Servant leadership. According to John Ballard, Ph.D. servant leadership was the second most searched leadership style on Google behind transformational leadership. Furthermore The Leadership Quarterly reports that empirical studies of leadership styles only focused n servant leadership 1% of the time. What this means is that people are interested in servant leadership, possibly in even being a servant leader but they know very little about what that means. (

There is a danger to being drawn to a concept because it sounds good without understanding what that concept is or what it requires. There are many today who espouse the benefits of servant leadership without understanding what the cost to the leader to implement such a style is.

The Focuses Of Servant Leaders: A Caution

Individuals work in organizations and as a result servant-leaders are both followers as well as leaders. The servant-leader serves the organization he or she works in as well as the group they lead. Many people forget about this dual focus of the servant leader and only focus on the leadership of the group. If the servant leader does not serve their organization well, they will quickly find that they are no longer in a position to be servant leader. In all cases the principles of servant-leadership must be uniformly applied.

What is Servant Leadership?

According to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, “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 difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.

Where Does Servant Leadership Come From?

Servant leadership does not start with a series of leadership behaviors or practices that can be copied. This approach produces a facade of behaviors that staff quickly realizes are not genuine.

Servant leadership begins from core beliefs. It is an attitude or philosophy that drives the natural and genuine behaviors of a leader. Without this core, attempting to be a servant leader only leads to disappointment and deteriorating trust.

Servant leadership comes from two fundamental, and seemingly contradictory, attitudes. They are selflessness and strength. The combination of these two attitudes forms a third dimension that becomes the heart of servant-leadership.

The First Fundamental Building Block: Selflessness

Selflessness is defined as “having no concern for self; showing great concern for and willingness to give unselfishly to others.”
Selflessness is putting others first and self last. Needless to say we live in a culture that does not reward selflessness. A psychology of entitlement mentality permeates our society’s thinking so that the majority of people approach a situation to see how they can protect their interests or get more than their share. Situational ethics, the philosophy that indoctrinates students for twelve years of their lives, teaches them to apply values to accomplish their personal goals in the given moment. Genuine selflessness as a result is often looked down upon and even mocked

The Second Fundamental Building Block: Strength

But selflessness by itself is not sufficient to be servant leader. Strength is required. Servant-leadership does not arise out of weakness. Strength is defined as a legal, logical, or moral force; a strong attribute or inherent asset; a degree of potency of effect or of concentration.

The servant-leader obtains strength from their character and from the position they hold. By virtue of these two items, the leader could demand the rights that belong to them; they could demand others obey and follow them. Instead the servant leader willingly steps aside from what they rightfully could claim.

In essence strength is the power to take action. The reason this is critical for a servant leader is that there must be the willingness, the strength, to step down from one’s position and to “serve others.” A person who is weak in character will not do this.


The Servant Leadership Quality Produced: Sacrifice

When strength and selflessness interact together they form a third attribute that is seen in the actions of servant-leader. That attribute is sacrifice. Sacrifice is basically death to one’s own desires to serve others. When the servant –leader selflessly steps away from their own desires to serve others, it becomes an act of sacrifice.

The greatest example of servant leadership is Jesus Christ of whom it is written, “who, being in the form of God (strength), did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation (sacrifice), taking the form of a bondservant (selflessness) and being found in the form of a man, he humbled himself (selflessness), and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (sacrifice)” Philippians 2:6-8.

Note the equation that is presented:


The attribute that allows the servant leader to sacrifice willingly is humility. Humility is not a sense of self-deprecation. It is not a belief that one is not worthy of the position of leadership or that the leader has no power or authority. It is the belief that others’ needs are more important than the leaders’.

A great example of this equation is Abraham Lincoln. Operating out of the power of the presidency, Lincoln selflessly and with humility took the actions to bring together a team of rivals to help achieve the mission. Personal power and reputation were not important. The mission was to unify a nation but to do so by implementing Lincoln’s beliefs in respecting the dignity of all mankind. (The values he was not willing to compromise or sacrifice). Ultimately, Lincoln sacrificed his health, his popularity (in the moment) and eventually his life to achieve the mission that was set before him


Sacrifice becomes the hallmark of the servant leader. There are many other things that this leader could do with their time and authority that would be much more satisfying and enjoyable. But the servant-leader sacrifices for others.

What Is The Servant-Leader Unwilling To Sacrifice?
It is important to notice first what the servant-leader is not willing to compromise or sacrifice. As the servant-leader serves others there will be, from time to time, heavy pressure to compromise or give in on areas that are core to the leader. The leader may teach or explain these areas to those who do not understand but the leader is not winning to compromise them. If the leader were to do so would mean the leader would lose the very reason for assuming the role of the servant-leader in the first place. All areas the servant-leader is unwilling to sacrifice are primarily related to mission and values.

A servant-leader is driven by values. The only thing more important to the leader than the people he or she serves is the values he or she stands for. When conflict arises between the values the leader stands for and the people they serve, the servant-leader always chooses to be true to values. But if the leader does not know what their values are or what they stand for, or if their values are compromised for expediency popularity, or compromise, then servant-leadership cannot exist.

If servant-leadership is attempted without a sense of values, the leader will serve the group’s whims and desires. In essence the leader becomes obedient to the group and its pleasures. This is what many of our young leaders are being taught today as the group becomes more important than value or principle.

