Servant Leadership: Philosophy, Qualities & Importance

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Servant Leadership" by Robert Greenleaf. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the servant leadership philosophy? How does this philosophy make the world a better place?

Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf believes that servant leaders will pave the way toward a better future. He further defines the concept and lists some of the qualities you need to be a servant leader.

Keep reading to learn why servant leadership would improve society.

What Is Servant Leadership?

According to Greenleaf, the three-pronged servant leadership philosophy has the primary aim of making the world a better place. The first prong is a vision of the common good—a goal that would significantly improve the lives of most people, if not everybody. The second prong is a sense of social responsibility—a desire to altruistically serve others’ needs, prioritizing them ahead of your own interests (like money, power, or glory). The third prong is inspiration—to be a servant leader, you must be able to convince and motivate others to pursue your vision by becoming servants themselves. To illustrate, some say that the civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplified the servant leadership philosophy.

Greenleaf writes that servant leadership is as much a spiritual calling as it is a worldly one. Servant leaders are invested in making the world a better place because that’s what’s spiritually fulfilling for them—and because they want to ensure that the rest of the world can achieve spiritual fulfillment, too. Although this perspective is rooted in Greenleaf’s Quaker beliefs, he emphasizes that servant leadership isn’t limited to the traditionally religious—he argues that the whole point of religion is to unite individuals with the world around them, and you don’t have to adhere to any specific religion to pursue that goal.

The Qualities of a Servant Leader

Servant leadership isn’t limited to people with formal power—anyone in any social position can become a servant leader if they have the right characteristics for the role. In fact, Greenleaf believes that people from disempowered communities are especially likely to become servant leaders. If you’ve experienced marginalization, then you have an intuitive vision of a more just world, a better understanding of people’s actual needs and how they’re best served, and a better chance of inspiring other marginalized people to join you.

According to Greenleaf, if you want to be a servant leader, you must have the following qualities:

  1. Self-responsibility
  2. Intuition
  3. Perseverance
  4. Good communication
  5. A nurturing spirit

Why Servant Leadership Is Necessary

According to Greenleaf, servant leadership is the solution to America’s most pressing problem: institutional inefficacy. Let’s explore the origins of that problem and Greenleaf’s proposed solution in more detail.

The Problem With Modern Institutions

Greenleaf argues that the majority of modern U.S. institutions—namely, churches, universities, businesses, and foundations—fail to uphold their social responsibility. In his view, churches no longer meet people’s spiritual or material needs, universities are overcrowded and don’t adequately prepare students, businesses are often solely motivated by profit and do social harm in pursuit of that profit, and foundations are inefficient with the money they disperse to what might otherwise be good causes. As a result, people are losing faith in the institutions that were created—at least theoretically—to serve them.

According to Greenleaf, one factor in American institutions’ inefficacy is their increasing bureaucratization. Bureaucratized institutions have strict rules of operation, value consistency and uniformity, and are committed to maintaining the status quo. Because of this, bureaucratized institutions are resistant to innovation, which prevents them from discovering how to use their resources—including time, money, and manpower—most effectively. As a result, the quality of the services they offer is lower.

Why Servant Leadership Is the Solution

Greenleaf believes that servant leaders will ensure that the institutions they belong to fulfill their social responsibility. They’ll do this by changing these institutions from the inside out—with a clear vision of past institutional failures and of a better path forward, they’ll ensure that their institutions actually serve the needs of the people they claim to serve.

Greenleaf argues that only servant leaders can revitalize American institutions because they’re the only kind of leader that deserves the loyalty of their followers—they earn their leadership positions by proving that their vision is the most effective, rather than by coercing (under legal threat) or forcing institutions to go along with their vision, like government officials do.

Servant Leadership: Philosophy, Qualities & Importance

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Here's what you'll find in our full Servant Leadership summary:

  • Why modern institutions fail to meet the needs of those they serve and employ
  • Why institutions must learn to prioritize the needs of their followers
  • How you can learn to become a servant leader

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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