Servant Leadership – Serve to Lead

The modern servant leadership movement was launched by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader” whereby he popularized the terms “servant-leader” and “servant leadership.” Greenleaf expanded on this concept by publishing additional essays on the various attributes of servant leadership. 

Lt Cmdr (R) John Moi

Servant Leadership? The answer to the world’s leadership issues?

“Everything rises or falls on leadership.” (Author unknown)

Servant Leadership is simply applying leadership principles by serving others before self.

It is a philosophy and practice of leadership that achieves results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their counterparts and those they serve. In another simple interpretation, servant-leaders are said to be serving stewards of their organization’s resources be it physically, financial or human. 

Concept of Servant Leadership

The modern servant leadership movement was launched by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader” whereby he popularized the terms “servant-leader” and “servant leadership.” Greenleaf expanded on this concept by publishing additional essays on the various attributes of servant leadership.

After his passing in 1990, the concept has been developed by other writers such as William George, James Autry, Ken Blanchard, Jim Hunter, George Sanfacon and Larry Spears, just to name a few of the more well-known ones.

Interestingly in Malaysia, the Royal Military College carry in its motto, “Serve to Lead” way back in the founding year of 1952!

Qualities of being a Servant Leader

Larry Spears, who was once the “chief steward” of the Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership for more than 17 years, described the ten characteristics of servant leaders which are:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of others
  10. Building community

Some historical perspectives of Servant Leadership

In the 4th century B.C, Chanakya wrote in his book, Arthashastra: “The king (leader) shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects (followers). The king (leader) is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.”

In the Tao Te Ching according to the Chinese sage, Lao-Tzu who is believed to have lived in China sometime between 570 and 490 B.C. said:

“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, others will be unfaithful to you. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his or her tasks are accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, we ourselves have achieved it.”

According to the Bible, Jesus urged his followers to be servants first. He specifically told his followers:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 and Mark 10:42-45)

In an awesome model of servant-leader, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, as an example of the way in which they were to serve each other. (John 13:12-15)

The Prophet Muhamad (SAW) said, “A ruler who has been entrusted with the affairs of the Muslims, but makes no endeavours (for their material and moral upliftment) and is not sincerely concerned (for their welfare) will not enter Paradise along with them.” (Sahih Muslim)

The Sikhs also have among these, words of wisdom on leadership:

“One should first instruct and discipline one’s own mind, and then persuade the others to follow.”  (Asa, M.5)

“He who instructs the others in the laws which he himself does not obey, is born only to die; he comes and he goes.”  (Gauri Sukhmani, M.5)

Modern perspectives of Servant Leadership

Greenleaf, in his essay has this to say about the servant-leader: “The servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first the followers and believes that leading is a by-product of serving, whereas the leader-first believes that one is call to lead by being served and supported by followers.”

The cynical view is that unless the leaders take the initiative to serve the followers, the followers will not listen to the leaders who have not proven themselves by serving the followers first. Such are the expectations in this enlightened age!

Sita-pati das (all credits unto him) in his commentary on Chapter One – 45 of Bhagavad-gita (On Leadership):

“Sanjaya said; Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief.”

Sita commented that Arjuna is in a clear dilemma. In neither case can he see a good outcome. Either he fights and wins in which case he kills his family members, the family tradition is destroyed and society is irreparably damaged, or else he is killed with the same destruction of the family tradition.

He reasons that the best course of action would be to die unresisting and in this way preserve the family tradition.

Servant Leadership commentary by Sita: These are all characteristic sentiments of an authentic leader. An authentic leader is a SERVANT of the people and is aligned with and serving something greater than himself or herself.

Models of Servant Leadership

It can be said that some, if not most, leadership writers see servant leadership as an esoteric philosophy of leadership supported by specific aspects and practices.

Dr. Kent Keith, the current CEO of the Greenleaf Centre and the author of “The Case for Servant Leadership” states that servant leadership is practical, ethical and meaningful. He further identifies seven key practices of servant leaders:

  1. Self awareness
  2. Listening
  3. Changing the pyramid
  4. Developing your colleagues (followers)
  5. Coaching not controlling
  6. Unleashing the energy and intelligence of others
  7. Foresight

Servant Leadership is best summed up by its emphasis on collaboration, trust, empathy and the ethical use of power and leadership. Servant leadership is all about making the conscious decision to serve by leading in order to better serve others (followers) and to enhance the growth of individuals and the servant leaders themselves in the organization to improve teamwork and respective involvement.

(See illustrated model(s) of Servant Leadership for clarity)

“Serve to Lead” best summarizes all you need to know about servant leadership!

Note: Lt Cmdr (R) John Moi is a freelance writer and editor. An advocate of Scripture to business (S2b), he can be reached at [email protected]