A Fresh Look at the Benefits and Dangers of Servant Leadership

When starting Leading To Serve a decade ago I was inspired by Robert K. Greenleaf’s (1904-1990) idea of servant leadership.   It’s a cause worth advancing.

In the late ’70’s I heard Greenleaf talk about the The Servant as Leader.   He was troubled that our institutions and leaders were not serving us well.   He believed that for the good of society servant oriented people should become leaders, and that leaders everywhere should make servanthood a priority.  

Greenleaf knew that servant leadership would require radical change for followers as well as leaders and their institutions.  This he anticipated would not necessarily be popular and warned of its dangers.

“As I ponder, the fusing of servant and leader,” he reflected, “it seems a dangerous creation:  dangerous for the natural servant to become a leader, dangerous for the leaders to be servant first, and dangerous for a follower to insist on being led by a servant.   There are safer and easier alternatives available to all three.”

He recognized that servants and leaders may be quite different.    

Servants don’t seek attention, they look for ways to help others performing unnoticed and under appreciated tasks.   They are reluctant to promote themselves or broadcast their ideas.   

Leaders by contrast seem to have some innate disposition to get out front, to say follow me.   They look for ways to change the world by casting vision, taking responsibility for action and implementing change.   Good leaders are transformational, seeking the best for their followers and the common interest.   At their worst they are autocrats and demagogues. 

Nevertheless Greenleaf was convinced, as are those of us who have learned from him, that servant leadership, however unpopular, difficult, and dangerous it may be, is essential for individuals and institutions to flourish.

What are the dangers?   I’m not sure all Greenleaf had in mind but I suggest the following.

  • One is underestimating the effort it takes for servants to become leaders and leaders to become servants.    Greenleaf thought the later was more difficult.   It is best he thought to seek leaders from those who have a proven record of serving well, people who might eschew leadership as usually practiced.   
  • Servant leadership is difficult and dangerous because we may overlook some of the best potential leaders among us.   Some of those may not be willing to lead unless and until our institutions change for the better.
  • Servant leadership is dangerous since it requires much of followers.    As followers we are required to notice, identify and engage with those we would have lead us.  Without that cooperation it won’t work.  Servants can lead only in a partnership with followers around a common mission.
  • In institutions the role of the servant leader is not to cast the vision but to serve as a catalyst to help followers find their common mission.    Where followers would rather be told what to do and need to be shown the way forward a servant leader may face frustration and opposition.

Greenleaf warned that “the outlook for better leadership in our leadership-poor society is not encouraging.”  

He urged us to look for leaders among natural servants, for instance among students and their teachers, and within our faith communities.

And he appealed to institutional leaders, “who,” he predicted, “would find greater joy in their lives if they raised the servant aspect of their leadership and built more serving institutions.”

For Leadership in Turbulent Times, as in the title of the recent book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, now more than ever we need to find those who are leading to serve. 

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3 Responses to A Fresh Look at the Benefits and Dangers of Servant Leadership

  1. Thank you, Tom. Excellent article, and worthy of a wider read! This is a difficult issue, perhaps especially in an era when servant leadership seems utterly out of mind.

    Enjoying reading “Leadership in Turbulent Times” right now.

  2. Stan Ingersol says:

    Tom, thanks for a thoughtful essay that provokes my curiosity. I’ll be pondering several of your points. Also want to note that David Wilson and I are reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Leadership in Turbulent Times” and enjoying it. We discuss it from time to time.

  3. Bob Sloan says:


    This is an important subject and worth much consideration. My own thoughts, research and experience lead me to believe that a great leader must have the heart of a servant while at the same time exhibiting certain traits and requirements of a leader. Establishing a vision is one requirement that I think a leader must have. He or she can facilitate a common vision among those who are being led but I do believe the leader begins with a vision and leads the group in that direction. Leadership can be loud and charismatic or it can be the quiet confidence engendered by someone who leads with an example of hard work, integrity, and commitment.

    Leaders also change organizations or groups for the better. I have never known a leader who waits for the organization to get better before they are willing to lead. Someone needs to take the initiative and begin to change the organization if it needs changing. This might even be considered a definition of leadership.

    Just a few thoughts. Willing to listen to counter views.


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