The most powerful leader is a servant leader

Chapter And Authors Information
The most powerful leader is a servant leader
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Professor John Metselaar


Even in our post-modern 21st century, the phrase “servant leadership” sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction in the terms. We’re conditioned in cultures that divide the world between masters and slaves, masters being there to tell slaves what to do, and slaves just having to execute – to serve the masters. Indeed, if the terms have changed, from masters to managers and from slaves to employees, team members, followers or just “people”, we can’t refrain from thinking that leaders are not here to serve, but to be served. However, this oxymoron might represent the key for developing successful firms not in the future, but right now. What the most rigorous academic research discovers study after study for the past 30 years is that servant leadership is associated with organizational performance in all dimensions, from innovation to sales growth, and from people well-being to, ultimately, profit growth – all that above and beyond all other forms of leadership. We may want to embrace those findings sooner rather than later. As a participant in an executive course told me recently, “with people older than 30, conventional leadership may work, but with millennials, servant leadership is not just an option, it’s the only way to go”. Accordingly, this chapter aims to offer a primer on servant leadership, starting from its origins, debunking a few myths, and detailing what it is really about and how it works. This chapter builds not only on decades of academic literature, including some research of my own, but also on a managerial experience in a variety of contexts.

Where Servant Leadership Comes From

The term “servant leadership” was coined not by a scholar, but an executive. Robert Greenleaf was a senior manager at AT&T, the US telephone behemoth, in the early 1970s, when he published a very small book titled The Servant as Leader. In fact, it is barely a book, more a pamphlet. In just 37 pages, Greenleaf offered a few tenets of his thinking, based not on thorough philosophical research but on his own experience. Essentially, he suggested managers had the primary role of helping their people grow to reach their fullest potential. Everything would follow from that. Servant leaders, he added, should help their people become servant leaders themselves. That was it. In a way, it echoed a paper made much more famous in the decade earlier, McGregor’s Human Side of the Enterprise. McGregor, himself a company man-turned-researcher, had proposed that most management principles started from the assumption that people are lazy, work just for money and hence managers had to keep them on a tight leash, a worldview he termed “Theory X”. The best illustration was Taylor’s “scientific management”, particularly as illustrated by Chaplin’s Modern Times. McGregor insisted another option was available. His “Theory Y” started from the idea that most people are decent and want to develop at a personal level. It advocated managers accompany them down that road. Servant leadership as proposed by Greenleaf was a way to implement Theory Y. For years, servant leadership remained just that, a counter-intuitive or even iconoclast idea that just a few learned managers heard about, and perhaps tried to implement with very little guidance either from Greenleaf or others.

It started to change at the turn of the century as leadership scholars started to manifest some interest in American universities and particularly their business schools. First efforts consisted of providing tentative, then more robust definitions for servant leadership. This occurred while well-meaning, values- or moral-based leadership theories were popping everywhere in reaction to a string of greed-infused corporate scandals. Servant leadership happened to remain the main alternative theory to visionary leadership – the latest avatar of the charismatic figure of the hero leader. Then, scholars delved into the philosophical roots of servant leadership and refined definitions. Last but far from least, management research made servant leadership measurable. By determining precise dimensions and devising robust questionnaires, researchers became able to identify who was more or less of a servant leader as judged by their people, peers, and/or their own managers. Even more important for practical purposes, research started to discover the impact of servant leadership on organizational performance. But before delving into what servant leadership may achieve, let’s briefly dissipate some potential confusions.

What Servant Leadership Is Not

As just noted, research on servant leadership developed at the same time as several other “new” leadership theories, most of which incorporated some moral components. Specifically, it emerged as visionary leadership was becoming the mainstream leadership theory. Visionary leadership derives from charismatic and neo-charismatic representations and posits the leader as exhibiting several characteristics: the ability to inspire people through a vision of the future; to stimulate them intellectually; to consider them individually when needed; and to behave in a way that people can idealize. In other words, it’s all about the leader as a super-person, preferably male and unlike the rest of us, the leader who aims at super-ordinate goals. Tellingly, it is only as an afterthought that visionary leadership theorists added a moral component. That is, visionary leaders are supposed to do no harm. The same focus on the leader also imbues a rival conceptualization, authentic leadership. Building on strong references in philosophy – particularly that of Aristotle – and psychology, its proponents view the “authentic” leader as person profoundly connected with his or her deeper self, which manifests in visible self-awareness, an internalized “moral compass”, the ability to communicate transparently and a balanced approach to decision making, again towards the organization’s goals. Other theories, from spiritual to ethical to empowering leadership, share the same basic tenet: leaders impersonate the organization. By contrast, and as will be detailed soon, with servant leadership the focus is not on the leader. Neither is it on the organization. What matters first to servant leaders is the people under the leader’s responsibility.

