In traditional styles of leadership, individuals lead from the top down; they exercise power and authority to achieve certain goals. However, servant leadership is focused more on helping individuals develop their skills and abilities so that they can perform at as high a level as possible. In this way, servant leadership relies on the leader truly serving those beneath him or her; the leader is responsible for helping other associates to improve upon their own talents, offering them opportunities to learn and grow whenever possible. Participative decision-making is a key element of servant leadership, as it allows individuals not in traditional leadership positions to have a clear impact on short- and long-term decisions within an organization. Traits of servant-leaders include the following:
- The ability to actively listen
- Characteristics of empathy, awareness, and foresight
- Servant-leaders work to build a trusting team with their associates
- Servant Leaders can achieve goals that are far superior to those that could be achieved individually
The foundations of servant leadership can be traced back thousands of years; even some of the most common teachings of Christianity focus on Christ serving man, not the other way around. It has been embodied in the famous words of John F. Kennedy when he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." The servant-leader wants others' needs to be met before their own; they recognize that when employees' needs for personal and professional growth are actualized, then their own needs as leaders can be addressed.
The notion that leaders can lead from the perspective of a servant is not a new one but rather, is one that fairly originated with the ministry of Jesus Christ who taught His disciples by His own example:
If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you (John 13:14-15).
The research shows that the concept was revitalized for contemporary times thanks to the work of Robert K. Greenleaf (1977), whose work on servant leadership in the modern organization has spawned a substantial body of research on the subject over the last several decades. Greenleaf submits that his interest in the concept of servant leadership rose out of his involvement with several institution of higher education in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which time he explains:
"it was a searing experience to watch distinguished institutions show their fragility and crumble, to search for an understanding of what happened to them and to try to help heal their wounds" (p. 17).