top of page

Things I didn't know about Servant Leadership

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

I'm guilty. I'm guilty of using the phrase "Servant Leadership" to mean whatever I want it to mean. “Servant Leadership” has an intuitive definition, and I conveniently added on to the definition based on the opposite of any poor leadership I observed. I have been using the basic definition, “A leader who humbly serves the needs of their team or organization.” I’ve also quoted the man who coined the phrase, Robert Greenleaf, many times, including here in this very blog.

Who was Robert Greenleaf? Why did he come up with this phrase? What exactly did he mean by “Servant Leadership”? What else did he have to say? Let’s dig a little deeper into Servant Leadership.

Robert Greenleaf was an employee of AT&T 1924-1964 while also doing Management Research work at AT&T and later for many universities. After retirement, he started what is today known as the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. He published his seminal work “Servant as a Leader” in 1970, six years after his retirement. "After Retirement"!!! This is an inspiration for those who think they can't make an impact late in their life.

Servant as a Leader, Greenleaf published this nifty little pamphlet in 1970. The format is unusual, it’s 48 pages long, too short for a book, too long for an article. He actually published this series of 4 short essays on Servant Leadership:

  • The Servant as a Leader

  • The Institution as a Servant

  • Trustees as Servants

  • Teacher as a Servant

What does Servant Leadership mean? “The great leader is seen as servant first.” That’s Greenleaf’s simple definition. But what does it really mean?

  • Followers make the leader. A leader’s authority is granted knowingly by the led, in response to the leader’s stature as a servant. Leaders who make a difference aren’t those anointed with a title, they are the ones that people follow. Followers are in a sense, servant leaders as well, because they are leading energy towards the leader they chose to follow. A simple example of this is the Dancing Man Video.

  • Create Dangerously. It’s easy to criticize and analyze what’s not right, but harder to become “an affirmative builder of a better society”. Often today’s leaders are expected to judge, evaluate and correct. A servant leader is focused on building the right thing, not correcting the wrong thing. “The danger is to hear the analyst too much and the artist too little.”

  • Grows people they serve. A Servant Leader is growing the people on their team, rather than serving the needs of the leader. Greenleaf asks, “While being served, do people become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely to become servants?” “What is the effect on the least privileged in society?” If you have a few superstars on your team and the rest of the team loses their job, it might be worth some reflection. I think of tv shows where many people on the show go on to have a successful career, such as "The Daily Show", "Saturday Night Live", "Taxi" and "Second City TV".

  • Leaves hypothesis under a shadow of a doubt. Chooses and then reflects. Servant Leaders don’t profess to know all the answers and the result. This allows them to be open to the ideas of others.

  • Listens first. Transformation to servant leader can come by learning to listen first. “By listening you build strength in other people.”

  • Defuse the Anxiety of the Served. Servant leaders are comfortable with uncertainty. They can help reduce anxiety for others who are less comfortable with uncertainty.

  • Clarity of Vision. Servant leaders have more of a sense of the unknowable, and a clearer sight into the future, than others. They are monitoring past, present and future, all at once.

  • Wide Span of Awareness. Servant Leaders are always looking to widen their field of awareness. Looking for blind spots. What am I missing? “Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.”

  • Matches their strengths to what’s needed. “Drew heavily on his strengths and demanded little that was unnatural for him, and that was very right for the time and place he happened to be.” Servant leaders don’t spend time building their weaknesses, they use their strengths. So forget what your performance review says you need to improve, double down on what you are doing well.

  • Build community. Servant leaders build community. They create people-building organizations, not people-using organizations.

  • Persuasion and Example over Coercion. Servant leaders don’t submit to the often easier path of coercion because it only strengthens resistance. Even when domination and manipulation are for the person’s own “good”, it doesn’t grow the served. Controlling power only works as long as the power is strong, persuasion lasts beyond the power of the leader.

  • The Duty to Serve. “The enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant.” That’s right if you follow a non-servant you are complicit in creating a world of bad leaders. And if you have the capacity to lead, and you don’t, you are also complicit. He’s calling us out. We all have a duty to serve.

There’s a lot to digest here. We’ll break it down and dig in on future posts.

What is your reaction to the scope of Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership? Did anything surprise you? Let us know!

Source: All Italicized text is from Robert K. Greenleaf's Servant as a Leader, 1970.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page