Impact of Servant Leadership in the Workplace

Leadership is ability to direct people. It is also an ability to influence individuals and groups, managing their efforts in the best way to achieve the goals of the organization. The personality of the leader has a great influence on the minds of participants of the group, it can even a change the usual behavior of people.

The power allows the manager to coordinate the actions of his subordinates, to guide them into the mainstream of the organization’s interests, and to encourage employees to work more efficiently, to prevent conflicts that arise in the team. Without power, there is no organization and no definite order in the working activity. The definition of power as the organizational process involves the following aspects: Power exists in those who may potentially use it, or, in other words it exists not only when it is used. The power and its practical application are interdependent, like there is a connection between those who use power and those to whom it applies. However, in modern society there is no slavery and the power is not absolute, so everybody is formally free.

There are several types of leadership. Among them it is possible to mark out democratic, authoritative, advisory and others. Though, it is necessary to analyze the notion of servant leadership both from philosophical and practical points of view. In this type of leadership the power is not gathered in one place, as it is in the traditional pyramid of control. It is divided by all members of the ruling system, so that it helps to work effectively.

In 1970 Robert K. Greenleaf in his essay used this notion for the first time. He described this phenomenon in the following way:

The servant-leader is servant first… 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, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? (1996)

However, the idea of servant leadership was used long before Robert K. Greenleaf. It is even possible to say that this is the main idea major religions and spiritual studies share. For example, there is a passage in the Bible that is related to servant leadership question and it can be found in the Gospel of Mark:

But Jesus called them [his disciples] to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

The Hellenic philosophers like Plato, Socrates, Xenophon and Aristotle also investigated into the problem of the origin and aims of authorities. The work of Xenophon “Anabasis” and “The Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides have numerous comments upon the question of servant leadership. Ancient philosophers thought that serving their nation is the only thing that official power has to do. Plato in his work “Republic” wrote, that the most effective leadership can be performed only when “philosophers are kings, or kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one.” (Burns, 2003, p.


Luthans (2002) writes that “the 21st century has launched a rocketing interest in leadership theories. The emphasis has shifted to enhancing motivation and social responsibility to secure success and profit in modern organizations. Leadership has been suggested to be a key factor for engaged employees and for innovative organizations.” The theory of servant leadership introduces a strong moral and ethical aspect in ruling system. It is centered around people and their needs more that around the goals and achievements. That is the reason why those leaders who serve people are popular among their followers. It is possible to say that this kind of popularity is based on the respect and gratitude, but not on fear or formality.

Despite all positive aspects of servant leadership theory, it is criticized by some scholars. For example, Smith (p7) wrote:

Like other disciplines in the social sciences, modern study of organizational behavior employs the scientific method, and requires empirical validation. Leadership theories must be translated into functional models. These models serve as the basis for forming hypotheses that can then be tested and verified (or disproved). Only validated models can be used reliably to describe, predict and recommend leader behavior in applied settings. Servantleadership has come under some fire for remaining grounded in philosophical theory, and for lacking empirical substantiation.

However, the fact that the theory still provokes discussion shows that the issue is urgent in the modern society.

Greenleaf himself in his work “Seeker and Servant” that was published in 1987 noted that there were many vague issues in the process of choosing the leader and controlling his/her actions afterwards. He thought that the leader should be chosen according to the principle “first among equals” or “primus inter pares” in other words. However, economical and political institutions were not extremely optimistic and active about this proposition.

It seems an unrealistic pipe dream even to think about organized human activity without giving power to some people to push other people around. Heavy-handed or benign, I suspect that both holding and using power as it is commonly accepted are destructive of human spirit in both the power holder and the subject. If we are to move toward a more servant-led society, it is imperative that we find a better way to assign power (if we have to assign it at all) than we have traditionally done and are doing. Otherwise, these institutions of ours will continue to grind down human spirit on a mammoth scale. We will not have many servants, and we will have a weaker society. (Greenleaf, 1996)

Servant leadership reflects utopian ideas about ideal state power that is effective in the society of self-conscious personalities. From realistic point of view the society does not consist only of individuals with a high level of morality. That is why the primary responsibility of the state is to control people. Penitentiary system with courts and prisons exists because there is crime in every society and something or someone needs to regulate the order. The authority that follows the ideas of servant leadership obviously encourages followers. However, those who do not want to obey, will not and this kind of leader will do nothing. From another point of view, people will obey and fear an authoritarian leader, because they will know the consequences of incorrect behavior. Here another problem appears: the society will be degrading under tyranny and this type of leader will not encourage followers at all. So, it is possible to suppose that the optimal position of the leader should be between these two extremes. The process of serving the nation should not be mixed with ochlocracy.

