What Is a Servant Leader?

by Don M. Frick

August 25, 2017

Servant Leadership Primer

Part 1: What Is a Servant Leader?

People who first hear the phrase servant leader often ask “What does that even mean?” A fair question, as to many pairing "leader" with "servant" seems like a contradictory statement. To answer, let’s begin with talking about what a leader is.

What is a leader?

According to Robert K. Greenleaf—the founder of the modern servant leadership movement—a leader is someone who:

  • Initiates (conversations, projects, change—anything, really!)
  • Is open to inspiration (from within and outside the group)
  • Forges ahead and shows the way group should go
  • Provides ideas and structure for a group's goals
  • Can proceed when they know the path is uncertain or dangerous
  • Always knows the goal, can articulate it for those in the group who are unsure, and stays the course
  • Takes on the risk of failure along with the chance of success

People follow leaders because they believe leaders see the big picture and can clearly see the best course of action. In this sense, followers make leaders. Hitler was a leader, but his vision of where to go was ethically warped. Still, he could not have accomplished what he did without followers who not only believed in his goal, but also coerced unbelievers into followership.

But how does one "clearly see the best course of action?"

Through foresight. Foresight is the “lead” a leader has. Once a leader “loses this lead and events start to force his hand, he is leader in name only. He is not leading; he is reacting to immediate events and he probably will not long be a leader.”1

Even Machiavelli knew this; this is his advice to princes who wished to survive:

Thus it happens in matters of state; for knowing afar off (which it is only given a prudent man to do) the evils that are brewing, they are easily cured. But when, for want of such knowledge, they are allowed to grow so that everyone can recognize them, there is no longer any remedy to be found.2

By this definition a leader can be moral or amoral, kind or cruel. Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, and Ivan the Terrible were all leaders. In defining servant leadership, Greenleaf takes the common notion of heroic leadership (or the  “The Great Man” theory) and turns it on its head.

What is a servant leader?

Let's go right to the source: Greenleaf’s first writing on servant leadership was titled “The Servant as Leader,” not “The Leader as Servant”—an intentional distinction because a servant leader is a servant first.  

It 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, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve—after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. . . 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.3

To put it simple, a servant leader is someone who:
  1. Above all: listens
  2. Is highly communicative
  3. Uses persuasion rather than coercion and manipulation
  4. Has access to intuition and foresight
  5. Has pragmatic measurements of outcomes

The distinction here from plain ol' leadership is that a servant leader has a compassionate understanding of the power dynamics at play as a leader of a group—and they seek to balance the scales. A servant leader uses their power not for themselves, but for the group as a whole by including them in the conversation and—most importantly—by listening to them.

The “best test” for the effectiveness of a servant leader is one of sheer pragmatism, based on mostly-observable outcomes:

  • Do those served grow as persons?
  • Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  
  • What is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit, or, at least, will they not be further deprived? 

These are the ethical goals at the core of servant leadership, and what makes it so different from conventional management thinking. Servant leaders put themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy and unleash the energy, excitement, and talents of the team, the business, and the community. 

Why does servant leadership matter?

It may seem like a radical idea to some, but servant leadership has proven effectiveness in increasing employee engagement, productivity, and creativity. Think this sounds too good to be true? Well, there's research to back it up.

In his recent book Give and Take, organizational psychologist Adam Grant researched the role of reciprocity in our work life. His research suggests that employees have much more respect  and regard for servant leaders, have higher morale and confidence when working with servant leaders, and—most importantly—are more productive. Many major corporations have practiced servant leadership over the years, and to great success.

If your employees can be both happy and productive (how rare is that?), it's a no-brainer to give something new a shot. What have you got to lose?

Adapted from Appendix I of Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership, by Don M. Frick (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004) and The Serving Leader by Kenneth R. Jennings and John Stahl-Wert.


  1. RKG, The Servant as Leader (Indianapolis: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 1970, 1991), 8.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.

Topics: Your Organization, Leadership, Strategy, Servant Leadership, Leadership and Management

Want to know more?  Click here to download "Servant: Retrospect and  Prospect", an essay by Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder  of the modern servant leadership movement.

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