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 self-interests.

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.

Servant-Leadership Models

The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership logo, a large green leaf with text from Robert Greenleaf's works is in light font over the leaf.

Greenleaf 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. 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.

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.

To empower leadership development and HR professionals, we condensed dozens of models and hundreds of attributes to the most consistent and simplified principles. These principles are: Selflessness, Empathy, Resolve, Virtuousness, Authenticity, Nonpartisanship, and Thoroughness.

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 contains servant-leadership principles), John Maxwell 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 me (Ben).

The Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership in a semi-circle using shades of green. SERVANT is placed along the edge, each spelling out: Selfless, Empathetic, Resolute, Virtuous, Authentic, Nonpartisan, and Thorough
Core Principles

Servant-Leadership Principles


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