What Is Servant Leadership?

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  • Written By: Daphne Mallory
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 01 October 2019
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Servant leadership is a business philosophy in which managers and other people in positions of authority strive to act as servants to those who are subordinate to them. Adherents to the philosophy believe that they can improve their business overall by empowering their employees through this management style. The modern servant leadership movement was founded by Robert K. Greenleaf, and is based upon an essay he originally published in 1970. The philosophy can be applied by a manager as an individual, or it can be implemented company-wide by an entire institution. Servant leaders believe that through ethical treatment, their workers will strive to become leaders themselves, thereby improving the quality of the work force and the company itself.

This style of leadership often involves trying to meet the needs of the employees or members of a manager’s organization. For example, a manager might get to know an employee better to learn what that individual’s goals are within the company. If the employee seeks to advance their career and shares that with the manager, he or she in turn would then provide the employee with encouragement, resources and additional training to meet those goals. This method then serves to motivate the employee to work harder for the company. The servant leadership philosophy runs counter to what Robert Greenleaf saw as a disrespectful and authoritarian mindset in corporate managers during the mid-20th century. Greenleaf taught that servant leaders should coach their employees, rather than control them.


Servant leadership characteristics include serving employees and performing acts of selflessness in the workplace. By employing empathy and effective listening skills, leaders employing this philosophy are often able to assess the needs of their subordinates. They can then act on those needs, which in turn often leads employees to feel empowered and more confident in their abilities. It can also contribute to overall workplace satisfaction, because it often helps employees to see their role within the company more clearly, rather than feeling like they are “just a number.”

Managers can learn more about servant leadership through books and seminars. The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, which was founded by the movement’s author, provides conferences and seminars for people in managerial positions. The philosophy is often applied in disciplines outside the business world, such as nonprofit organizations and within the education field. Courses on the concept are often included in business degrees at universities. It is estimated that hundreds of companies in the United States and Europe use the method to facilitate better employee-manager relations.


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