Who developed the theory of servant leadership?

Greenleaf first coined the phrase servant leadership in his 1970 essay, The Servant as a Leader. Yet it's an approach people have used for centuries. The end result? Performance soars, says Art Barter, founder and CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute and CEO of Datron World Communications, Inc. The theory of servant leadership is believed to have been coined by Robert Greenleaf, a 20th century researcher.

Greenleaf believed that the leader should put the emphasis on his team members to be autonomous and free-thinking. Servant leadership is a mindset that reflects a service-first mentality rather than a leader-first mentality. Greenleaf considered that a leader-first mentality was often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. Barter, who now heads the California-based Servant Leadership Institute, came to the concept by a circuitous route working for companies that did not follow his practices.

They care deeply about the well-being of their team members, focus on developing relationships and actively support others to improve. While traditional leadership often involves the accumulation and exercise of power by those at the 'top of the pyramid', servant leadership is different. In modern leadership circles, the concept gained much popularity with Robert Greenleaf's 1971 essay, The Servant as Leader. In a less structured environment, such as a research environment where teams innovate together, servant leadership is more appropriate.

A leader who behaves unethically is likely to diminish the motivation of followers, which can hinder the growth and development of the company. Greenleaf originally conceived the idea to benefit the organisation, so that everyone could come together on common ground, from entry-level employees to middle management and all the way up to senior management. Servant leadership practices seem to have an effect on the life of the employee, outside of the organisations they are affiliated with. Management is a key component because it focuses on the trust that has developed as the lifeblood of the organisation.

Servant leaders are a revolutionary group that takes the traditional power leadership model and turns it completely upside down. Whatever the type of interaction with staff, servant leaders are consistent in showing encouragement and humility with an egalitarian attitude. Researchers argue that servant leaders have a particular view of themselves as stewards who are entrusted with developing and empowering followers to reach their full potential. In 2004, when Barter became CEO of Datron, a supplier of tactical communications equipment, he was determined to run the company as a servant leader.

The authors proposed three key elements that capture the essence of servant leadership and differentiate it from other leadership styles: motive (the underlying personal motivation to take on a leadership responsibility, which requires a strong sense of self, character and psychological maturity), mode (that they lead by prioritising the needs of subordinates over the organisation's bottom line) and mindset (that servant leaders are managers who redirect the focus of their followers to others). A servant leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of individuals and the communities to which they belong.

Jason Klingler
Jason Klingler

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