The term servant leadership was first coined in a essay Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) wrote in 1970, entitled The Servant as Leader. Since that time, more than a half-million copies of his books and essays have been sold worldwide.
The words servant and leader are usually thought of as being opposites. When two opposites are brought together in a creative and meaningful way, a paradox emerges. The basic idea of servant leadership is both logical and intuitive. Since the time of the industrial revolution, managers have tended to view people as objects; institutions have considered workers as cogs within a machine. In the past few decades we have witnessed a shift in that long-held view.
In his works, Greenleaf discusses the need for a better approach to leadership, one that puts serving others—including employees, customers, and community—as the number one priority. Servant leadership emphasizes increased service to others, a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community, and the sharing of power in decision making.
Who is a servant leader?
Greenleaf said that the servant leader is one who is a servant first. In The Servant as Leader he wrote, “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. 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.
At its core, servant-leadership is a long-term, transformational approach to life and work—in essence, a way of being—that has the potential for creating positive change throughout our society.
After some years of carefully considering Greenleaf’s original writings, a set of 10 characteristics of the servant-leader have been extracted. The following characteristics are central to the development of servant-leaders:
- Listening: The servant-leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps clarify that will. Listening also encompasses getting in touch with one’s own inner voice and seeking to understand what one’s body, spirit, and mind are communicating.
- Empathy: People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits. The most successful servant-leaders are those who have become skilled empathetic listeners.
- Healing: Learning to heal is a powerful force for transformation and integration.One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and others.
- Awareness: Awareness also aids one in understanding issues involving ethics and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position.
- Persuasion: The servant-leader seeks to convince others, rather than coerce compliance. This particular element offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant-leadership. The servant-leader is effective at building consensus within groups.
- Conceptualization: The traditional manager is focused on the need to achieve short-term operational goals. Servant leaders seek to nurture their abilities to “dream great dreams.” The ability to look at a problem (or an organization) from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities.
- Foresight: Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant-leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future. It is also deeply rooted within the intuitive mind.
- Stewardship: Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others. It also emphasizes the use of openness and persuasion rather than control.
- Commitment to the growth of people: The servant-leader recognizes the tremendous responsibility to do everything within his or her power to nurture the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of employees.
- Building community: The servant-leader senses that much has been lost in recent human history as a result of the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives. This awareness causes the servant-leader to seek to identify some means for building community among those who work within a given institution.
Adapted from The Understanding and Practice of Servant- Leadership, by Larry C. Spears, President & CEO – The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership