Servant Leadership: Is it relevant or obsolete?


Prof. Meera Uday
Gupta College of Management

Dr. R.Krishna
Cambridge Institute of Technology

Servant leadership is a philosophy and practice of leadership coined and defined by Robert K. Green Leaf (Born 1904 in Terre Haute, Indiana; died in 1990) and supported by many leadership and management writers such as Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey and others.

Servant-leaders achieve results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organization's resources: human, financial and physical.

Definition of Servant Leadership

Robert K.Green Leaf never specifically defined servant leadership but, based on the writings of Greenleaf and others; it can still be defined as a management philosophy which implies a comprehensive view of the quality of people, work and community spirit. It requires a spiritual understanding of identity, mission, vision and environment.

A servant leader is someone who is servant first, who has responsibility to be in the world, and so he contributes to the well-being of people and community. A servant leader looks to the needs of the people and asks himself how he can help them to solve problems and promote personal development. He places his main focus on people, because only content and motivated people are able to reach their targets and to fulfill the set expectations.

In his essay The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf said:

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…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."

Servant Leadership is not a concept or a principle. It is an inner standard of living which requires a spiritual understanding of identity, mission, vision and environment.

Servant Leadership in the context of leadership styles

The most common division of leadership styles is the distinction between autocratic, participative and laissez- faire leadership styles.

The authoritarian style of management requires clearly defined tasks and monitoring their execution and results. The decision-making responsibility rests with the executive.

In contrast to the autocratic, the practice of a participative leadership style involves employees in decision-making. More extensive tasks are delegated. The employees' influence and responsibility increases. The laissez-faire style of leadership is negligible in practice.

Servant Leadership can be most likely associated with the participative management style. The highest priority of a servant leader is to encourage, support and enable subordinates to unfold their full potential and abilities. This leads to an obligation to delegate responsibility and engage in participative decision-making.

In the managerial grid model of Blake and Mouton, the participative style of leadership is presented as the approach with the greatest possible performance and employee satisfaction. However, there is the question whether a management style can be declared as universal and universally applicable. Situational contexts are not considered.

The servant leadership approach goes beyond employee-related behavior and calls for a rethinking of the hierarchical relationship between leaders and subordinates. This does not mean that the ideal of a participative style in any situation is to be enforced, but that the focus of management responsibilities is the promotion of performance and satisfaction of employees.

Characteristics of being a servant leader

Larry C. Spears, who has served as President and CEO of the Robert K.Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership since 1990, has extracted a set of 10 characteristics that are central to the development of a servant leader:

1. Listening: Traditionally, and also in servant leadership, Managers are required to have communication skills as well as the competence to make decisions. A servant leader has the motivation to listen actively to subordinates and support them in decision identification. The servant leader particularly needs to pay attention to what remains unspoken in the management setting. This means relying on his inner voice in order to find out what the body, mind and spirit are communicating.

2. Empathy: A servant leader attempts to understand and empathize with others. Workers may be considered not only as employees, but also as people who need respect and appreciation for their personal development. As a result, leadership is seen as a special type of human work, which ultimately generates a competitive advantage.

3. Healing: A great strength of a Servant Leader is the ability for healing one's self and others. A servant leader tries to help people solve their problems and conflicts in relationships, because he wants to encourage and support the personal development of each individual. This leads to the formation of a business culture, in which the working environment is dynamic, fun and free of the fear of failure.

4. Awareness: A servant leader needs to gain general awareness and especially Self awareness. He has the ability to view situations from a more integrated, holistic position. As a result, he gets a better understanding about ethics and values.

5. Persuasion: A Servant Leader does not take advantage of her power and status by coercing compliance; she rather tries to convince those she manages. This element distinguishes servant leadership most clearly from traditional, authoritarian models and can be traced back to the religious views of Robert Greenleaf.

