The Servant Leader…Selfless, Empathetic and Aware

By Scott Addis, CEO

Are you a Servant Leader?  Is your top priority to look after the needs of your followers so as to ensure that they reach their full potential, hence perform at their best? 

The term servant leadership was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) in a 1970 essay entitled The Servant as Leader. Since that time, more than half a million copies of his books and essays have been sold worldwide.  Greenleaf’s servant-leadership writings have made a deep, long lasting impression on many individuals and corporations who share a concern for the issues of leadership, management, service and personal growth.  His influence is also evidenced through the work of numerous award winning authors including, but not limited to, Stephen Covey, Ken Blanchard and John Maxwell to name a few. 

What is Servant Leadership? 

Servant leaders serve the people they lead.  Their style represents a selfless approach to leadership, one that places serving others – including employees, customers, community and country – as priority number one.  Servant leadership emphasizes increased service to others, promoting a sense of community and sharing of power and decision making.  Servant leaders understand that personal recognition is not the path toward team success.  Their ego and individual goals do not get in the way of the larger picture of team goals. 

The words servant and leader are usually thought of as opposites.  However, when these two opposites are brought together, the selfless leader emerges.  At its core, servant-leadership represents a transformational approach to life and work – a way of being that creates positive change in life, business and society.

What do Servant Leaders do Differently? 

A servant leader serves first.  He or she is the one who is the first to volunteer to help.  Never too proud to do the work, even the difficult or unpopular jobs in order for the team to succeed.  Often, the jobs are done without anyone knowing because there is no complaining or comparing. 

Robert Greenleaf wrote that “servant leadership begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve.  Then conscience choice brings one to aspire to lead.  The best test is to ask oneself two questions:  (1) Do those served grow as persons?  (2) Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, autonomous, more likely themselves to be servants?”  The following represents a sampling of what the servant leader does: 

  • Devotes himself or herself to serving the needs of the team.
  • Focuses on fulfilling the needs of those whom they lead
  • Develops and nurtures team members to bring out the best in them
  • Coaches others and encourages their self expression
  • Facilitates personal growth in all whom they serve
  • Listens with the goal of building a sense of community

Who are These Servant Leaders? 

Servant leaders are all around us.  They are just hard to spot because they are so focused on their mission – selflessly serving others.  It is the teacher who is always accessible after class.  The nurse who goes beyond the call of duty to care for her patients.  The gifted actor who accepts a supporting role in the play.  The volunteer whose passion is serving the community.  The star athlete who cares less about his or her statistics as compared to the team’s success. 

Great teams, organizations and communities have servant leaders who make their own unique contributions.  A servant leader is willing to risk his or her fate in order to do what is right.  It is the politician who champions an unpopular policy because he or she feels it is in the best interest of the country.  It is the coach who benches the star player because the team chemistry is at risk.  It is the co-worker who accepts full responsibility for a failed project even though many team members were involved. 

What are the Characteristics of the Servant Leader? 

Larry Spears, President and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership extracted the following characteristics of servant leaders after years of studying Greenleaf’s original writings:

  • Listening – Servant leaders possess a trait of listening intently to others.  Listening, coupled with regular periods of reflection, is essential to the growth of the servant leader. 
  • Empathy – The servant leader strives to understand and empathize with those whom they serve.  They accept and recognize one’s talents and unique abilities. 
  • Healing – Many people have broken spirits and suffer from a variety of emotional hurts.  Servant leaders recognize that they have an opportunity to “help make people whole”. 
  • Persuasion – Servant leaders use persuasion rather than positional authority in making decisions within an organization.  They seek to convince others rather than coerce compliance. 
  • Conceptualization – A servant leader has the ability to help others “dream great dreams”.  They have the ability to look at a problem from a conceptualizing perspective allowing them to think beyond day-to-day realities.
  • Stewardship – Stewardship is best defined as “managing for others, one who directs affairs.  Guardian.  Manager.”  Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others. 
  • Commitment to the Growth of People – Servant leaders believe that people have intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers.  As a result, the servant leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual whom they serve. 
  • Building Community – A servant leader is ever mindful of the importance of building community amongst those they serve.  Servant leadership suggests that true community can be created when people are respected and valued. 

A servant leader…selfless, empathetic and aware!

Learn more about the author, Scott Addis.