What is Servant Leadership?

Robert Greenleaf, who also founded the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, first detailed the modern concept of Servant Leadership.  The primary and foundational principle of the concept is, very simply, putting others first.  In his research, Greenleaf determined that people “will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proved and trusted as servants” (2002, p. 24).  He went on to describe a servant-leader as someone who is a servant first, who intentionally works to “make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served” (2002, p. 27).

Servant leadership is defined as a leadership approach in which leaders “place the good of followers over their own self-interests and emphasize follower development” (Northouse, 2012, p. 220).  Further research by others has identified ten characteristics that generally typify a servant-leader:  listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Spears, 2002).  In essence, the servant-leader “puts followers first, empowers them, and helps them develop their full personal capacities” (Northouse, 2012, p. 219).

The Servant Leadership model has three components:

  1. Antecedent conditions – these are the existing conditions that affect or influence the process of leadership and its effectiveness, and include context and culture, existing leader attributes and disposition, and follower receptivity to a servant-leader style.
  2. Servant leader behaviors – these are the core behaviors of the servant-leader in the leadership process, and include conceptualizing, emotional healing, putting others first, helping followers to grow and succeed, behaving ethically, empowering, and creating value for the community.  Of these, “putting others first” is the defining characteristic.
  3. Outcomes – these are the potential outcomes or results of effective servant leadership, and include enhanced follower performance, development, and growth, enhanced organizational performance, growth, and citizenship, and positive societal impact.

(Northouse, 2012, pp. 225-232)

Servant Leadership is really all about care for others and taking care of people.  It is people-focused, unselfish, and invests in the lives of others.  Like Authentic Leadership, this is the kind of leadership that builds trust and loyalty, while helping others to maximize their own personal growth and development.  It reinforces the idea of the importance of relationship and care.  As a follower of Jesus, I believe it reflects a biblical model of loving your neighbor as yourself, so it makes sense that I believe an effective leader should be a servant leader.


Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Greenleaf, R. K. (Larry C. Spears, Ed.)(2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (25th Anniversary Edition). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Spears, L. C. (2002). Focus on leadership: Servant-leadership for the 21st century. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.


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