Another false idea on servant leadership is that it is related to the Christian religion. It was certainly part of Greenleaf’s culture – the Servant as Leader was published by a Paulist institution. Yet, scholars soon discovered that the very notion of the leader being here to help people resonates in practically every culture and tradition in the world, from Christianity to Islam to Confucianism.

But the two most enduring myths about servant leadership are as follows. First, servant leaders are sometimes depicted as “just nice” leaders: benevolent, lenient, living in a Teletubbies-like world. Second, and not unrelated, servant leadership is sometimes said to work only in good times. Adversity, the thinking goes, calls for strong, vocal, perhaps even ruthless leaders. Both objections are raised by proponents of the hero-like (again, preferably male) figure of the leader. And both have been debunked in rigorous academic studies. The focus on the people doesn’t imply people are the masters of servant leaders. Servant leaders are as able to make tough calls including, say, firing people, particularly those who finally do not fit with the team and, most importantly, who refuse to be helped. Servant leaders don’t lavish people with company resources. They can and do say “no”. As to the impact of servant leadership on performance, it has been demonstrated in a variety of contexts, in industries and companies experiencing booms as well as busts, and it remains consistently positive. It is probably no coincidence that low-key, servant-like country leaders have been praised for their handling of the Covid pandemic, an example being Jacinda Ardern, Prime minister of New Zealand. Knowing what servant leadership is not, it’s time to examine in more detail what it really is.

What Servant Leadership Is

The core element of servant leadership concerns the leader’s top priority. While all other leadership theories that put the goals of the organization on top, servant leadership’s hierarchy of interests is the people, the teams, the followers first. The organization comes only second and then, the leader’s own interests (thus placing servant leadership at the exact opposite of Machiavellianism). This specificity deserves a little more explanation. Putting people first, again, doesn’t mean accepting all requests from the teams. It supposes that servant leaders believe in people’s desire to individually make progress for themselves in cooperation and collaboration with others. Putting people first means making decisions and behaving for the good of the people and helping them learn. The equation of servant leadership might be summarized as leader ➔ people ➔ organization, instead of the traditional representation implying that leaders should promote collective performance first, with the assumption that collective performance will make people happy.

Starting from the priority for people, academic research has come up with several descriptions of servant leadership. For example, Dirk van Dierendonck and Inge Nuijten at the Rotterdam School of Management identified typical elements of character demonstrated by servant leaders. They are essentially humble and forgiving. They have courage. They feel responsible, accountable, for whatever they and their team accomplish (or fail to) individually and as a whole. Servant leadership is also denoted when people feel they are in presence of someone authentic, in accord with deep personal values and not “fake”. Servant leaders don’t cling to power: they provide autonomy and trust to their teams. Last, they are perceived as stewards of the organization, not the owners or the rainmakers.

Another team of colleagues, led by Robert Liden at University of Illinois at Chicago, took a different approach. Rather than the character that people can attribute to servant leaders, their research revolved more about the very behaviors that people can observe in the workplace. They came up with a list of seven dimensions that, together, represent servant leadership.

