What Is Servant Leadership and Why Does It Matter?

What is the purpose of a leader? Should a leader set direction, decide strategy, and tell others what to do, or should a leader be a facilitator, helping the group to achieve shared goals?

Most of us think of a leader as the person in charge – the decision maker, the authority, the person who tells us when to jump and how high. Yet, another approach is to view the leader as performing a service for the group or team – a servant leader.

Servant leadership is actually a very old concept, with historical roots in Confucian philosophy. The modern version of servant leadership was conceptualized by Robert Greenleaf, who worked for 40 years at AT&T. Greenleaf argues that a leader is obliged to make followers’ welfare and well-being a priority and serve followers by providing for their needs and responding to their concerns. The end result will be a high-functioning team.

According to one model of servant leadership (Liden et al., 2008), there are 7 critical behaviors that servant leaders perform:

1.     Conceptualizing. This involves the leader utilizing his or her experience and the resources provided by the organization to help solve problems.

2.     Emotional Healing. The servant leader is supportive of followers and sensitive to their feelings and ideas. The goal is to be available and listen to followers and their concerns.

3.     Putting Followers First. This is the core of servant leadership. It’s not about the leader.

4.     Helping Followers Grow and Succeed. As in all theories of exemplary leadership, servant leaders grow the leadership capacity of followers – leaving them better off and better able to lead in the future.

5.     Behaving Ethically. Caring about others first, and doing the right thing are critical to servant leadership.

6.     Empowering. It is through the process of empowering followers that the servant leader builds followers’ leadership capacity.

7.     Creating Value for the Community. Rather than focusing on the outcomes for the leader and the followers, the servant leader is concerned about having a positive impact on the larger community – the organization, the sector, the nation.


As you can see, servant leadership is quite different than traditional approaches to leadership. It seems particularly appropriate, however, for government leaders (they should serve the people who elected them), religious leaders, and leaders of nonprofit organizations. Many for-profit organizations have also adopted servant leadership as a model for their managers and executives.

Does it work?

A growing body of research suggests that servant leadership has a positive effect on followers – followers become more engaged and motivated – and, as a result, there is a positive impact on performance.


Originally published at Psychology Today