6. Conceptualization: A servant leader thinks beyond day-to-day realities. That means he has the ability to see beyond the limits of the operating business and also focuses on long term operating goals.  A Leader constructs a personal vision that only he can develop by reflecting on the meaning of life. As a result, he derives specific goals and implementation strategies.

7. Foresight: Foresight is the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation. It enables the servant leader to learn about the past and to achieve a better understanding about the current reality. It also enables the servant leader to identify consequences about the future. This characteristic is closely related to conceptualization.

8. Stewardship: CEOs, staffs and trustees have the task to hold their institution in trust for the greater good of society. In conclusion, servant leadership is seen as an obligation to help and serve others. Openness and persuasion are more important than control.

9. Commitment to the growth of people: A servant leader is convinced that people have an intrinsic value beyond their contributions as workers. Therefore, she should nurture the personal, professional and spiritual growth of employees. For example, she spends money for the personal and professional development of the people who make up her organization. The servant leader will also encourage the ideas of everyone and involve workers in decision making.

10. Building community: A servant leader identifies means to build a strong community within his organization and wants to develop a true community among businesses and institutions.

As a result it has to be emphasized that these 10 characteristics are by no means exhaustive. They should not be interpreted as a certain manner to behave and they do not represent the best method to gain aims. Rather every person shall reflect, if these characteristics can be useful for his personal development.

Benefits of Servant Leadership

  • This concept is seen as a long-term concept to live and work and therefore has the potential to influence the society in a positive way.
  • The exemplary treatment of employees leads to an excellent treatment of customers by employees of the company and a high loyalty of the customers.
  • There is a high employee identification with the enterprise.
  • An excellent corporate culture is developed.
  • Leaders of a company define themselves by their significance to the people.
  • Servant Leadership can be used as a principle to improve the return on investment of staff, in all economic sectors. Managers who empower and respect their staff get better performance in return.

What about its relevance today?

Is servant Leadership relevant for today's dynamic and competitive environment? or obsolete?

A question arises in the mind whether this practice of Leadership called Servant Leadership is applicable and successful?

If yes, how many Leaders have applied it and have found success?

The answer is yes, here are few real success stories of servant leadership:

Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, is reported to have called his direct reports together one day. He issued a three word dictum "Don't manage! Lead!" and then promptly left the room. Many were left wondering, "What's the difference?"

That's an important question, so it seems logical that we begin an analysis on leadership by examining the difference between managing and leading, between a manager and a leader.

Who Is a Leader?

While the manager works to carry out the aims of the organization, the leader serves to create new aims, nip old ones, or initiate new courses of action.

Leadership is what Sam Walton (Founder of Wal-Mart) was promoting when he encouraged people to "eliminate the dumb."

The leader challenges the status quo, in the most positive and diplomatic of ways, in order to continuously improve. It is the leader we turn to when we feel that "good enough" is not.

This is an example of how the very theoretical leadership approach of Servant Leadership can be implemented in the corporate culture of a company.

Southwest Airlines is one of the largest and consistently profitable airlines in the U.S. and often mentioned in relation to servant leadership. Co-founder and former CEO HerbKelleher and former vice president Colleen Barrett have successfully established the management style of servant leadership in the airline´s corporate culture. The pyramid of the company's priorities is built upside down compared to other companies. The employees are at the top of the pyramid and the executives deliver proactive customer service to them.

If they do a good job, the employees can spend their time to service the second important group, the customers. As result of good service to the customers the company will make a good profit which is of interest of the shareholders. HerbKelleher compares leadership with customer service: "Just as Southwest has their customers, the passengers, the management has their customers, the employees. If the customers are not satisfied, they will not fly again with Southwest. If the employees are not satisfied, they will not deliver the required performance."

Leadership expectations at Southwest: develop people, build great teams, think strategically, excellent results and the identification with the values of the company.


This is more than evident that servant leadership is relevant today and not obsolete.


3., Author: John Wood

Prof. Meera Uday
Gupta College of Management

Dr. R.Krishna
Cambridge Institute of Technology

Source: E-mail November 9, 2011


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