An Introduction to Servant Leadership

The concept of “servant leadership” pivots on the philosophy that when leaders serve, both leaders and followers collectively enrich their lives, builds better organizations, and, ultimately, creates a better place for humanity. It also centers on the idea that people are naturally kind, positive, humble, open-minded, and have a high degree of self-control. While it may sound utopian, servant leadership is based on science.

This article discusses what servant leadership is, the misconceptions surrounding this leadership philosophy, and some suggestions on training approaches and applications.
Neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns who taught at Emory University experimented with participants who were asked to help someone while their brain activity was recorded. It showed that whenever they performed acts of kindness, the parts of the brain that lit up were the areas affected when receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure. It proved that we, human beings, get satisfaction from helping and serving others.
In an article for Psychology Today, Emma M. Seppala, PhD, cited Scientist Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute, whose research concluded that human beings are born with compassion trait as a part of evolution. Humans must be compassionate to one another to survive as a species. Thus, it’s not only about survival of the fittest but also the survival of the kindest. This being said, servant leadership is following humans’ natural instinct—not against it.
The term “servant leadership” itself was coined in The Servant as Leader by Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the Greenleaf Institute for Servant Leadership. And it has been sparking criticisms, one of which is the term itself. Critics argued that “servant” and “leader” are two opposing concepts and that combining them is a contradictio in terminis—an oxymoron.
“Servant leadership” is simply impossible, critics claim. They offer the term “serving leader,” which means a leader who is performing an act of serving or someone who leads by serving. Greenleaf counters this argument by saying that “servant leadership” is different from “serving leadership” and that the former isn’t an oxymoron.
He argues that in “serving leadership,” the leader has the need to control with power. However, in “servant leadership,” there is no need or desire to control with power at all. Being a “servant” isn’t the tool to reach goals. It’s a state of mind instead.
There are at least five misconceptions about servant leadership:

  1. It only applies to certain types of organizations, like nonprofits, churches, and education institutions.
  2. It’s uncommon and unpopular. Thus, it takes a long time to be adopted in organizations.
  3. It’s against the nature of leadership, which must include power and control.
  4. Not many individuals have such a level of compassion and other benevolent traits. Thus, such leaders are hard to find.
  5. It must be fostered in an organization with an existing culture that’s already in alignment with servant leadership.

It’s natural to serve and be kind to others, so reminding both leaders and followers about our compassionate nature would be a good first step. Include inspiring stories and mindfulness practice in the mix of servant leadership training. Awaken those benevolent traits by starting it with yourself as the “servant trainer.”