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The Meaning of the Compound Word “Servant-Leader”

By Dr. Kent M. Keith CEO, Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

© Copyright Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership 2010

The term “servant-leader” was coined by Robert Greenleaf in his classic essay, “The Servant as Leader,” that he first published in 1970. That essay launched the modern servant leadership movement.

I have met many people who struggle with the meaning of “servant-leader.” Some think you can’t be a servant and a leader because those are two separate and opposite things that logically can’t be combined. I call this the “irreconcilable opposites” idea of servant leadership. If you think that a servant is fawning and compliant, and you think that a leader is powerful and commanding, then indeed the words will seem to be opposites that can’t be joined. That may lead to a discussion of how the joining of opposites is more often seen in Eastern philosophies than in Western thought.

Some people get around this apparent problem by talking about servant- leaders as though they switch back and forth between being servants and being leaders, because you can’t be both at the same time. This is what I call the “alternating current” idea of servant leadership. Of course, this “alternating current” can occasionally happen in real life. Servant-leaders can have bad days and slip out of the “service model of leadership” into the “power model of leadership” for a while, before catching themselves, and moving back into the service model again.

Other people focus on just the word “servant” or just the word “leader,” and assume that the word on the other side of the hyphen will follow. This is what I call the “hopeful hyphen” idea of servant leadership. Those who focus on the word “leader” will assume that if a particular leader is good, and servant-leaders are good, then that leader must be a servant-leader. Then there are people who will identify a good leadership technique, and because they like servant leadership and they like the technique, they will assume that the technique characterizes servant leadership.

More often, people emphasize the word “servant.” Certainly, we need good servants, and we should honor them. But most servants are not leaders; most


service is not leadership. I do not say this to demean servanthood or service. It is just a fact that servanthood and service may not involve leadership at all. That is why the phrase “leading by serving” isn’t quite right. The “serving” may be good, but it may have nothing to do with leadership.

However, those who focus on the word “servant” are starting in the right place. Greenleaf said that “the servant-leader is servant first.” What does that mean? It means that “servantis a fundamental, essential, continuing characteristic of a servant-leader. If we are going to be servant-leaders, we need to start by being servants. That must be our true nature. That must be who we really are.

Robert Greenleaf’s concept of the servant-leader was stimulated by his reading of Journey to the East by Herman Hesse. It is the story of a group of travelers who were served by Leo, who did their menial chores. All went well until Leo disappeared one day. The travelers fell into disarray and could go no farther. The journey was over. Years later, one of the travelers saw Leo againas the revered head of the Order that sponsored the journey. Leo, who had been their servant, was the titular head of the Order, a great and noble leader. In The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf said:

this story clearly says that the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness. Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside. Leadership was bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant. It was something given, or assumed, that could be taken away. His servant nature was the real man, not bestowed, not assumed, and not to be taken away. He was servant first.

“Servant” describes the true nature of the servant-leader. Servant leadership grows out of servanthood. A servant-leader is therefore a servant who happens to be leading. Instead of “leading by serving,” a servant-leader is “serving by leading.” Or to put it a little differently, there are many ways to serve, and leading is one of them.

I like to summarize this idea by saying that the true servant-leader is always a servant and sometimes a servant-leader. Being a servant, having a servant’s heart, describes the person’s nature and true character. When the servant discovers the opportunity to make a difference by leading, and steps into a leadership role, then he or she becomes a servant-leader.


I imagine that people will continue to struggle with the meaning of “servant- leader.” I think it is a worthwhile struggle. Of course, many of us will come to different conclusions. It is my hope, however, that those interested in servant leadership will heed the words of the man who coined the phrase, when he said:

“The servant-leader is servant firstas Leo was portrayed. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”