A servant-leader assumes a leadership position because there is a mission that is worth accomplishing. There is an end-goal that the servant-leader is moving toward, a direction that dominates their sights. The servant-leader is unwilling to compromise the mission or direction in order to gain followers of popularity. Again this becomes a challenge in today’s “politically correct’ works, where only a group consensus of the mission and values is tolerated. Standing alone for what one believes in is fast becoming a missing skill.

A servant-leader guards integrity. This means earning the trust of the group by being honest with them in all transactions. Note, this does not mean the servant-leader has to tell everything they know. There is a fallacy today that transparency means leaders must share everything they know or they are not being honest. Not true. The servant-leader will never lie to or knowingly mislead an individual or group but the servant leader does not, and cannot, always share all information to which they are party.

Servant-leaders know they are no better than the quality of the team they develop. As a result they protect their team. This may be protection from unjust criticism; it might be correcting the team when it is off course; or it might be defending the team when they are asked to perform outside their capabilities. It might be removing a member who is destructive to the team’s morale and performance. The leader is not leading when they allow the group to ignore issues they must address in order to improve. In essence, the servant-leader defends his or her “flock” by confronting the issues that challenge them.

Progress and Results
A servant leader is not lethargic when it comes to making progress. The servant leader is not leading when he or she allows the group to function slower than is required. The leader assesses the progress the group is making and intervenes with the group to make corrections to ensure the team is on track. In this way the leader protects both the group and the organization from failure.

What Sacrifices Does The Servant Leader Make?
The servant leader primarily sacrifices to ensure the growth of the organization and the growth of followers to achieve the stated mission. The cost of growth in others is high as is the accomplishment of reaching performance goals but it is a cost the servant-leader is willing to make.

The servant-leader sacrifices personal priorities
Servant-leaders allow others’ needs to take priority over their own.
• The servant-leader sacrifices personal time
Servant-leader allows others access to their time. Rather than work on personal work, the servant leaders use their time to help others as needed.
The servant-leader sacrifices personal preference
Servant-leaders might prefer to go in a certain direction or take a certain course of action but they allow others latitude to take different paths (consistent with the mission and values). If others’ ideas and suggestions make sense, the servant-leader is willing to listen and accept other alternatives.
The servant-leader sacrifices personal knowledge
Servant-leader shares information and knowledge so that others gain capability to perform on their own and live out the stated mission and values. Servant-leaders often see others bypass them in the level of technical or professional skills. The servant-leader does not compete with his or her own staff to see who is the best technician. Much like a parent, the servant-leader takes pride in the accomplishment and growth of staff.
The servant-leader sacrifices personal praise
Servant-leaders step aside from the limelight so that the group receives the praise and recognition for the work performed or goals accomplished. Often groups will wonder why they needed a leader at all. However, they make the mistake of not seeing everything the leader did to prepare them for success.
The servant-leader sacrifices personal ease
Sometimes it would be easier for the servant-leader to simply do the job his or her self. The servant-leader knows that growth of others requires allowing them to perform, as inefficient as that may be. The servant-leader knows that part of growth is to try things that are out of the box and this means some of those ideas will not work and may even cause more work.
The servant-leader sacrifices personal popularity
Servant-leaders realize that popularity is not their goal and that in doing the right thing, they may not gain the praise of the group. Others in the group may actually begin to receive greater popularity than the leader as they are noticed and recognized for their performance that the servant leader helped develop.
The servant-leader sacrifices perfection
Servant-leaders are willing to accept mistakes and shortcomings along the way as people learn, grow and build capability.

There Is A High Cost To Servant-Leadership
Servant-leadership is a high calling but it is also a lonely path. It is a path that can cause leaders discomfort. It is not a style that should be adopted to impress others. It emanates from a personal attitude of building a high achieving team and this requires the leader’s personal sacrifice in order that others may succeed in a mission that is worth accomplishing.

There is a cost to being a servant-leader. That cost is death to self-interests. Most people are unwilling to pay that price but without it, servant-leadership will never be genuine or successful.

So you want to be servant-leader? Count the cost!

Copyright 9 By 9 Solutions 2016 All Rights Reserved


  1. Yusuf Tokdemir

    Dear Doug,

    When I read your article I thought about the current leaders in the companies. A majority believes that they know everything and they are the best. When we look at Fortune 500 after 1955, 88% of them are not in the list. They failed due to the changing technology, services and human needs. Their leaders were famous and they believed that they are very intelligent and great leaders. The result shows that we are living in a changing business world and we have to search, learn, develop and improve to create more and more transient competitive advantages. 

    I have to say that servant leadership can achieve successful communication, cooperation, commitment, engagement, morale and motivation. You are right. But people may not understand the value of this type leadership. 

    When I look at great leaders they are open and share their experience, knowledge and skills. 

    I believe that such leadership is not easy and majority of the leaders are far away from this quality. The main reason is their EQ, intelligence, learning, understanding, improving and adaptability capabilities.

    This post has great and excellent insights and gives a lot of lessons.

    Thank you very much.

    Kind regards,

    Yusuf Tokdemir

  2. Dave Anderson

    This is truly a well done analysis of Servant Leadership.  The willingness to sacrifice ones own wants, desires and even conveniences seperate the servants from the pack.  Strength and Humility in one person.  That is someone we all would want to follow.

    Dave Anderson
    Author – Becoming a Leader of Character

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