Is Servant Leadership Really just Effective Leadership

My second article will address the topic of servant leadership. What really is servant leadership and why, in my opinion, does it seem to become yet another “flavor of the month” every three years or so? I will discuss my premise that servant leadership is really effective leadership and base my premise upon 30 years of practicing as a senior-level leader and 12 years of teaching it. At the end of this article, I have put a personal inventory of servant leadership characteristics rating system for you to take, if you wish.

Depending upon what text you are reading about servant leadership, what leadership academician you are in discussion with or who you are talking to in the corporate world about servant leadership, you will get different opinions of just what servant leadership is. To compound this complex dilemma, it is my opinion that in order to be an effective leader, you must always practice “servant” leadership in all of its forms; thus, the word “servant” is a given in leadership.

Robert Greenleaf starting talking about servant leadership as far back as the mid 1960's, and I remember when I first read about servant leadership in 1970, when Greenleaf wrote his first book on servant leadership, The Servant as Leader, I thought it was an oxymoron. I thought then and still do that all leaders should serve the people they are responsible for. I do believe, however, that with Greenleaf’s writings on servant leadership, it started an era of practicing “servant” style leadership and getting away from the micro-managing and fear-by-intimidation style of leadership that was prevalent at that time.

Let's explore a popular definition of servant leadership and the ten characteristics that are said to identify servant leadership. Servant leadership is about serving others—employees, customers and the community as the number one priority. Servant leadership emphasizes service to others, a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community and a deepening understanding of spirit in the workplace. Greenleaf said that a servant leader is one who is a servant first. In his book, The Servant as Leader, he states, “…then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants .”

The ten characteristics of servant leadership are:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of people
  10. Building community

When I first saw these ten characteristics, I wondered, again, why were they being attributed to the servant leadership style when in fact I believe that these ten attributes are a must to be an effective leader. Whether you discuss authentic leadership, principles-based leadership, servant leadership, etc., an effective leader must have in his/ her leadership "arsenal" all of the above ten characteristics, plus, you cannot discuss any thought of leadership authenticity, principles or servantship without all of the following attributes:

Functional attributes1 Accompanying attributes1
1. Vision 1. Full communication
2. Honesty 2. Credibility
3. Integrity 3. Competence
4. Trust 4. Stewardship
5. Service 5. Visibility
6. Modeling 6. Influence
7. Pioneering 7. Persuasion
8. Appreciation of others Empowerment 8. Encouragement
  10. Delegation

(1) – leadership attributes according to existing literature

It is said that servant leadership is a specific leadership concept that is intended to provide a broad overview of the growing influence attributed to it upon people and the workplace. Research has indicated, and I do believe that because of the attention put on servant leadership characteristics more than three decades ago, there was a shift away from traditional autocratic and hierarchical modes of leadership towards a model based upon social responsibility or community and involving others in decision-making, having a more focused, caring environment and enhancing the personal growth of others.

Back to my original premise at the beginning of this article and in admiration and due respect to Robert Greenleaf, servant leadership encompasses all of the definitions, attributions, characteristics, etc., of what an effective leader should have and do, and servant leadership is just effective leadership. So, when I teach or lecture on leadership, I do not attribute the above to servant leadership but to the essential components of effective leadership. Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy in their book, Leadership – enhancing the lessons of experience, defined servant leadership as, “ …leadership in which the leader transcends self-interest to serve the needs of others, help others grow, and provide opportunities for others to gain materially and emotionally.” I contend again that this is the very foundation of effective leadership.

So, when you have the servant model below depicting the five elements of servant leadership, I contend that the word “Servant” should be replaced with “Effective”.

It has been said that, “People will go out of their way for you when you understand their uniqueness, listen through their ears and see the world through the same lenses they are viewing it from.” This is what effective leadership is all about.

Use the following rating system and circle numbers 1 through 4 that most accurately applies to your current leadership characteristics. (1)

  1. I don’t believe this is an important characteristic of leadership.
  2. I don’t believe or practice this characteristic now, but would like to begin.
  3. I exhibit or try to practice this characteristic now, but not as much as I would like.
  4. I exhibit and practice this characteristic now, consciously and consistently


Listening 1 2 3 4
Empathy 1 2 3 4
Healing 1 2 3 4
Awareness 1 2 3 4
Persuasion 1 2 3 4
Conceptualization 1 2 3 4
Foresight 1 2 3 4
Stewardship 1 2 3 4
Community to the growth of people 1 2 3 4
Building community 1 2 3 4

(1) comes from an article on servant leadership