Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

Servant Leadership: Its Origin, Development, and Application in Organizations

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

Servant Leadership: Its Origin, Development, and Application in Organizations

Article excerpt

This paper examines the philosophical foundation of servant leadership by extracting several value-laden principles drawn from Greenleaf's and Jesus Christ's delineation of the concept. The primary intent and self-concept of servant leaders are singled out as the distinctive features of servant leadership. While empirical research studies are critically needed to develop the concepts underlying the servant leadership movement into sound theory, an accurate understanding of the conceptual roots of servant leadership is essential in the process. The current developmental stage of the servant leadership movement is explored in order to provide some useful signposts for future research directions.


Although the notion of servant leadership has been recognized in the leadership literature since Burns' (1978) and Greenleaf's (1977) publications, the movement has gained momentum only recently. Bowman (1997) argues that to date there is only anecdotal evidence to support a commitment to an understanding of servant leadership. For example, Spears' (1995) identification of ten characteristics of servant leadership (i.e. listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community) is based solely on his readings of Greenleaf's essays, and is not grounded in solid research studies.

One reason for the scarcity of research on servant leadership is that the very notion of `servant as leader' is an oxymoron. It may be difficult to think and act both as leader and servant at the same time--a leader who serves and a servant who leads. Nevertheless, the dynamic conceptual relationships and complementary roles between servanthood and leadership have recently attracted the attention of leadership scholars and practitioners (Bass, 1999; Bowman, 1997; Buchen, 1998; Chappel, 2000; Choi & Mai-Dalton, 1998; De Pree, 1989; Farling, Stone, & Winston, 1999; Graham, 1991; Pollard, 1997; Russel, 2000; Senge, 1990, 1995; Spears, 1995).

Bass (2000) asserts that, as a concept, servant leadership theory requires substantial empirical research. Bass (2000:33) does believe that its profound philosophical foundation provides avenues for its theoretical development: "The strength of the servant leadership movement and its many links to encouraging follower learning, growth, and autonomy, suggests that the untested theory will play a role in the future leadership of the learning organization." Given the current organizational context which puts an emphasis on a sense of community, empowerment, shared authority, and relational power, Bass' (2000) hypothesis on servant leadership suggests it may be a theory with great promise for the future.

This paper explores the philosophical basis of servant leadership as conceptualized by Robert Greenleaf and as represented by historical figures such as Jesus Christ. The core construct of "servant leaders" will be drawn and examined.

The Origin of Servant Leadership

Greenleaf's Model of Servant Leadership

According to Greenleaf (1977), servant leaders are leaders who put other people's needs, aspirations and interests above their own. The servant leader's deliberate choice is to serve others. In fact, the servant leader's chief motive is to serve first, as opposed to lead (Greenleaf, 1977). Furthermore, servant leaders seek to transform their followers to "grow healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants" (Greenleaf, 1977:13-14).

While working as an AT&T executive, Greenleaf (1977) conceptualized the notion of servant leadership and introduced it into the organizational context. Interestingly, his concept has, to a certain extent, some similarities with Burn's (1978) transforming leadership. Greenleaf (1977:13) claimed that:

The servant leader is a servant first (italics in original). …

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