The European Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership analyzed the circumstances under with servant leadership give the best results and emphasized the most effective characteristics of this theory. Conger (2000) noted that this style of leadership encourages the majority of people to develop. The atmosphere of self-confidence created a sense of personal power. The servant leader believes that every participant of that group is unique and so he/she can generate new ideas. The experience shows that it works good in educational institutions – when the teacher encourages students to do their best, because they can do anything if they try, the students usually try and succeed.

Another peculiarity of service leadership is “holding people accountable for performance they can control” (Conger 1989). Froiland (1993) writes that it is important in a workspace, because people know the limits within which they are free to make experiments. This helps both employees and companies to achieve their goals. In this situation the leader stands back and only gives the followers support when the help is needed. This way of managing work is a good basis for creative atmosphere, where everyone can find a “true-self”. The last important characteristic of service leadership is stewardship. According to Block (1993) it is “the willingness to take responsibility for the larger institution and go for service instead of control and self-interest”.

Motivation can be called the key concept in management, especially in popular materials that can be found in the magazines and in the Internet. Many leaders try to do their best to increase the level of motivation of their employees. However, it is a difficult thing to achieve, because the leader needs to create the right atmosphere and be the person workers estimate. Service leadership is a good tactics to motivate the group of people. Among popular pieces of advice “how to make people work with enthusiasm” it is possible to find the following ideas:

  • A strong relationship with their manager;

  • Clear communication from their manager;

  • A clear path set for concentrating on what they do best;

  • Strong co-worker relationships;

  • A strong commitment to their co-workers so they will take risks and stretch for excellence;

  • Opportunities to learn and grow. (Kimball)

It is impossible to imagine a ship without a captain. When the place of the “dominant person” in the current micro-society is free, others might start fighting for the right to rule. So, it is impossible to create a group of individuals without the leader. The difference is in the style of managing the actions of other people. The captain of the ship who is load, fierce and everybody is frightened to be punished by him, might soon be killed. The crew might start the mutiny, because no one prefers to be treated like a slave or an animal. Another variant of conduct for the captain is to listen to the crew and to create the right atmosphere in the ship, so that everyone will be happy to work. That captain will be estimated by people, who know what they are working for and who feel their dignity. The second way is service leadership and it seems to be the right way to manage the work of people.

The idea of service leadership was introduced centuries ago, when the society was on its first stage of formation. People somehow understood that the ruler has to inspire masses and regulate conflicts without shedding blood. History also gave vivid lessons about the destructive results of authoritarianism, when Empires fell under the pressure of poor people. Chances are that the society is now on the stage of development that allows people to understand that leaders have to support those who do not stand up from the crowd, like they do.


Block P. Stewardship: Choosing service over self-interest. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler; 1993.

Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming Leadership. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press

Conger J. A. The charismatic leader: Behind the mystique of exceptional leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 1989

Conger J. A. Motivate performance through empowerment. In: Locke EA, editor. The Blackwell handbook of principles of organizational behavior. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing; 2000. pp. 137–149

Dierendonck, D., & Nuijten, I. (2011). The Servant Leadership Survey: Development and Validation of a Multidimensional Measure. Journal Of Business & Psychology, 26(3), 249-267

Ebener, D. R. (2011). Servant Leadership and a Culture of Stewardship. Priest, 67(2), 17-21

Froiland P, Gordon J, Picard M. In search of accountability. Training. 1993. pp. 30 – 59

Greenleaf, R.K. (1996). Seeker and Servant. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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Luthans F., Avolio B. Authentic leadership development. In: Cameron KS, Dutton JE, editors. Positive organizational scholarship. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler; 2003. pp. 241–254

Valeri D.F. The Origins of Servant Leadership. Retrieved from

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