What is Servant Leadership?

MountainLeadServant leadership – what exactly is it?  How is it unique from other perspectives on leadership? Who or what is it that is served?  What does it mean to be a follower of a servant leader?

One of my goals in 2013 is to explore those questions.  I want to learn more of how others define and live out servant leadership, and better formulate my own understanding of it.  For now I set a marker on the trail, to measure against later, laying out here what I believe servant leadership is, and what it is not.

Servant Leadership is not self serving.

One element that is clear is that servant leadership is not self serving.  Being a leader doesn’t mean that I have somehow become more at the expense of others becoming less.  Becoming a leader is not the outcome of a competition with others.

Servant Leadership is not self deprecating.

While I do not become more from others becoming less, it is also true that others do not become more from my becoming less.  A distinction of servant leadership is that I give of myself.  But to give of myself does not mean that I give up myself.  Servant leadership isn’t self serving, nor is it self deprecating.

Service is not sacrifice, it is surrender.*

More precisely, service is not sacrifice of self, it is surrender to us.  As a servant leader I surrender to a different reality where all grow because each grows.  I give of myself, and I lead others to give of themselves.  Together we serve each other in order that what we do brings us to a place where we all become more.

By influence, not authority;
by heart, not title;
by relationship, not structure –
leaders lift people
and bring all together
on higher ground.

How exactly does this come to be? How is this lived out in the day-to-day? Well, this is all part of what I have yet to learn.

“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.”
Robert Greenleaf

Photo courtesy of AESThetic Photography


* While this view of service and sacrifice seemingly conflicts with the writings of Robert Greenleaf, who stated that sacrifice is a key part of servant leadership, our views are much the same in concept.  He wrote, “I believe that the essential quality that sets servant-leaders apart from others is that they live by their conscience – the inward moral sense of what is right and what is wrong. That one quality is the difference between leadership that works and leadership – like servant leadership – that endures.” and “The essence of moral authority or conscience is sacrifice – the subordinating of one’s self or one’s ego to a higher purpose, cause, or principle.”  What he describes as sacrifice is similar to what I describe as surrender.  I hesitate to use the word sacrifice because of the connotations that have been ascribed to use of the word.  People tend to assume a reference to the subordination of self to others, but what Robert Greenleaf espoused was the subordination of self to a higher purpose.