Demystifying The Six Misunderstandings About Servant Leadership

1. Servant leadership is a new age movement.

The concept of servant leadership isn’t new, and most certainly, it isn’t the product of our age and generation. It is as old as human history. In ancient times, many philosophers, poets, and writers admired the serving kings and masters.

In the beginning of the first century, Jesus of Nazareth underlined the importance of serving. He embodied servant leadership by serving the physical, emotional, health, and spiritual needs of his followers. At one point, he even washed the feet of his students.

In recent history, leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela dedicated their lives in serving the social and freedom needs of others. Leaders like Mother Theresa left their comfort zone and devoted their lives to serve the physical, health, and emotional needs of the needy.

However, the father of modern era servant leadership who first coined the term in the late 60’s and early 70’s is none other than Robert K. Greenleaf. He advocated the leader as a servant in his classic work “The Servant as Leader”.

2. Servant leadership is irrelevant to the corporate world.

Servant leadership has been well embraced within the religious, academic, and research circles. It attracted a great deal of interest from leaders, scholars, and students from these circles. Unfortunately, some reports show that servant leadership hasn’t gained the attention and priority it deserves, especially from the corporate world.

Nonetheless, though their number is fairly small, there were and still are some great corporate leaders like the former CEO of Herman Miller- Max DePree. In his extraordinary book ‘Leadership is an Art’, Depree said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” There is no wonder why employees of this wonderful company take ownership and serve it back with great commitment and delight.

Like Herman Miller and other similar corporations, today’s businesses should adopt servant leadership as one of their leadership styles, and enjoy its full benefits. However, in order to experience the full-scale benefits that come from adopting servant leadership, the following requirements and more should be met:


  • Service should be one of the shared values of the organization
  • The corporate culture should be able to create conducive atmosphere for servant leaders to flourish.
  • Training and development programs should incorporate the theme servant leadership.
  • The promotion system should consider serving as one of the important parameters.
  • The incentive system should favor the serving leaders, and more


3. Servant leadership is all about meeting the physical needs of people.

Some people limit the scope of servant leadership as if it is all about meeting the physical needs of people. Some even narrow it down to washing feet. In many parts of the world, unlike in the agrarian era, the contemporary generation doesn’t have this need every night. I am not criticizing the act of those who practice feet washing as a sign of humility. I rather admire their commitment and they should continue to do it but here, I am putting things in perspective, that is, servant leadership’s scope should go beyond meeting the physical needs of people.

The real needs of the generation are beyond meeting physical needs. The 21st C generation is overwhelmed with so many new challenges specific to the information age, and therefore, servant leaders should also serve the intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual needs of their constituencies.

4. Servant leadership is serving once and then getting service forever.

Some people think that you should first serve (follow) before you take leadership. Leadership begins in our childhood, the moment we take some responsibilities in our family. We shouldn’t wait forever to take leadership, and become a servant leader. On the other hand, there is no scenario where someone follows (serves) once and then remains a leader afterwards. Following someone’s lead continues in the life of the leader. As much as the latter has people under his influence, he is also a follower of someone somewhere. That is to say, there is no precedence, and tit for tat in servant leadership. It is a lifetime commitment where a servant leader serves throughout her leadership journey.

5. Servant leadership is about extinguishing any fire of need that comes on the servant’s way.

One of the invaluable services in an urban setting is its fire department. Wherever there is a need to fight fire or accident, they are there to serve. I watched some episodes that allowed me to appreciate the critical roles firemen play. In some circles, they believe that servant leaders are fire extinguishers. They should be where there are needs. Such servants will quickly burnout. A servant leader should serve from his strength. The firemen had lots of choices to make but they chose a particular service for which they have passion and strength. A servant leader doesn’t mean she goes out to serve everyone, everywhere, and on everything. A servant leader should know her mission, and that should dictate whom & where to serve, and the kind of service she should render.

6. Servant leadership is about feeding/serving others first.

Servant leadership is a selfless style of leadership but can a servant leader undermine his/her own needs and go out to meet the needs of others without a consequence? Can that kind of approach remain sustainable and relevant in the long run? I like Tim Elmore’s metaphor entitled “The starving baker”. This baker is a servant who is busy feeding others while neglecting to eat himself, and in turn ended up starving. In order to generate lasting impact and serve continually, servant leaders should also look after their own needs, especially their personal development needs.

Assegid Habtewold (Dr.) is the lead coach, consultant, and facilitator at Success Pathways, LLC. He is also the author of “Redefining Leadership: Navigating the Path from Birthright to Fulfillment in Life!” For more information about his book, please visit¬†

Article Source:

Share this: