What is Servant Leadership?

For more than four decades servant leadership has remained loosely defined by many in academia and business.  Whether a leadership theory, set of principles, or management approach, servant leadership has been widely analyzed, studied, written about, and praised by well-known authors and leaders of industry.

The term servant leadership was first defined by Robert Greenleaf in his book under the same title (Northouse, p. 228).  Greenleaf’s leadership theory originated from a 1956 novel entitled The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse.  The book tells the story of a group of travelers on a mythical journey.  The band is accompanied by their servant Leo who performs the most menial tasks for the group but also encourages them with his positive attitude and songs.  The group soon falls into disarray and chaos when Leo disappears from among them.  Without their servant, the group is unable to carry on and soon abandon their journey.  In the end, it was the servant who was leading the group as a result of his selfless care of the travelers (Daft, p. 178).

Central to Greenleaf’s theory is the supposition that servant leaders have a social responsibility to care for the less fortunate and privileged.  If inequalities and social injustices existed, the servant leader would try to remove them.  Servant leadership values community and presented opportunities for individuals to experience face-to-face interaction, with the objective of achieving interdependence, respect, trust and growth (Northouse, p. 229).  According to Greenleaf, servant leaders did not lead from a position of institutional power, but rather their authority shifts to the follower.

Larry Spears (2002) identifies and clarifies ten characteristics that are central in Greenleaf’s writings on servant leadership. These characteristics are the first comprehensive model on servant leadership (Northouse, p. 229).

Listening.  The first characteristic identified by Spears was in the area of listening.  Servant leaders communicate differently than others by listening first.  They are disciplined and recognize that they must first hear what the follower is saying and respond accordingly.  In doing so, servant leaders acknowledge the position of their follower, validate what they have heard, and address it appropriately (Spears, p.13).

Empathy.  Servant leaders are empathetic to their followers.  They willingly and eagerly demonstrate that they understand the point of view and perspective of the other person.  Through empathy, the leader again validates the follower.  This makes followers feel unique and valued (Northouse, p.229).

Healing.  Servant leaders demonstrate that they care about the well-being of their followers.  Spears (2010) termed this as having the capacity to “heal.” This process involves helping followers overcome their challenges.  Greenleaf felt this process was a two-way proposition and by supporting their followers to become whole, the leader would also be healed (Northouse, p. 229).

Awareness.  Greenleaf believed that servant leaders possess a sharp awareness of the physical, social, and political environments surrounding them.  This awareness surpasses the person and extends to an understanding of one’s impact on others.  In doing so, the leader not only views situations about themselves but understand how their decisions and actions affect the greater situation (Spears, p. 13)

Persuasion.  Many other leadership styles rely on coercion to bring change.  The servant leader persuades their follower through consistent and clear communication.  A servant leader often does not have to force compliance among their followers because they use effective means (Spears, p. 14).

Conceptualization.  Servant leaders are also able to project vision for their organization by providing clear goals and daily direction.  They often see the “big picture” and respond to problems in thoughtful and creative ways.  They are not dissuaded by their challenges, but rather view them in reference to their long-term goals (Northouse, p. 230).

Foresight.  Greenleaf believed servant leaders could know what lie on the horizon for their followers and organizations, based on the past.  He argued that foresight is an ethical issue and that leaders must be accountable if they fail to predict the future reasonably and act responsibly (Northouse, p. 230).

Stewardship.  Servant leaders are also good stewards of the resources entrusted to them.  For Greenleaf, servant leaders accept this responsibility, seeking not only the good for their followers and organization but also for society at large.

Commitment to Follower’s Growth.  Servant leaders are also committed to the growth of their people, both personally and professionally.  They view the intrinsic value that each person holds, and they treat their followers as unique.  This commitment often leads to providing developmental opportunities to expand or learn new skills, as well as involvement in finding solutions and making the decision (Spears, p.16).

