Servant Leadership Theory [Easy & Quick Explanation]

The magnum opus of Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership is a recent theory of leadership that argues that the most effective leaders are servants of their people. Servant leaders get results for their organization through whole-hearted attention to their followers and followers’ needs. Unlike many approaches to leadership, which offer suggestions on how top-level leaders can influence and motivate those further down the hierarchy, servant leadership puts its emphasis on collaboration, trust, empathy, and ethics. The leader should be a servant first, leading from a desire to better serve others and not to attain more power. The assumption is that if leaders focus on the needs and desires of followers, followers will reciprocate through increased teamwork, deeper engagement, and better performance.

Greenleaf first presented the theory in a 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” However, numerous others theorists have contributed to our understanding of servant leadership. One theorist, Larry Spears, outlined ten characteristics of servant leaders by analyzing the writings of Greenleaf. These ten characteristics are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community.

Servant leadership is one of the more popular theories of leadership, especially among Christian leaders who vigorously cite Jesus as the penultimate example of servant leadership. However, its effectiveness in organizations is still being debated. Many researchers and theorists argue that servant leaders can become so focused on the needs of their followers that the needs of the organization suffer as a result. In any case, Servant leadership theory has a place within the spectrum of leadership theory, as it represents the strongest emphasis on followers of any theory.


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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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