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Unveiling Servant Leadership's History

Servant leadership has risen in popularity, being one of the most discussed leadership styles currently. Its focus on serving others and prioritizing their needs has made it a compelling tactic for leaders. But where did it all begin? In this blog, we'll explore servant leadership’s history, starting from its earliest introduction to the influential figures who championed its principles. 

The Origins of Servant Leadership:

The origins of servant leadership date back centuries, with traces found in various ancient cultures. One of the earliest documented instances of servant leadership in history can be attributed to Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, and author of the Tao Te Ching. He advocated for leaders to be selfless, emphasizing the importance of humility and putting others' needs before their own.

Fast forward to the 20th century, and we encounter Robert Greenleaf, whose work laid the foundation of the servant leadership strategies we know today. Greenleaf, an AT&T executive, introduced the term "servant leadership" in his 1970 essay, "The Servant as Leader." He presented a paradigm shift in leadership by emphasizing the leader's responsibility to serve their followers rather than the traditional authoritative, top-down approach.

The Influence of Robert Greenleaf:

Robert Greenleaf's insights revolutionized the way leadership was perceived. He believed that a servant leader's primary goal is to nurture personal growth, promote equality, and empower others. Greenleaf argued that a leader's effectiveness should be measured by their ability to meet the needs of their team members and help them achieve their full potential.

Greenleaf highlighted ten key characteristics of servant leadership. The ones I find most inspiring are empathy, stewardship, listening, and commitment to personal growth. His work paved the way for a new era of leadership that prioritized collaboration, shared decision-making, and fostering a sense of community within organizations. When looking at the roots of servant leadership in its history, Greenleaf was a keystone in sensationalizing the concept. While servant leadership origins can be traced far before him, I believe he is a pillar to the globalization of this concept.

Other Noteworthy Practitioners of Servant Leadership:

While Robert Greenleaf remains a seminal figure in the servant leadership movement, numerous other individuals have also made significant contributions to its development and popularization. Mahatma Gandhi, the iconic leader of India's independence movement, embodied the principles of servant leadership by prioritizing the needs of his people and advocating for nonviolent resistance.

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's revered anti-apartheid activist and former president, exemplified servant leadership during his quest for social justice and equality. Mandela's humility, compassion, and dedication to serving others were instrumental in transforming his nation.


I think it’s important to contextualize the origins of servant leadership for a few reasons. First, we can develop an understanding of why servant leadership started. Second, we can evaluate the outcomes of those who have championed this amazing leadership approach. And lastly, we can derive a practical and formulaic approach to adopting this amazing philosophy by analyzing the applications of servant leadership.

I am excited to delve deeper into the philosophy, benefits, and practical application of servant leadership. I encourage you to follow our blog as we continue to unpack all things servant leadership.


Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. “About Us.” Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2021, Accessed 14 July 2023.

Munn, Bill. “Nelson Mandela's Servant Leadership: What We Can Learn from Him.” Bill Munn Management Coaching, 2023, Accessed 14 July 2023.

PennState Leadership Blog. “Mahatma Gandhi: A Servant Leader.” Sites at Penn State, 31 March 2022, Accessed 14 July 2023.

Windon, Suzanna. “Leading to Serve: Strategies on the Servant Leadership Approach.” Penn State Extension, 9 March 2023, Accessed 14 July 2023.

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