  • Servant leaders put people first. It might sound like a repetition, but to match the definition, leaders must demonstrate it with their teams, day in and day out.
  • Servant leaders help subordinates “grow and succeed”. Leaders pay attention to their people’s careers, aspirations, and needs.
  • Servant leaders attend to the emotional states of their people. They are here for their teams in bad times, they help people “heal” when facing setbacks, be it on the professional or personal sides of their lives. They also share their joy and celebrate accomplishments.
  • Servant leaders provide teams with ample room for autonomy and learning. Here we find the dimension of empowerment. It’s remarkable that, for all the hype that this empowerment triggered a few years ago (wasn’t it supposed to solve all issues?), in servant leadership it is just one dimension, one kind of behavior that shouldn’t be taken in isolation but related to a more complex understanding of the role of a leader.
  • Servant leaders are ethical leaders. In fact, it’s perhaps not that much that they know upfront what is good and what is bad from a moral standpoint; rather, servant leaders demonstrate a process of ethical behavior. Confronted to difficult decisions with ethical dimensions, they recognize the dilemmas, they investigate, they ask questions, they share their interrogations and doubts with their teams before coming to a “good” decision.
  • Servant leaders building on strong, personal, conceptual capabilities that they nurture and develop by constantly learning from the situations and the people they encounter and interact with.
  • Servant leaders see the big picture in the form of the communities in which the organization is embedded. Servant leaders make a point of serving those communities. In a business, it goes beyond the clients. Companies are more and more concerned with sustainability, with fighting global warming and social inequalities. Servant leaders are here to help organization make a difference in the world.

Does all that sound like a tall order? Well, maybe. On the one hand, it certainly seems more complicated than loudly and repeatedly expressing a bold vision for the future and prodding followers in that direction, happen what may. On the other hand, doesn’t it look like the just description of a decent person? Servant leaders are, in effect, people who put their talents at the service of the others. This is probably why it is so difficult to name exemplary servant leaders, bar very public figures like the Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Servant leaders are all around us, but they show off much less than so-called visionary, charismatic, or heroic leaders. Remarkably, the dimensions of servant leadership seem to describe very accurately some female leaders.

What Servant Leadership “Does”

Study after study, academic research reveals how much servant leadership is associated with benefits for people and organizations. At the individual level, people who happen to work with servant leaders demonstrate higher engagement, higher well-being, higher creativity and innovation, and higher performance in their tasks. The last part is demonstrated regardless of the nature of the task, from technical and administrative duties to customer service to sales; and regardless of how performance is assessed, including by objective measures when possible. At the collective level, research has shown that teams with leaders rated as higher on servant leadership do consistently better than equivalent teams with lower rated leaders. In several projects we’ve seen teams develop more innovative and more successful products with servant leaders, with outcomes sometimes measured in billion euros.

Let’s cite just two landmark academic studies in that respect. In 2014, a paper published by Robert Liden and associates in a top academic journal reported the results of a study in a chain of pizzerias in the US. Servant leaders-led restaurants rated better on all measures you can think of – cleanliness of the premises assessed by external audits, customer service evaluated by “mystery diners”, overall quality of the relationships with staff, and so on. The second study, that I and colleagues published in 2021, answered a final and key question: do servant leaders make more profit? Although we already had a few hints, particularly as servant leadership had been shown to impact return on investment in start-ups, the issue still loomed large. Detractors of the theory argued that servant leaders are just “nice people” who willingly give away money to their teams. In sales-oriented business-units, this would perhaps lead to higher revenues, but lower profits. Our study proved them wrong. Conducted in 55 stores in France, it showed that the higher the rating of managers on servant leadership, the faster the store grew its profit, all other things equal. Consistently with servant leadership being in accord with major philosophies and cultures, its positive impact has been demonstrated in countries all over the world.

Of course, one could finally argue that servant leadership is just one of the leadership forms that leads to performance. It’s true that visionary, authentic, empowering, and ethical forms of leadership, to name just a few, also have a desirable impact. When tested concurrently, some resemblances appear between all of them. A last paper brought the point home. It is what scholars call a “meta-analysis” that is, a study that embraces all prior studies on a given question and re-analyses them comparatively. Published in 2018, its conclusions are crystal-clear. Servant leadership consistently explains performance “above and beyond” all other forms of leadership. True, the difference in raw numbers is incremental. Does the additional performance make the conversion to servant leadership worth the effort? The short answer is yes. The longer answer requires to have a deeper look at how servant leadership “works” that is, the mechanisms through with managers who practice it attain higher performance.

How Servant Leadership Works

We’ve all been taught that the shortest path from point A to point B is a straight line. This is how “classic” leadership, or all the leadership forms apart from servant leadership work: the leader puts the focus on the collective, in the form of a project, a vision, and this is how people get motivated. As noted earlier, different theories add specific twists: the leader will appear as authentic, and/or will empower teams – that’s essentially variations around the same theme. Classically, leadership motivates people by making organizational progress desirable.

