoritarian leadership, and paternalistic leadership. In this article, we take a closer look at servant leadership theory, an aspirational but somewhat understudied model of leadership rooted in lofty goals. 

What Is Servant Leadership Theory?

In an influential 1977 article, “Essentials of Servant Leadership,” Robert Greenleaf, an AT&T executive and management researcher, proposed a leadership style in which leaders put the needs, aspirations, and interests of their followers above their own. These leaders seek to help their followers “grow healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants,” Greenleaf wrote. If the primary goal of traditional leadership is to further the  organization’s goals, the purpose of servant leadership is to “serve others to be what they are capable of becoming,” write Sen Sendjaya and James C. Sarros of Monash University in Australia in a 2002 article.

Greenleaf developed servant leadership theory after reading the novel Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse, which describes a group of men on a mythical journey whose servant, Leo, “sustains them with spirit and song.” Leo turns out to be a “great and noble leader” who only posed as a servant. 

Real Leaders Negotiate

Claim your FREE copy: Real Leaders Negotiate

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.

Over 2,000 years ago, ancient monarchs also practiced servant leadership, “acknowledging they were in the service of their country and their people,” though the monarchs’ actions were often inconsistent with these goals, write Sendjaya and Sarros. The authors also cite the biblical story of Jesus Christ washing his disciples’ feet as a concrete illustration of servant leadership.

In contemporary organizations, a servant leadership style contrasts with the traditional image of leaders issuing top-down directives. Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines and its CEO from 1981 to 2009, is often cited as a successful servant leader. Under his leadership, Southwest was known for its fun-loving, employee-centered culture. “I have always believed that the best leader is the best server,” Kelleher once said. “And if you’re a servant, by definition, you’re not controlling. We try to value each person individually and to be cognizant of them as human beings—not just people who work for our company.”

10 Servant Leadership Characteristics

“Servant leadership seeks to involve others in decision making, is strongly based in ethical and caring behavior, and enhances the growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of organizational life,” writes Larry C. Spears in a 1992 article

In particular, Spears identifies 10 servant leadership characteristics:

  • Listening—a commitment to listening intently to others, coupled with periods of reflection.
  • Empathy—an effort to understand, empathize with, and accept others.
  • Healing—a focus on helping others overcome emotional wounds and aid in a search for wholeness.
  • Awareness—general awareness and self-awareness, which contribute to an understanding of issues related to power, ethics, and values.
  • Persuasion—in contrast to authoritarian leadership, a reliance on convincing others based on the merit of arguments rather than on coercion or manipulation. 
  • Conceptualization—an ability to think beyond day-to-day realities and dream big.
  • Foresight—efforts to “understand lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future.”
  • Stewardship—behaving with the understanding that one has been entrusted with running the organization for the greater good of society.
  • Commitment to the growth of people—the belief “that people have an intrinsic value beyond their intangible contributions as workers” leads to a strong commitment to “the growth of each individual.” 
  • Building community—a desire to create true community within the organization and other institutions. 

Criticisms of Servant Leadership Theory

Servant leadership theory has faced criticisms over the years. Feminist scholars, including Pennsylvania State University professor emeritus Deborah Eicher-Catt, have noted that servant leadership theory is based on patriarchal approaches to leadership. And in a 2012 article, Brenda L.H. Marina and Debora Y. Fonteneau point out that servant leadership discourse has ignored the long history of Black servants being subjugated and mistreated. Indeed, the term servant leadership can seem insensitive when applied to women, people of color, and others who historically have faced marginalization and mistreatment in the workplace and society more broadly. 

Moreover, few empirical studies have been conducted to test the propositions of servant leadership theory and validate its effectiveness. And as researchers Jan G. Langhof and Stefan Gueldenberg of the Universitat Liechtenstein write in a 2021 article, servant leadership theory may not always promote ethical behavior, as it relies on the moral framework of individual leaders and followers rather than on broadly agreed-upon moral standards. 

Despite its shortcomings, there are numerous admirable aspects of servant leadership theory that leaders may choose to emulate in their organizations, including an emphasis on fostering employee growth, open communication, and community. 

To what extent do you think servant leadership theory can benefit or hinder organizations?

Related Posts

Tags: leadership models, servant leadership characteristics, servant leadership style, servant leadership theory, what is servant leadership


5 Responses to “Servant Leadership Theory”

  • Antonia G.

    Servant leadership is fundamental in today’s fast pacing and antagonising market if we want to be sustainable healthy human beings. It also serves accepted societal principles. It is a great example of demonstrating our virtues. However, it requires strength, courage and lots of effort with a strong sense of sacrification. Individuals with well developed emotional intelligence may find this style of leadership more suitable to be adapted.

  • Jernigan J.

    I believe the detractors of servant leadership maybe viewing a miss applied approach. A true servant leaders is certainly selfless but this extends to making unpopular decisions that, while negative in the moment, are for the long term success of the collective task first, and welfare of the individual second. A servant leader is a hand rail to be used, not rug to be walked on.

  • Paul R.

    In my opinion this is one of the best ways of managing teams although I see one pitfall which is that there is a change that in serving your team you go one step to far as when people turn to you with a problem you try to solve their problem for them. This is what I see in my practice as a interim manager working in Europe. The will to serve is then too big. It is my view that you should listen to their problems and ask them to think about solutions which then can be discussed and decided on.

  • I am currently utilizing the servant leadership approach at my factory. I am a relatively new plant manager (was a QA manager prior) and after 1.5 years, the results have been very good on several measurements, especially engagement scores of the workforce. Performance has improved dramatically and the management team under me has developed into a very competent team and are able to deliver results every month.
    Ultimately, I think there are a few key factors to success:
    – A competent and autonomous management team is a must. My leaders list autonomy as their #1 value and they all very capable and effective within their departments. As a leader, I have learned that this model will struggle if people are not self-motivated in this way. The team members that struggle with this need heavy coaching or need to move on.
    – It’s not enough to preach. The living of the idea starts with the leader. I sometimes feel like part psychologist/counselor, which requires a lot active listening to make sure all are heard and feel valued. I am not sure that this is a generational thing but I don’t believe upper management in the corporation that I report to fully understands this concept. People MUST feel heard and feel that their contribution is valued. When they don’t they need to trust that they can open to their leader and talk openly about the issue and then the leader can help them work through the issues without solving the problem for them.
    – Vision: This is equally important. So once you have a self-actualized team, they need to have a vision/mission to work to. Not having a strategy and a plan to work to can lead to frustration and conflict. This is true in any scenario but the team that is empowered to make decisions need to have clear context to what is value add vs. non-value add.
    Additionally, servant leadership style is not on it’s own a model for how a business should be run. This is a core-values based approach to how you develop a team and grow leaders within an organization but I rely on my experience, problem solving and other management skills to do the job. Ultimately, I realize that there is no amount of solutions that I could deliver in any given situation such that I alone could deliver the results. I am the one who is dependent on my employees, and they are not dependent on me (though they may believe so). So what value do I add but to do the things I stated above?
    Personally, I don’t know any effective leader that doesn’t employ some or all of these concepts.

  • Jennifer S.

    I love the ideas behind servant leadership and I am wondering if it is the title that turns people off. Indeed the first paragraph of the critique you included is all about the name! Servant leadership also smacks of an obsequious disingenuous approach that could promote mistrust.
    I prefer the term empowering leadership which seeks to promote the best aspects of those one supervises in collaboration with them. It would require a more work but ti would be an investment in that individual


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *