The Servant as Leader & The Case for Servant Leadership

The term servant-leadership was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his seminal essay The Servant as Leader

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. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, … 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 (Greenleaf, 1970, p.13).

Servant-leadership is not a management technique to reach organizational goals or institutional agenda.  It is a way of living a purposeful and abundant life with prime focus on people and their betterment. 

Servant-leadership is beyond the face value of the words: servant and leadership.  A servant-leader respects and celebrates individuals with intrinsic worth, and he/she goes the extra mile to unleash everyone’s potential.  A servant-leader has a growth mindset and focuses on the holistic development of people. The journey of servant-leadership can be measured as follows:

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 servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? (Greenleaf, 1970, p.13)

In fact, the word “servant” is not a modifier of the word “leader”.  The roles of servant and leader are equally essential, interconnected and interchangeable. A servant-leader discerns moments to serve and moments to lead, and the hyphenation between the compound word, servant-leader, highlights the hybrid and fluid nature of a servant-leader. 

Servant-leadership has relevance in various arena, seasons, and stages of our lives.  In the book The Case for Servant Leadership, Keith advocated that

Servant-leaders can be government officials, business executives, academic administrators, non-profit leaders, military commanders, coaches, friends, or neighbours.  Servant-leaders do most of the things that other leaders do – they provide a vision, they motivate, they manage, they communicate, and so forth. What sets servant-leaders apart from other leaders is that they are focused on others, not just themselves, and they are motivated to make life better for others, not just for themselves.  This difference in focus and motivation is what really distinguishes servant-leaders, regardless of their titles, roles, or positions (Keith, 2008, p.9-10).

Keith concluded that servant-leaders find meaning and satisfaction in serving others and contributing to society.  Deep happiness is one of many blessings borne out of this journey. “Servant-leadership is not about self-sacrifice or self-denial.  It is about self-fulfillment” (Keith, 2008, p.66).  

Servant-leadership is within reach of everyone.  It can be practiced from a gentle act of kindness for an undeserving person to a major decision that lessens international tension.  It begins with one’s conscious choice, the desire to serve, and that makes a whole world of difference for the servant-leader and those whom he/she comes in contact with. 




Greenleaf, R.K. (1970). The servant as leader. Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

Keith, K.M. (2008). The case for servant leadership. Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

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