Servant leadership refers to the philosophy of leadership that puts serving others as the number one priority. It calls for a holistic approach to work, a sense of community and the sharing of power in decision making. Servant leadership, as defined by the New York Times, deals with the reality of power in everyday life and the ethical restraints upon it, in addition to the beneficial results that can be attained through the appropriate use of power.
The term servant leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) in 1970. Greenleaf, born in Terre Haute, Indiana, spent most of his organizational life in the field of management research, development and education at AT&T. Following a 40-year career at AT&T, Greenleaf embarked on a second career that lasted 25 years, serving as consultant to a number of major institutions. The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership has its headquarters in Indianapolis. In his essay The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf said: "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, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions."
Servant leadership is based on teamwork and community. It promotes ethical behavior and attempts to enhance the personal growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of institutions. It is closely related to the belief that the primary purpose of a business should be to create a positive impact on its employees and community, rather than using profit as the sole motive. The servant leadership concept cannot be quickly incorporated into an institution as it is a long-term, transformational approach to life and work. The impact of the servant-leader concept is constantly growing, with interest and practice intensifying, particularly in the 21st century.
Following years of carefully considering Greenleaf's original writings, Larry C. Spears, president and CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership since 1990, has defined the 10 characteristics most important to the development of a servant leader. These traits include:
- Listening: In addition to the obligatory communication and decision-making skills, servant leaders need to develop the ability to listen to others. The servant leader should endeavor to identify and clarify the will of a group and to pay attention to both the spoken and unspoken. Listening, followed by regular reflection, is central to the development of the servant-leader;
- Empathy: The servant leader understands and shows empathy to others, accepting and recognizing their special and unique spirits;
- Healing: One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing the self and others. Servant leaders know how to deal with people who have gone through variety of emotional pain;
- Awareness: General awareness and self-awareness are essential for servant leadership. Being aware of oneself enables a person to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position;
- Persuasion: Servant leaders need to focus on persuasion rather than on their positional authority within an organization. The servant leader seeks to convince others, rather than to urge compliance. The servant leader is adept at building consensus within groups;
- Conceptualization: Another characteristic of servant-leaders is the ability to look at a problem from a conceptualizing perspective. The traditional manager is focused on achieving short-term operational goals, while the servant leader wants to expand their scope beyond day-to-day realities;
- Foresight: Servant leaders need to be able to foresee the likely outcome of a situation. More precisely, they have to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present and the likely consequence of a decision for the future;
- Stewardship: Servant leadership, like stewardship, puts a premium on a commitment to serving the needs of others. The philosophy of servant leadership also emphasizes the use of openness and persuasion rather than control;
- Commitment to the growth of people: Servant leaders believe that people's contributions as workers are only a small part of what they are capable of, therefore, the servant leader tries to foster the growth of each and every individual within the institution;
- Building community: A servant leader tries to build a strong community within his organization and makes efforts to establish a community among businesses and institutions.