Servant Leadership

This summer will be a busy one.  The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center took me on as an archival intern, and I’m enrolled in an online management course for information professionals, both of which just began this week.

Our first formal assignment for the management course was to choose and explain a theory or philosophy (see full list of choices at bottom).  I selected Servant Leadership, which proved both fascinating and useful.


Servant Leadership is both a philosophy and a tool kit or practice that operates under the assumption that a group empowered by a leader that serves it is more likely to succeed on both personal and group levels in the long term.

As a philosophy:

While visible in religious teachings reaching back centuries and spanning the globe, Robert K. Greenleaf grounded the concept (and coined the phrase) of Servant Leadership in a management context in the 1970s.[1]  In his chapter entitled “Servant Leadership,” he argues that leadership is secondary—any instinct to lead must first come from a place of service, a desire to help others.  Those with the ability to serve “hold the key to [their] greatness,” as well as the greatness of those they feel compelled to serve.[2]

Servant leadership stands in opposition to authoritarianism in that it’s meant to foster confidence and success in those served.  The servant-leader can empathize with obstacles their community members face while looking ahead to obstacles that might crop up, serving others by helping them navigate around hindrances.

The way Dr. Kent M. Keith phrases it really drives home the philosophy’s relevance to library science specifically:

“[Being a servant] is not about being servile, it is about wanting to help others. It is about identifying and meeting the needs of colleagues, customers, and communities.”[3]

Any librarian looking to serve her community must identify and empower others to meet their needs.

As a toolkit:

The Mind Tools Editorial Team put together a solid list of the behaviors needed to cultivate an environment in which servant leadership is made possible:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of people
  10. Building Community[4]

(For a more in depth explanation of each of these qualities, see the Mind Tools website, found in footnote 4).

When all of these behaviors come together in a servant-leader, that person has the power to “leave a huge legacy to those around them.”[5]  From this, you end up with happier workers who are working both for personal growth and gain, as well as for the growth and gain of the larger community.[6]

The disadvantages:

  • This approach definitely requires a solid amount of time to foster a trusting, supportive, empathetic environment[7]
  • It shouldn’t be used alone—it needs to be paired with other leadership approaches (which actually could be an advantage, if you think about it)[8]
  • No one has mentioned this in what I read, but I foresee this sort of approach not necessarily working with individuals determined to put in the least amount of effort

 For a more in depth look at what it means to perform servant leadership, see the University of Kentucky’s Community Toolbox chapter on the topic: Community Tool Box. (2015). Servant Leadership: Accepting and Maintaining the Call of Service. In Leadership and Management (Section 2). University of Kansas. Retrieved from http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/leadership/leadership-ideas/servant-leadership/main


[1] What is Servant Leadership? (2016). Retrieved May 14, 2016, from https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/.

[2] Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership (p. 19-20). Retrieved from http://www.american.edu/spa/leadership/application/upload/Greenleaf,%20Servant%20Leadership.pdf.

[3] Keith, K. M. (2016). Definition of Servant Leadership. Retrieved May 14, 2016, from http://toservefirst.com/definition-of-servant-leadership.html.

[4] Mind Tool Editorial Team. (2016). Servant Leadership: Putting Your Team First, and Yourself Second. Retrieved May 14, 2016, fromhttp://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/servant-leadership.htm.

[5] Heskett, J. (2013, May 1). Why Isn’t “Servant Leadership” More Prevalent? Retrieved May 14, 2016, fromhttp://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/why-isnt-servant-leadership-more-prevalent.

[6] Keith, K. M. (2016). Definition of Servant Leadership. Retrieved May 14, 2016, from http://toservefirst.com/definition-of-servant-leadership.html.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mind Tool Editorial Team. (2016). Servant Leadership: Putting Your Team First, and Yourself Second. Retrieved May 14, 2016, fromhttp://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/servant-leadership.htm.


The list of theories, principles and philosophies from which we could choose:

  1. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
  2. Chaos Theory (Complexity Theory)
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Golden Rule
  5. Herzberg’s Theory of Motivation
  6. Learning Organizations
  7. Management by Objectives
  8. McGregor’s Theory of X and Y
  9. Myers-Briggs
  10. Porter’s Five Forces
  11. Scientific Management and Henry Gantt
  12. Servant Leadership
  13. Situational Leadership
  14. Six Sigma
  15. Strategic Management
  16. Systems Theory
  17. Total Quality Management

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *