What is Servant-Leadership?

Robert Greenleaf - The Servant as Leader 1970
Robert Greenleaf

Servant-Leadership is a concept developed by Robert Greenleaf based on his years of experience in management development at AT&T, and on his wide consultancy and teaching practice. Servant-Leadership is a process, a way of being rather than an activity. It is primarily about the “field” of leadership.

It was Robert Greenleaf who perhaps gave us the clearest definition of the servant-leader when he wrote:

"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."

"The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priorities are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servant? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or at least not be further deprived?"

Robert Greenleaf: The Servant as Leader 1970.

What others say:

"When rules take the place of human judgment, you can’t nurture a climate of innovation and creativity; instead you will nurture a kiss-up culture. Without high trust and aligned structures and systems based on an abundance paradigm, you cannot get TQM or quality. Of necessity, the Age of Wisdom, in my opinion, will follow the Age of Information, where the essence of leadership will be to be a servant-leader."

Stephen Covey - The 8th Habit: from Effectiveness to Greatness

"The only way to lead when you don’t have control is you lead through the power of your relationships. You can deal with the unknown only if you have enormous levels of trust, and if you’re working together and bringing out the best in people. I don’t know of any other model that can truly work in the world right now except servant-leadership."

Margaret Wheatley, from The Servant-Leader: From Hero to Host

"Servant-leaders lead from that level of deep, revolutionary vision that is accessed only by the third of our three kinds of thinking. They change the system, invent the new paradigm, clear a space where something new can be. They accomplish this not just from “doing”, but more fundamentally, from “being.” Such leaders are essential to deep corporate transformation."

Dana Zohar, from Rewiring the Corporate Brain

"Arguably the highest form of leadership is servant-leadership which has been stressed by a number of writers in the United States. Heskett and Kotter conclude their analysis of corporate culture by emphasising the importance of leadership, but then state that unless leaders have the hearts of servants, there is only a potential for tyranny."

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach: Vice Chairman, Goldman Sachs. From The Business of Values: The Inaugural Hansen-Wessner Lecture 1996