"The Servant as Leader"

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. The
best test is: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become
healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And
"It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious
what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further

The term servant-leadership was first coined by Greenleaf (1904–1990) in a 1970 essay
titled "The Servant as Leader." Since that time, more than half a million copies of his books
and essays have been sold worldwide. Greenleaf spent most of his organizational life in
the field of management research, development, and education at AT&T. Following a 40-
year career at AT&T, Greenleaf enjoyed a second career that lasted 25 years, during which
time he served as an influential consultant to a number of major institutions, including Ohio
University, MIT, the Ford Foundation, the R. K. Mellon Foundation, the Mead Corporation, the
American Foundation for Management Research, and the Lilly Endowment. In 1964
Greenleaf also founded the Center for Applied Ethics, which was renamed the Robert K.
Greenleaf Center in 1985 and is now headquartered in Indianapolis.

Slowly but surely, Greenleaf 's servant-leadership writings have made a deep, lasting
impression on leaders, educators, and many others who are concerned with issues of
leadership, management, service, and personal growth. Standard practices are rapidly
shifting toward the ideas put forward by Greenleaf, as witnessed by the work of Stephen
Covey, Peter Senge, Max DePree, Margaret Wheatley, Ken Blanchard, and many others who
suggest that there is a better way to lead and manage our organizations. Greenleaf's
writings on the subject of servant-leadership helped to get this movement started, and his
views have had a profound and growing effect on many people.

What Is Servant-Leadership?
The idea of the servant as leader came partly out of Greenleaf's half-century of experience
in working to shape large institutions. However, the event that crystallized Greenleaf 's
thinking came in the 1960s, when he read Hermann Hesse's short novel Journey to the
East--an account of a mythical journey by a group of people on a spiritual quest.
After reading this story, Greenleaf concluded that its central meaning was that the great
leader is first experienced as a servant to others, and that this simple fact is central to the
leader's greatness. True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a
deep desire to help others.

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. 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. So the words
servant and leader have been brought together to create the paradoxical idea of servant-

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. The best test is: Do those served grow as
persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous,
more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in
society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"
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

Characteristics of the Servant-Leader
1.        Listening. Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and
decision-making skills. While these are also important skills for the servant-leader, they
need to be reinforced by a deep commitment to listening intently to others. The servant-
leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps clarify that will. He or she seeks to
listen receptively to what is being said. Listening, coupled with regular periods of reflection,
is essential to the growth of the servant-leader.
2.        Empathy. The servant-leader strives to understand and empathize with others.
People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits. One
assumes the good intentions of coworkers and does not reject them as people, even if one
finds it necessary to refuse to accept their behavior or performance.
3.        Healing. One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing
one's self and others. Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of
emotional hurts. Although this is part of being human, servant-leaders recognize that they
also have an opportunity to "help make whole" those with whom they come in contact. In
"The Servant as Leader" Greenleaf writes: "There is something subtle communicated to
one who is being served and led if implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led
is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share."
4.        Awareness. General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the
servant-leader. 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. As Greenleaf observed: "Awareness is not a giver of solace--it is just the opposite.
It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably
disturbed. They are not seekers after solace. They have their own inner serenity."
5.        Persuasion. Another characteristic of servant-leaders is a primary reliance on
persuasion rather than positional authority in making decisions within an organization. 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
6.        Conceptualization. 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. For many managers
this is a characteristic that requires discipline and practice. Servant-leaders are called to
seek a delicate balance between conceptual thinking and a day-to-day focused approach.
7.        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. Foresight remains a
largely unexplored area in leadership studies, but one most deserving of careful attention.
8.        Stewardship. Peter Block has defined stewardship as "holding something in trust for
another." Robert Greenleaf 's view of all institutions was one in which CEOs, staffs, and
trustees all played significant roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good
of society. 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.
9.        Commitment to the growth of people. Servant-leaders believe that people have an
intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As a result, the servant-
leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within the institution.
The servant-leader recognizes the tremendous responsibility to do everything possible to
nurture the growth of employees.
10.        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. Servant-leadership suggests that true community can be created among those
who work in businesses and other institutions. Greenleaf said: "All that is needed to rebuild
community as a viable life form for large numbers of people is for enough servant-leaders
to show the way, not by mass movements, but by each servant-leader demonstrating his
own unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group."
These ten characteristics of servant-leadership are by no means exhaustive, but they serve
to communicate the power and promise that this concept offers to those who are open to its
invitation and challenge.

The Growing Impact of Servant Leadership
Many individuals and organizations have adopted servant-leadership as a guiding
philosophy. For individuals it offers a means to personal growth--spiritually, professionally,
emotionally, and intellectually. It has ties to the ideas of M. Scott Peck (The Road Less
Traveled), Parker Palmer (The Active Life), Ann McGee-Cooper (You Don't Have to Go Home
from Work Exhausted!), and others who have written on expanding human potential. A
particular strength of servant-leadership is that it encourages everyone to actively seek
opportunities to both serve and lead others, thereby setting up the potential for raising the
quality of life throughout society.
An increasing number of companies have adopted servant-leadership as part of their
corporate philosophy or as a foundation for their mission statement. Among these are the
Toro Company (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Synovus Financial Corporation (Columbus,
Georgia), ServiceMaster Company (Downers Grove, Illinois), the Men's Wearhouse
(Fremont, California), Southwest Airlines (Dallas, Texas), and TDIndustries (Dallas, Texas).
TDIndustries, one of the earliest practitioners of servant-leadership in the corporate setting,
is a heating and plumbing contracting firm that has consistently ranked in the top ten of
Fortune magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. The founder, Jack Lowe
Sr., came upon "The Servant as Leader" in the early 1970s and began to distribute copies
of it to his employees. They were invited to read through the essay and then to gather in
small groups to discuss its meaning. The belief that managers should serve their
employees became an important value for TDIndustries.
Thirty years later, Jack Lowe Jr. continues to use servant-leadership as the company's
guiding philosophy. Even today, any TD Partner who supervises even one person must go
through training in servant-leadership. In addition, all new employees continue to receive a
copy of "The Servant as Leader," and TDIndustries has developed elaborate training
modules designed to encourage the understanding and practice of servant-leadership.

Copyright © 2004 by Larry C. Spears. Reprinted with permission from Leader to Leader, a
publication of the Leader to Leader Institute and Jossey-Bass.
Print citation:
Spears, Larry C. "Practicing Servant-Leadership" Leader to Leader. 34 (Fall 2004)7-11.
This article is available on the Leader to Leader Institute Web site, http://leadertoleader.