The author of the term is Robert Greenleaf. He described it in his paper ‘The Servant as Leader’ (1970): “The servant leader is a servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve and serve first. Then a conscious choice brings the aspiration to lead …”
Most authors in favor of servant leadership today explain the term as one of the best approaches to leading. They describe it as a method that consists of some activities and qualities a leader should possess or do: he/she values everyone’s contributions; listens; cultivates a culture of trust; understands and empathizes with others; helps people with a life and not only work issues; encourages; thinks and behaves as ‘you’ and not ‘me’; relies on persuasion (seeks to convince others), rather than authority; builds community; focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people / employees and the communities to which they belong.
When I first encountered the term I was really puzzled about it. I’ve ‘asked’ Internet dictionaries to help me with the definition of a term ‘to serve’:
- Dictionary.com: to act as a servant; to render assistance; be of use; help; to render active service to (a sovereign, commander, etc.).
- Merriam-Webster: to give (food or drink) to someone at a meal, in a restaurant, etc.; to be favorable, opportune, or convenient; to give the service and respect due to (a superior).
- The Free Dictionary: to provide goods and services for (customers); to give homage and obedience to; to be of assistance to or promote the interests of; aid.
To serve obviously means to be subjected to someone. And how could a leader (the first among the people) be positioned inferiority? To lead means to guide, to direct, or to take the initiative in an action for others to follow. Serving means to subdue. The subdued person cannot be, at the same time, able to take responsibility for the taken decisions that are obligatory for others to follow or execute. Leading can be done with power or subtly as Lao Zi long ago wrote: “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!’ Described ‘soft’ way that most respectable leaders use, is the one that has nothing to do with serving. It has to do with emotions and empathy which definitively does not describe the way of serving someone.