What is Servant Leadership?

June 3, 2010 — 3 Comments

More and more conversations revolve around the type of leadership required in our rapidly changing global culture. Many cite the “new skills” needed in this environment, such as trust-building, empathy, networking, and the ability to empower others. Though few will come out and label this package as such, it seems to me we’re really talking about servant leadership.

If that is the type of leadership in great demand today, what exactly is servant leadership?

Robert Greenleaf coined the term as he sought to answer this question in his 1977 classic, Servant Leadership:

The servant leader is 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. The best test, and difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

Greenleaf’s insights echo the voice of the greatest servant leader who ever lived. In addressing his followers immediately after a nasty internal power struggle, Jesus had this to say:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

Jesus laid it out pretty clearly. There are normal leaders whose focus is all about who has authority and is in charge. These are a dime a dozen. Then there are those who have made the mindshift from “over/under” to “among” – great leaders who seek to serve. And for those who aspire to be the greatest? They must become slaves of all.

How do you define, or better yet, practice servant leadership?

3 responses to What is Servant Leadership?

  1. Justin Irving June 3, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Thanks, Ken. I love the leadership shift to “among” you’re putting your finger on here. What a powerful call for all of us engaged in influencing and serving others.

  2. Beautiful and poignant

  3. Shane Sebastian June 15, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Thanks Ken- I enjoy your practical insights…..

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