For thousands of years, servant leadership has been both a leadership perspective and set of leadership practices. As an ancient philosophy, there are writings that relate to servant leadership in China as far back as 570 BCE. Servant leadership can be found in many religious texts including Christianity, yet the philosophical value itself transcends any particular religious teachings.
The modern phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay called “The Servant as Leader”, first published in 1970. He was a passionate advocate and launched the modern day rediscovery of the perspective.
Traditionally leadership traits in the Western world has generally focused on the accumulation and exercise of power by an individual, or elites at the “top” of the organizational pyramid. In comparison, the servant-leader shares power with others, and puts the needs of others first. This helps others to develop and allows them to perform as highly as possible. In essence, instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When a leader shifts their perspective to serve others first, they unchain the capabilities, potential and ingenuity in those around them. This results in engaged, more productive, and more fulfilled employees. The major purpose of servant leadership is to inspire and grow the people they influence, rather than dominate or control them.
Unlike autocratic leadership approaches with a top-down hierarchical style, servant leadership emphasizes personal development, trust, collaboration, empathy, and the ethical use of power. The leader is a servant first, making the conscious choice to lead in order to develop the potential in others through a positive personal example, not to increase their own authority. Their objective is to enhance the well-being of individuals in the organization to increase their development, training, teamwork and personal involvement.