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What is a Servant Leader?

What does it mean to be a leader? Most important, what does it mean to be a #servantleader? I’ve seen a recent uptick in people and blogs discussing the concept of servant leadership and I’d like to take a minute to unpack that below. At first, the idea of a leader being a servant seems almost counter-intuitive, but it’s really not. The term “servant leader” was first penned in 1970 by leadership pioneer Robert K. Greenleaf in his groundbreaking essay, “The Leader as Servant.” Greenleaf’s work helped reshape the traditional views of leadership. As for myself, I first became familiar with the term almost a year ago when enrolled the Kennedy School’s Senior Executive Fellow leadership development program. Ever since then, the topic has interested me.

Traditional thinking dictates that the organization (a business, federal agency, or not-for-profit group) serves the needs of that one, all encompassing and all knowing business or public leader that knows the answers to all the tough questions. In effect, the organization serves the needs of this leader as the one indispensable element upon which all success depends. This is the more traditional model of leadership and its given way to a relatively new concept: servant leadership.


A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. - Robert A. Greenleaf


With today’s exceedingly fast environment, when critical decisions need to be made in minutes, not days or hours, the ultimate success of an organization cannot rely just on the good decision-making of that one “all-knowing” leader. Alternatively, the servant leader empowers and enables the team to make decisions by sharing power, decision-making authority, and by growing trust in the team. Additionally, the servant leader understands success is contingent upon the health, well-being, and energy of the team.

A servant leader knows that he or she isn’t a leader based only on positional power due to an org chart, but because the broader team trusts the leader and in turn the leaders sets the conditions for the team to be successful. Setting the conditions for success means the leader fosters trustworthiness, acknowledges the limits of his or her capabilities while accepting that the team must be given the freedom to deploy their unique skills and abilities for which they were hired.

See, a true servant leader accepts that he or she cannot and does not have all the solutions to the complex challenges the organizations might face. The servant leader supports and trusts the team to bring solutions forward, solve problems, and to exercise good judgment.

Think about the type of leader you are today and identify opportunities to further develop the traits necessary to be a better servant leader tomorrow. As you do this, be mindful – as Robert Greenleaf wrote – that the servant leader is servant first, and leader second.

Learn more about servant leadership here.

Comment to discuss what being a leader means to you .

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