Building community. Finally, servant leaders help establish and foster a sense of community among followers that allows followers to have a sense of belonging to a purpose greater than themselves.  A community also provides a place where people feel connected and safe while free to express their personality and individuality (Northouse, p.230).

Spears (1998, p. 6) clarified that these ten characteristics where not exhaustive.  Additional texts have noted over 20 specific, distinguishable attributes of servant leaders (Russell and Stone, p. 2).  While these attributes are defined using multiple terms and criteria, listening, stewardship, and persuasion are three consistently given across the literature.    

Secular Perspectives on Servant Leadership

In their book The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do, Blanchard and Miller offer a concise illustration to define servant leadership by using the acronym SERVE.  In the acronym, “S” stands for “Sees the Future.” As mentioned previously, servant leaders have a visionary role in their organization that is clear with strategies moving them forward.  “E” stands for “Engage and Develop People.”  Once vision and strategy are projected, the servant leader is one who focuses on engaging people in the fulfillment of the mission.  “R” stands for “Reinvent Continuously.” Servant leaders are constantly improving themselves, those around them, and their organizations.  “V” stands for “Value Results and Relationships.” For Blanchard and Miller, great leaders equally value the results of their organization and relationships with their followers.  Finally, “E” stands for “Embody the Values.” Embodying the values is reflected in how much the followers trust the leader.  This trust builds through consistent, competent leadership direction and decision-making (Blanchard and Miller, pp. 277-279).

Biblical Perspectives on Servant Leadership

Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby state that the “greatest Christian influence in leadership theory has been in the area of servant leadership” (Blackaby and Blackaby, p 164).  Citing the commonly used example of Jesus Christ, they argue that in all of literature there is no example that more greatly exemplifies servant leadership. Drawing from scripture, Blackaby and Blackaby identify three keys for servant leadership.

First, servant leadership begins with a love for the people being served.  Christ, the ultimate example, loved those he served so much that he died on the cross in their place.  Scripture says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).  While leaders may perform acts of service and kindness for their followers, unless they genuinely love them, Blackaby and Blackaby argue they cannot serve them (Blackaby and Blackaby, p 163).

Secondly, servant leaders must possess self-knowledge so that they know and accept who they truly are.  Leaders who do not have this self-awareness can fear the opinions of others, be taken advantage of, or constantly seek the approval of others.  Once a leader has gained this self-knowledge, they are free to lead without fear of those they serve or being compelled to serve from a sense of obligation (2001).

Finally, Christian servant leaders must understand whom they serve.  Ultimately, it is not the follower who is served but rather God.  The example of Christ washing the disciples’ feet in the Gospel of John, is an example used by many Christian leaders when discussing servant leadership. While Jesus was modeling servant leadership for the men, as well as future adherents, that evening, he was not doing out of a sense of service for the disciples.  Rather, Jesus served the men because it was what His Father wanted Him to do to teach his disciples.  While servant leaders should desire to serve their followers, they should do so out of a loving motivation, directed by the Holy Spirit (Blackaby and Blackaby, p 168).

In Lead Like Jesus, Blanchard and Hodges (2005) suggest that servant leadership can be achieved through the alignment of four leadership domains: the heart, head, hands, and habits.  These domains exist as both internal and external domains.  The internal domains of the heart and head control what is inside of the leader and serves his or her purpose.  The external domains of the hands and habits point to the leader’s behaviors and ultimately determine if the leader will be followed.  The alignment of these four domains, asserts Blanchard and Hodges (2005), results in deep loyalty, lasting trust, and significant productivity for teams.  Conversely, when out of alignment these domains can lead to diminished trust and decreased productivity.

In his book, “Servant Leadership,” Greenleaf puts forward the idea that a servant leader will first and foremost be a servant, when he writes:

“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.  For such it will be a later choice to serve-after leadership is established….the difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served….the natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader first and who later serves out of promptings of conscience or in conformity with normative expectations” (Greenleaf, pp. 13-14).

It would appear that Greenleaf felt that followers could discern who among them truly was a servant leader.  Much has been written recently concerning the question of whether, as Greenleaf suggests, servant leaders are born or if these are skills to be developed over time.

