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9 Examples of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is the philosophy that the first priority of a leader is to serve. This is associated with an ability to get people moving together towards a common purpose without the use of formal authority. Servant leadership is also based on the idea of an enlightened leader who doesn't do things out of a need for personal power, recognition and reward but rather out of a need to be useful. The following are illustrative examples of servant leadership.


The philosophy of servant leadership was known to antiquity. For example, a similar idea is clearly mentioned in the Tao Te Ching, a text credited to the 6th-century BC sage Lao Tzu.
A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, "We did this ourselves."
~ Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17, Lao Tzu
The idea here is that gentle influence is more powerful than authority, control and pressure.

Management Theory

The term servant leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf a management researcher who worked for AT&T in the 1950s. He was inspired by a book he read in 1958:
The idea of The Servant as Leader came out of reading Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. In this story, we see a band of men on a mythical journey… The central figure of the story is Leo, who accompanies the party as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song. He is a person of extraordinary presence. All goes well until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned. They cannot make it without the servant Leo. The narrator, one of the party, after some years of wandering, finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey. There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.
~ Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, 1977
Greenleaf goes on to suggest that the motivation to serve produces a superior type of leader as compared to those motivated by power, status, control and financial gain. This became an influential idea in management theory by the 1970s and has remained as such.

Influencing Beyond Authority

Servant leadership suggests that a leader not rely on their authority to get things done. This idea completely transformed management theory in the 1970s whereby roles that rely on authority and control are referred to as management and roles that rely on influencing are referred to as leadership. In this context, anyone can be a leader such that defacto power within an organization is often difficult to identify. For example, a respected and brilliant software developer may be the true source of strategy and decision making for an entire IT department of a large firm as their ideas are so often accepted, communicated upwards and implemented.

Power Behind the Throne

The power behind the throne is an archetype of myth and history whereby an individual gently influences to wield great power without any formal authority. If this were done out of a desire to be useful as opposed to powerful and personally wealthy, it could be described as servant leadership.

Abundance Mentality

Abundance mentality is the philosophy that their is enough for everyone such that the success of others doesn't diminish your own successes and opportunity. This calls for a collaborative and supportive approach to leadership that is consistent with the motivation to serve. For example, a manager who doesn't try to keep talent team members down as a threat to their own position but instead provides them with every opportunity to grow.

Humble Leadership

Humble leadership is the use of authority with a sense of humility to avoid the common traps of power such as narcissism, a sense of entitlement, the misuse of authority to support your own position and becoming out of touch with frontline realities. Humble leadership is essentially servant leadership by a different name that has dropped the idea that the leader rely on influencing over formal authority.

Flat Organization

A flat organization is an organization with few levels of formal authority. This can be used to encourage servant leadership whereby everyone is forced to influence as opposed to using authority and control. Assuming there is a servant leader at the top, it may be possible to shape the culture of these organizations towards rewarding positive behaviors that serve goals over negative behaviors that serve the individual at the expense of goals.

Creative Tension

Creative tension is disagreement that remains civil. Servant leadership should not be confused with a lack of assertiveness and avoidance of disagreement. To be clear, servant leaders are motivated by a drive to be useful and the use of influence over control. Beyond that, their style will vary with some charging into lively debate and others being more of a quiet voice of reason.

Change Management

Change management is the practice of leading aggressive change that can expect problems. A basic principle of change management is that you sideline anyone who seeks to derail change and empower anyone who works to be useful. Servant leaders in a firm thrive where this occurs as power structures often try to obstruct change and get pushed out of the way to the benefit of anyone who is trying to be useful.


Servant leadership has two components: motivation to serve and influencing over controlling. It is common for materials to assign dozens of other attributes to the term that can be counterproductive. For example, the absurd suggestion that servant leadership requires consensus decision making -- a process that is known to be irrational and suboptimal. A servant leader forms strategy and makes decisions and then builds consensus with influencing that is so gentle that people may feel that the decision was a consensus from the start.
Overview: Servant Leadership
Definition (1)
Leaders motivated by a drive to be useful who use influence as opposed to control.
Definition (2)
The philosophy that the first priority of a leader is to serve..
Attributed To
Robert K. Greenleaf
Related Concepts


This is the complete list of articles we have written about leadership.
Abundance Mentality
Bias For Action
Change Management
Charismatic Authority
Corporate Governance
Creative Leadership
Cruel Wit
Curiosity Drive
Defensive Pessimism
Delegated Authority
Expectation Setting
Fake It Till You Make It
Formal Authority
Heliotropic Effect
Informal Authority
Intrinsic Motivation
Leadership Culture
Leadership Decisions
Leadership Functions
Leadership Goals
Leadership Qualities
Leadership Skills
Leadership Strengths
Leadership Style
Leadership Weaknesses
Managing Up
Name Dropping
Nudge Theory
Office Politics
Personal Presence
Petty Authority
Political Capital
Positive Criticism
Resistance To Change
Servant Leadership
Shadow Of The Leader
Situational Leadership
Social Proof
Strategic Dominance
Tone At The Top
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