What is Servant Leadership?


Modern Conference Room with Glass Windows - Diverse Business Participants - Man with Beard Sanding Points to Screen That Displays Traditional Leadership verses SERVANT-Leadership. Traditional is a top-down hierarchy of a triangle with CEO on top and individual contributors on the bottom. The servant leadership is the same triangle but upside down, with the CEO on the bottom and the individual contributors on the top.

What is Servant Leadership?

How Do We Define Servant Leadership?

Servant-leadership is the manner of leading others by placing the needs of all your stakeholders before your own wants. It is also the only authentic form of leadership.


After all, if you’re not serving others, you are self-serving and that is not leadership.

The Many Models of Servant Leadership

Since the 1970s many different models of servant leadership have emerged. Each use it’s own terminology and area of focus. However, most share a great deal of similarity. Here are some of the most popular models of servant leadership…

Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership Logo is a large leaf with a quote from Robert Greenleaf on it.

Greenleaf / Spears Model

Robert Greenleaf is credited with coining the term servant-leadership in the 1970s. Since then, the Greenleaf Center for servant-leadership continues to teach servant-leadership as he defined it. Larry Spears (see Spears center, below), President of the center for 17 years, extrapolated “10 Characteristics” of servant leadership. Although Greenleaf was a Quaker, this model is largely secular and academic in nature, as it is now a department within Seton Hall University.

A square image containing the Christian Cross, Jewish Star of David and the Nation of Islam Moon and Star

Faith-Based Models

Every major religion has a perspective on what servant-leadership means for them. Whether it is an official definition or not, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists especially, can find resources explaining how servant-leadership aligns to their spiritual beliefs.

The Spears Center for Servant Leadership Icon - an upside down triangle with a metallic sheen

Spears Center Model

Larry Spears was the CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership for nearly 20 years and now runs the Spears Center. He distilled the 10 Characteristics of servant-leadership from Robert Greenleaf’s books. As a result, much of the work attributed to the Greenleaf Center originates with Larry. I consider him a good friend and mentor.

A compilation of several authors with their own perspectives on servant-leadership


Over the years many different authors, consultants, and celebrities have developed their own models for servant leadership. Some of the most popular are those by Jim Hunter (“The Servant”), Ken Blanchard (many books), and John Maxwell.

A Universal Model

The Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership®

The Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership® is the most comprehensive, yet easy to understand, model of servant-leadership. The model consolidates and distills all others into a consistent and powerful message for your teams and organization.

The Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership® continues to evolve. Since 2004, we’ve researched, analyzed and documented the core attributes of the best leadership practices. Each new book, concept, or attribute is then folded into the Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership®. Therefore, whether you’re talking about Sun-Tzu’s Art of War (yes, it includes servant-leadership principles), John Maxwell ‘s 21 Laws of Leadership, any of the models above, or anything in between, you can trace it back using our Leadership Principles Map.


Want to learn more about the model? Check out the videos below or contact MSL founder, Ben Lichtenwalner.


The Principles of Servant Leadership


If you’re not serving others, you are self-serving and that is not leadership. All great leaders are selfless. Remember the definition of servant-leadership?

…putting the needs of all stakeholders before your own self-interests.

Some key attributes of Selflessness include….

  • Being Present
  • Growing People
  • Stewardship


You must be able to empathize with those you lead.

To empathize with stakeholders, do not simply walk a mile in their shoes. Walk a mile in their muddy boots. Understand what it is like on their toughest days.

Some of the top attributes of Empathy include:

  • Active Listening
  • Encouragement
  • Gratitude


Firm resolve is required to push through barriers and challenges of all types. Without resolve, leaders would accomplish little.

Like shelter in a storm, the unwavering commitment of a leader gives confidence to the team.

Some of the top attributes of Resolve include:

  • Bravery
  • Commitment
  • Pioneering


In leadership, a lack of ethics is a lack of competence. Great leaders are people of high moral and ethical standards.

The view is always better from the high road.

Some of the top attributes of Virtuousness include:

  • Character
  • Ethical
  • Kindness


To be authentic, leaders must be consistent in their character and beliefs, whether at home, work, in public, or private.

If you cannot lead yourself, you are not prepared to lead others.

Some of the top attributes of Authenticity include:

  • Self-awareness
  • Transparency
  • Vulnerability


Great leaders are open to new ideas from anyone, anywhere, almost any time.

Leaders who see titles before they see people are doomed to failure.

Some of the top attributes of Nonpartisanship include:

  • Collaboration
  • Conceptualization
  • Diversity


Successful leadership means prioritizing long-term results over short-term gains. It means going wide and deep, not simply skimming the surface.

Anyone can lead for a time. It takes a real leader to sustain results over the long haul.

Some of the top attributes of Thoroughness include:

  • Accountability
  • Foresight
  • Systems-Thinking

Ready to Learn More?

Now that you understand what is servant leadership, consider these next steps to learn more:

The Servant Leadership 101: Introduction to Servant Leadership Principles course logo is the Modern Servant Leader logo, with a graduation cap on top. Surrounding it is each of the 6 session icons. Underneath it is the phrase: Servant Leadership 101.

Free Certificate Course

Sign up for the free Servant Leadership 101 course and earn a certificate in the foundations of servant leadership. This free, email-based course delivers weekly content across 6 sessions.

Servant Leadership Beginner Resources: The Servant Leadership Resources for Beginners Page Icon is a person with a speech bubble beneath them. In the bubble is the bright orange, upside down triangle, symbolic of servant leadership. In the lower-right corner are the words, "Servant Leadership Beginners".

Resources for Beginners

Check out of list of great resources for beginning servant leaders. Here you will find great books, links, and presentations to help you learn more and grow in your practice of these principles and more.

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