With its focus on people, servant leadership works differently. Fundamentally, it rejects the straight line and opts for an indirect path. The gist of it is as follows: servant leaders help people, and people will help the business. Several studies have demonstrated and exposed the nuts and bolts of this equation. The one that made the link from servant leadership to business-unit profit show that people in teams managed by more servant leaders perceive that they are personally flourishing more than people in teams managed by “classic” leaders. What does that mean? Developed by Prof. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology (the “science of happiness”), flourishing represents the most comprehensive understanding of well-being. Flourishing people naturally have positive emotions – joy and contentment, rather than anger and sadness. They also enjoy positive relationships with others, in the sense that they have more frequent interactions with more people infused with mutual trust. Flourishing people dive into and immerse themselves in their job because they enjoy it: this state of mind also called “flow” has been shown to concern not only elite athletes and musicians, but also people in all walks of life and at all levels of qualification. Flourishing, additionally, adds meaning to life in the workplace: people enjoy their jobs because they feel elevated, they personally feel it’s part of the life journey they want to have, and they see themselves making progress along that journey.

When people feel they are flourishing and growing, they work better. They serve consumers with more willingness and a more open smile. They go the extra mile. They trust each other to contribute to developing the next big thing instead of bickering about who to credit for success or blame for failure. They share, they listen to each other. Transparency becomes not just wishful thinking, but a reality. Studies have also shown that the quality of interpersonal relationships is better in teams with servant leaders – indeed, relationships between peers are almost as important a factor as the relationships with the leader. Again, that doesn’t prevent frank discussions and strong arguing at times, but servant leadership helps develop a culture of community for the good of all in the organization. Now this eventually raises the question: why on earth isn’t servant leadership more dominant – or at least more widespread – in our organizations?

The Limits of Servant Leadership

First, it’s worth reminding that the issue is not about servant vs. non-servant leaders. We would rather analyze servant leadership as a continuum, with some people higher and others lower, and most constantly evolving – hopefully in the direction of becoming higher on the servant leadership scale. Second, while again servant leadership “works” in most contexts, some people in the workplace are more receptive than others. More precisely, it happens that certain individuals nurture an ideal type of leader as someone fundamentally different from the rest of the workers. To those individuals, servant leadership induces “cognitive dissonance” – they don’t understand how and why a manager would be ready to help, they fear manipulation, and they refuse to embark. In such cases, leaders may want to take the time and to educate the individuals toward flourishing. It may or may not succeed. Workers resistant to servant leadership may eventually be let go.

The last, and unfortunately strongest barrier to a more generalized adoption is that resistance to servant leadership is rather common in a specific category of people – senior managers and executives. The humility associated with putting people first does not sit well with all the over-hyped image of CEOs as geniuses, visionaries, and heroes. This image remains strong in the upper layers of the hierarchy in many organizations, particularly as senior managers often belong to older generations taught in the cult of leaders as white males with a strong ego. It is pervasive in finance, from analysts to hedge funds managers. There are reasons to believe, however, that resistance will fade away in the years to come. A major factor should be the coming of age of younger and, more importantly, more diverse senior leaders. Specifically, regulations and usages forcing large companies to include more women in boards of directors and senior management should help. Eventually, servant leadership will cease to sound like an oxymoron.

About the Author

Vincent Giolito is associate professor of strategy at emlyon business school, one of France’s top business schools. A former business editor at French newspaper Le Figaro, he earned an MBA from Insead and a Ph.D from Solvay Brussels School of Economics & Management. He authored several articles and books on his focal topic, the intersection of strategy and leadership – with a specific attention to innovation and digital in strategy, and on servant and authentic leadership. Vincent remains deeply involved with hands-on research, notably in large FMCG companies, on how to develop innovation and performance.


Giolito, V. J., Liden, R. C., van Dierendonck, D., & Cheung, G. W. 2021. Servant leadership influencing store-level profit: The mediating effect of employee flourishing. Journal of Business Ethics, (172): 503–524.

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van Dierendonck, D., & Nuijten, I. 2011. The servant leadership survey: Development and validation of a multidimensional measure. Journal of Business and Psychology, 26(3): 249–267.

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