3 min read

With his essay, “Essentials of Servant Leadership,” written in 1958, Robert K. Greenleaf launched what was to become one of the most important leadership models of the 20th century. Prior to this time — and sadly too often even today — leadership was seen strictly as a power over people, to dominate and coerce into submission to the leader’s goals. His call for change, was not based on any sense of the superior ethics of his model but on practicality. Greenleaf accurately predicted that the world was changing and that the change would no longer allow for that kind of top-down leadership, that in fact it would become more and more counterproductive to the achievement of organizational goals.

I think the Servant Leadership model is still as viable as it was in Greenleaf’s day and that we can all benefit from reviewing its principles. So, what are the main behaviors of a servant leader? Here is a short outline:

1. The servant leader values people.

This was a striking divergence from the way of thinking of the past, where most leaders were only concerned about the organization. People were merely tools in the service of the company. The servant leader values people by believing in them, serving their needs before their own needs, and actively listening to others.

2. The servant leader develops people.

It is true that prior to Greenleaf, companies provided training, but it was almost always of a technical nature. The servant leader, however, goes beyond this and takes interest in developing people holistically. They do this by providing opportunities for learning and growth, modeling appropriate behavior, and building others up through encouragement and affirmation.

3. The servant leader builds community.

Some today can still remember the days when workers were isolated into solitary compartments and conversation was discouraged. A servant leader builds strong personal relationships, works collaboratively with others, and values differences between individuals, seeing these differences as contributing to a more robust and creative team.

4. Servant leaders are authentic.

According to the old model, leaders had to maintain an image of aloofness above and out of reach from the common worker. The servant leader displays authenticity by being open and accountable to others, willing to learn from others, and maintaining integrity and trust.

5. The servant leader provides direction for the future.

For many leaders, prior to Greenleaf, the sole function of the leader was to maintain the company. Granted, those were more stable times and companies could often get away with managing the machine. Greenleaf understood that times were changing and changing at an ever more accelerated rate and this required a new type of leader. The servant leader provides direction for the future by envisioning that future, taking the initiative, and clarifying goals.

6. Servant leaders share leadership.

The idea of sharing leadership was almost unheard of in those days. Instead, the organization was highly centralized and strategic decisions were dictated from the top. The role of workers was simply to carry out the demands of the leader. Servant leaders, on the other hand, share leadership by facilitating a shared vision of the company, sharing power and releasing control, and sharing status and recognition.

Certainly, Greenleaf’s ideas have had an influence on organizational life. Yet, I still hear story after story of those in positions of leadership falling back on the old command and control styles of the past. I suppose it’s a dark side of our human nature. But I still believe that great leaders today are those who serve their organization, their employees, their communities, and the world.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell
Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.


Photo: Sindelfingen, Mercedes Autowerk by Rolf Unterberg, May 1958. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.