What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leader speaking with team

If you’re striving to rise through the ranks of your organization with the goal of becoming an undisputed leader, you’ve almost certainly heard the term “servant leadership.” But what is servant leadership? What does it mean to be a servant leader? How does this concept benefit both organizations and people?

In essence, servant leadership is a philosophy and a leadership style in which the leader’s focus is on serving and empowering others. It is the opposite of an authoritarian or autocratic leadership style, in which the leader of an organization retains control over all power and decision-making authority. In contrast, a servant leader is one who seeks to empower and inspire others and to nurture a collaborative environment.

History of Servant Leadership

No answer to the question, “What is servant leadership?” would be complete without a look back at the evolution of that concept. Servant leadership is not a new philosophy; in fact, it’s been around for centuries.

One of the earliest known references to servant leadership comes from the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (also spelled Lao-Tzu and Lao-Tze). Laozi was the founder of Daoism, a philosophical school of thought, and is believed to have lived during the 5th or 6th century BC.

Laozi wrote the following about the role of the leader: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware…The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’”1

From this quote, we can derive several pearls of wisdom. First, Laozi notes that effective leaders are individuals “of whose existence the people are barely aware.” This doesn’t mean that good leaders are seldom seen or heard from, but rather that good leaders are those who put the spotlight on others instead of seeking all of the fame and glory for themselves.

Next, good leaders are “scanty of words.” This doesn’t mean that executives should shy away from shareholder meetings and say next to nothing. Instead, they should encourage others to contribute to the discussion and share their own perspectives.

Lastly, Laozi notes that under a good leader, others can take credit for accomplishments.

In modern times, the term “servant leader” is believed to have been coined by Robert Greenleaf, who wrote a scholarly essay on the subject in the 1970s. Since that time, the concept of servant leadership has spread, becoming popular across all types of businesses.

In Greenleaf’s view, true leaders are servants first and leaders second. They grow into a leadership position by serving others, uplifting them and empowering them to achieve their full potential.

What Does It Mean To Be a Servant Leader?

Now that you know the answer to the question, “What is servant leadership?” it’s time to take a closer look at the question, “What does it mean to be a servant leader?” A true servant leader is someone who does not seek power for power’s sake alone, but rather chooses to use authority in ways that serve the best interests of others. A servant leader retains a service-oriented mindset no matter how far up the corporate ladder they climb.

One of the most important qualities of a servant leader is their willingness to be an active listener. A servant leader doesn’t seek to have their own voice drown out all others. Rather, they actively work toward understanding others’ viewpoints and perceptions. Other essential qualities and skills include the following:

  • Empathy
  • Self-awareness
  • Stewardship
  • Community and consensus building
  • Persuasion (rather than the application of authority)
  • Vision
  • Humility
  • Appreciation for others

A servant leader is also someone who is able to trust others, and who is in turn trusted because of their authenticity and dependability.

Real-World Examples of Servant Leadership

Although it is important to reflect upon the qualities of servant leadership, when seeking to apply these qualities in your own professional realm, it is helpful to consider case studies. There are many excellent real-world examples of servant leadership ranging from civil rights leaders to CEOs.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is one such example. Dr. King was one of the most selfless and courageous servant leaders; he had a vision of inclusion and ultimately gave lost his life in his pursuit of that vision. Dr. King was also a pastor who frequently encouraged his congregations to remember that all of humanity is interconnected and dependent on each other, and so each person must by necessity think of others first.

In the corporate world, one example of a servant leader is Art Barter. He is the former CEO of Datron World Communications, Inc., and founder and CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute. Barter spent the first two decades of his career working at companies that embraced the pursuit of profits first and foremost. Then, Barter became familiar with the concept of servant leadership.2

When Barter took the helm at Datron World Communications, Inc., he did so with a servant leadership mindset. Barter wasn’t shy about putting his newfound philosophy into practice. The result was explosive growth for Datron, which expanded from $10 million to $200 million in only six years.3

Barter transformed Datron’s previous power-led model of leadership into a servant-first leadership model by focusing on how results were achieved, rather than the results themselves. Among other changes, Datron’s mission evolved to prioritize the empowerment of its stakeholders, including employees. In addition to building trust with its customers, Datron established a charitable initiative to give back to communities around the world.

Become a Servant Leader While You Earn a Leadership Degree

Those who aspire to climb to senior-level positions within their organizations should strongly consider earning a Master of Science in Leadership (MSL) degree. On the surface, a graduate leadership degree is a way to distinguish oneself in one’s field. However, its benefits extend far beyond this.

An MSL degree, particularly one that emphasizes the value of servant leadership, encourages students to engage in deep self-reflection. Through self-reflection and stimulating discussions with peers, students learn to cultivate their own servant leadership qualities. They grow into emotionally intelligent leaders who are capable of inspiring and empowering others.

As one ascends through the ranks of an organization, hard skills like accounting or computer programming take a backseat; instead, soft skills become far more important. An MSL will instill essential soft skills, including the following:

  • Emotional intelligence and empathy
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Problem-solving and decision-making skills
  • Advocacy and conflict resolution
  • Motivational skills

In the process of acquiring these important soft skills and shaping their leadership style, students learn how to guide the forward progress of any type of organization in any industry.

You can learn how to cultivate the qualities of servant leadership in yourself when you pursue a leadership degree at Grand Canyon University. The Master of Science in Leadership degree program, offered by the prestigious Colangelo College of Business, interweaves the principles of servant leadership throughout the curriculum. Graduates explore effective methodologies for leading by example to inspire others and work to achieve shared goals. 

Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about embracing ethical servant leadership at GCU.


Retrieved from:

1Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge, Why Isn’t ‘Servant Leadership’ More Prevalent? in December 2021.

2Servant Leadership Institute, Meet Art Barter in June 2022.

2Society for Human Resource Management, The Art of Servant Leadership in December 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.