What is Servant Leadership?

For three decades, servant leadership was an explored philosophy used as a leadership style for organizations in the business industry, the education sector, and in various church denominations.  The seminal works of Robert K. Greenleaf established servant leadership in 1977.  Over 30 years later, the definition of servant leadership comes from a different perspective than other leadership theories.  A thorough review of Greenleaf’s writings explicated 10 characteristics of servant leadership: (a) listening, (b) empathy, (c) healing, (d) awareness, (e) persuasion, (f) conceptualization, (g) foresight, (h) stewardship, (i) building community, and (j) commitment to the growth of the follower.  Servant leaders guide his or her actions for the best common good of the employee, and the organization.

Greenleaf explored the leader as a servant and postulated that the servant leader is searching and listening, always hopeful for something better.  Possessing an attitude of service is critical to leadership in Greenleaf’s view.  To practice silence and have openness to uncertainty is necessary for the servant leader.  A deep sense of empathy and a tolerance for imperfection in people is important to the servant leader.  One characteristic of a servant leader is to bridge the gap with his or her own sense of intuition and develop a high level of trust for the people he or she serves.  A leader who exemplifies servant leadership can see the growth of servant leadership in the people served.  Greenleaf defined servant leaders as passing a test if the people are wiser, freer, and healthier.  If the people served by the leader become servant leaders, the leader is a practitioner of servant leadership.

A quality of servant leaders is listening to and understanding other people.  Greenleaf affirmed that to be a servant leader, one must become disciplined in listening and realizing that listening comes first in helping anyone with anything.  Listening aligns behavior and cognition with everyday activities and is most effective when it makes connects with others, and involves a give-and-take relationship.  Through the act of listening, and providing feedback, relationships develop and mature, creating leaders.  The servant leader who is a skilled communicator displays a core competency of servant leadership.

Servant leadership also encompasses empathy.  Kouzes and Posner (2007) found empathy is critical to effective leadership; along with listening, empathy, and trust, servant leaders make organizations functional and influence others within the organization.  Greenleaf claimed servant leaders have an unqualified acceptance and a tolerance of imperfection.  Empathy allows the followers to expand consciousness and recognize their acceptance for who they are.  Taken together, listening, empathy, and trust allow servant leaders to facilitate relationships and demonstrate attributes such as trust, integrity, accountability, and authentic concern for people.

Servant leadership as a prominent theory for leadership indeed that ignites from within.  Namaste.

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