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. 

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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?

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