Peter Sun (2013) believes that servant leaders seem to already have a propensity toward servant leadership qualities.  If confronted with a decision that’s outcome results in a conflict between their own self-interest and the interest of their followers, Sun observes that servant leaders had an innate orientation to combat self-serving outcomes.  He identifies the servant leader as having a “calling, humility, empathy, and agape love…that servant leaders are consciously and hence cognitively, aware of” (Sun, p. 547).  These qualities, Sun believes, are intrinsic to the leader and therefore a true servant leader would need these qualities at the core.  Although many modern contingency theories in leadership assert that leaders can identify with multiple styles, Sun believes that servant leadership is a matter of the heart that cannot be taught.

Russell and Stone (2002) recognize that power is central to much of the thinking about leadership, whereas service is the intended core.  Service, they argue, is the only legitimate use of power by leaders and no leadership theory equals its priority on service like servant leadership. They suggest that servant leaders not only have the ability to be developed, but must be, when they write, “if countless individuals transform into servant leaders, infinitely more people would benefit.  Servant leadership offers the potential to positively revolutionize interpersonal work relations and organizational life.  It is a concept that longs for widespread implementation” (Russell and Stone, p 12).

Northouse (2013) surmises servant leadership as “counterintuitive.” By holding in contrast, the two concepts and definitions of a leader and a servant he states distinctions are clear and apparent.  Servant leaders place highest priority on their follower and in putting them first focus intently on helping them grow personally and inspiring them.


“But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20: 25-28, NIV).

Robert Greenleaf’s foundational work on servant leadership argues that servant leaders have natural abilities and tendencies toward service and make a choice to lead.  If true, it would seem Greenleaf suggests that servant leaders are born and cannot develop without specific innate characteristics.  However, many theorists and researchers have observed that through repeated practices and habits, the nature of a servant leader is formed in many individuals.

As a religious institution, developing and training leaders, the Church of God of Prophecy International Ministries supports its thinking with Scripture.  Scripture would suggest that an individual, when called to service under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, can be transformed into a servant-leader.

Throughout the Old Testament leaders can be found who were first a servant to God and then a servant to people.  Leadership followed servanthood and was a vital component to leadership. Many of the significant leadership figures of the Old Testament are defined as “servants.” These include: Abraham (Genesis 26:24) Moses (Exodus 14:31; Numbers 12:7.8; Deuteronomy 34:5; Joshua 1:1, 2, 7), Joshua (Exodus 33:11), Caleb (Numbers 14:24), Samuel (I Samuel 3:9), David (I Samuel 29:3, 1 Chronicles 17:4), Elijah (II Kings 9:36), and Isaiah (Isaiah 20:2).  These were not only individuals whose leadership emerged through service, but they also demonstrated many of the leadership qualities later identified in Greenleaf’s writings, (i.e.  visionaries, competent stewards, empathetic, etc.) While some, like Joshua and David, were actual servants to those they would eventually replace in leadership, others are revealed to have transformed into servant leaders, such as Moses (Damazio, p. 17).

The New Testament gives perhaps a more specific glimpse at the role of a Christian, servant leader.  Throughout its pages readers find servant leaders washing others’ feet (John 13) rebuking them (Matthew 16), disciplining them (Matthew 18), and instructing them (1 Corinthians 5, 11).  In both the Old and New Testaments, we find figures whose earlier lifestyles, characteristics, and abilities transform once they surrendered to God’s plan for their lives.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner have concluded that “The most pernicious myth is that leadership is reserved for only a very few of us” (2003).  According to their research, leadership is not a genetic trait, ethereal code, or mythical power that is unattainable by the ordinary individual.  Instead, leadership characteristics and abilities are a set of practices that can be learned and are observable.  At the center of this theory is a set of Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. These practices are not “the accident of a special moment in history,” and they have “stood the test of time” by being “as relevant today” as when first studied by the duo (Kouzes and Posner, 2004).

The Five Practices of 1.) Model the Way, 2.) Inspire a Shared Vision, 3.) Challenge the Process, 4.) Enable Others to Act, and 5.) Encourage the Heart, are all achievable by applying Greenleaf’s ten characteristics of a servant leader.  Furthermore, each of these Five Practices finds a parallel to the life of Jesus, the ultimate servant leader (Kouzes and Posner, 2004).  The key to developing these leadership skills, according to Kouzes and Posner is motivation and desire.  They assert that “Any skill can be learned, strengthened, honed, and enhanced” when coupled with “practice, feedback, role models, and coaching” (Kouzes and Posner, 2017).

Although leadership can be learned, it is understood that it is only possible when the individual has the desire to learn, truly believes in the process, aspires to excel, recognizes the necessary input of others, and is deliberate in their practice of the skill.  It stands to reason that the process may be more natural for those with innate attributes bent toward a servant leader approach; however, with determination and proper understanding, it would seem possible for individuals to hone their servant leadership skills.

To begin moving toward a servant leadership training and development strategy Northouse recommends initiatives that involve self-assessments, educational sessions, and goal setting.  The understanding and content of servant leader training are not complicated, and many organizations have found it to be accessible to their followers (Northouse, p. 243).  Liden believes in achieving an environment where servant leadership is the cultural norm, the organization should seek individuals capable of engaging in a long-term relationship with followers (Liden, p. 16).  Due to the emphasis on issues of trust, organizations should also seek people of high ethics and high integrity.  Northouse encourages organizations to concentrate servant leadership training on the development of emotional intelligence, managerial ethics, and managing individuals by empowering them with the end goal of helping followers maximize their potential (Northouse, p. 243).

The study of servant leadership provides a foundation and basis for understanding a set of behaviors that can be developed and learned by individuals.  While servant leadership has unique challenges and limitations, it is a highly engaging leadership approach.  With additional research and observation, servant leadership theory will continue to develop and be understood more fully.


Blackaby, H., & Blackaby, R.  (2001).  Spiritual Leadership: Moving People On to God’s Agenda (pp. 164-168).  Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers.

Blanchard, K.  (2010).  Leading At A Higher Level (pp. 277-279).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Blanchard Management Corporation.

Blanchard, K., & Hodges, P. (2005).  Lead Like Jesus (pp. 31-35).  Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Claar, V.  V., Jackson, L.  L., & TenHaken, V.  R.  (201, August).  Are Servant Leaders Born or Made? Servant Leadership Theory and Practice, 1(1), 46-52.

Daft, R.  L.  (2011).  The Leadership Experience (5th ed., pp. 178-188).  Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Damazio, F.  (1988).  The Making of A Leader (pp. 17-22).  Portland, OR: BT Publishing.

Greenleaf, R.  K.  (1977).  Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (pp. 13-14).  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

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Kouzes, J.  M., & Posner, B.  Z.  (Eds.).  (2004).  Christian Reflections on The Leadership Challenge (pp. 7-12). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J.  M., & Posner, B.  Z.  (2017).  The Leadership Challenge (6th ed., pp. 1-142).  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

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Northouse, P. G.  (2018).  Leadership Theory and Practice (8th ed., pp. 227-254).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Russell, R.  F., & Stone, A.  G.  (2002).  A review of servant leadership attributes: Developing a practical model.  Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 23(3), 145. Retrieved from

Spears, L.  C.  (2010).  Servant Leadership and Robert K.  Greenleaf’s Legacy.  Servant Leadership Developments in Theory and Research, 1, 11-24.

Sun, P. Y.  T.  (2013).  The servant identity: Influences on the cognition and behavior of servant leaders.  Leadership Quarterly, 24(4), 544.  Retrieved from


Avatar for Shaun McKinley

Dr. Shaun McKinley serves as the international director of Children’s Ministries, administrative liaison to the general overseer, and public relations coordinator for the Church of God of Prophecy International Offices in Cleveland, Tennessee.


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