While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.
“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
A List of Servant Leadership Books, Essays, and Articles
Recommended by Dr. Kent M. Keith
President Emeritus, Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership (USA)
President Emeritus, Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership (Asia)
Here is my personal selection of books, essays, and articles on servant leadership, with my summaries and comments. There are four sections: Robert Greenleaf on Servant Leadership; General Introduction to Servant Leadership; Implementing Servant Leadership in the Workplace; and Shareholders vs. Stakeholders.
Robert Greenleaf on Servant Leadership
While Robert Greenleaf wrote many articles, essays, and speeches, five of his works constitute his core message about servant leadership: The Servant as Leader, The Institution as Servant, Trustees as Servants, Teacher as Servant, and Servant: Retrospect and Prospect.
Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977/2002).
This is the first collection of Greenleaf’s essays and speeches, published in 1977 and republished in a 25th Anniversary Edition in 2002. The book includes Greenleaf’s three major essays, The Servant as Leader, The Institution as Servant, and Trustees as Servants (which are available separately from the Greenleaf Center—see below). This collection of essays continues to rank very high on Amazon.com—between 8,000 and 15,000 on the Amazon.com list of all books, and as high as #8 on all leadership and management books.
Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 1970/2008).
This is Greenleaf’s classic essay on servant leadership, known often as “the orange book” that launched the modern servant leadership movement. Hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold. It has been translated into fifteen or twenty languages. It is not easy reading, but it is very much worth reading more than once. I suggest reading five pages, stopping and thinking about it, and then reading another five pages.
Kent M. Keith, ed., The Contemporary Servant as Leader (Atlanta, Georgia: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2016).
Because Greenleaf’s original essay is not easy reading, I edited the original essay to provide a more streamlined text. This publication also shares the insights of servant leadership experts on the major sections of Greenleaf’s essay. Those experts are Cheryl Bachelder, Linda Belton, Pat Falotico, Don Frick, Isabel Lopez, Larry Spears, and Duane Trammell. In addition to the comments of experts, the book includes questions for individual reflection and group discussion. This should be an excellent version for use in the classroom—the text is easier to read, the comments by experts stimulate additional ideas, and the questions in each section can be used to start the classroom discussion or can be assigned as homework.
Robert K. Greenleaf, The Institution as Servant (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 1972/2009).
This is Greenleaf’s second major essay on servant leadership, in which he emphasizes the importance of the role of trustees (board members) and argues for a council of equals or team at the top or the organization.
Robert K. Greenleaf, Trustees as Servants (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 1974/2009).
This is Greenleaf’s third major essay on servant leadership, in which he encourages trustees (board members) to truly lead their organizations, and to make judgments that add value and help their organizations become servant-institutions that care about everyone the organization touches.
Robert K. Greenleaf, “Teacher as Servant,” in The Servant-Leader Within, Hamiltion Beazley, Julie Beggs, and Larry C. Spears, eds. (New York: Paulist Press, 2003).
This is the fourth work that Greenleaf said constituted his servant leadership message. It is a book-length parable, first published in 1979. In it Greenleaf described the work of professor Billings, a university professor who set up a campus residence called Jefferson House for students who were willing to commit to serving others. Professor Billings advised and guided the students during their years at Jefferson House, donating his time in addition to teaching regular university courses. The students were required to initiate service projects, undertake internships, and discuss the messages of visiting speakers. The parable addressed issues of organizational leadership learned through internships, as well as the role of trustees in the governance of the university. The middle part of the book is really about organizational and board issues. This book has inspired a number of universities to set up their own versions of a Jefferson House to encourage students to become servant-leaders.
Robert K. Greenleaf, “Servant: Retrospect and Prospect,” in The Power of Servant Leadership, Larry Spears, ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 1998).
In 1980, ten years after launching the servant leadership movement with his first essay, Greenleaf looked back and reflected on servant leadership. In this essay he noted a lack of vision in institutions, and called on trustees to provide it. He said that we know how to help young people to become servants, and we know how to transform institutions. He saw a special role for seminaries in providing vision for churches and other institutions, and foundations in providing vision for universities. At the end, he urged us to focus on helping young people learn how to serve and lead, to transform future institutions into servant-institutions.
Don M. Frick, Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2004).
This is an excellent biography. It connects Greenleaf with his times and with other thought leaders. I recommend it highly.
General Introduction to Servant Leadership
Kent M. Keith, The Case for Servant Leadership (Honolulu, Hawaii: Terrace Press, Second Edition, 2012).
I published the first edition of this short book in 2008, and then revised it and published the second edition in 2012. It is meant to be an easy-to-read introduction to servant leadership. I believe that servant leadership is ethical, practical, and meaningful. The book cites the universal importance of service, defines servant leadership, compares the power model of leadership with the service model, describes some key practices of servant-leaders, and explores the meaningful lives of servant-leaders. The book includes an appendix on servant leadership compared with other ideas about leadership, as well as questions for reflection and discussion. More than 50,000 copies of this book have been purchased by businesses, government agencies, non-profit organizations, hospitals, and more than forty universities around the United States.
Kent M. Keith, Questions and Answers about Servant Leadership (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2012).
During the past two decades, I have given hundreds of speeches and workshops on servant leadership. This book shares the questions that I am often asked and the answers that I like to give. In some cases, the answers were expanded for this publication. My hope is that the book will be especially useful to those who naturally begin with questions, whether they are new to servant leadership or have been on the journey for many years. The book provides the reader with starting points for further study, reflection, and implementation. Where applicable, answers conclude with recommendations for additional reading. A list of all the recommended readings can be found at the end of the text.
Isabel Lopez, The Wisdom of Servant Leadership: An Interview with Isabel Lopez (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2012).
Isabel Lopez is a wise person with a deep understanding of Robert Greenleaf’s core message. In this interview, she talks about the definition of the servant-leader, the credo, and how one puts servant leadership into action. She relates her own experiences as a leader in a large company, she quotes poetry, and she shares lessons learned from her grandmother.
Stephen Prosser, Servant Leadership: More Philosophy, Less Theory (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2010).
People often wonder whether servant leadership is a philosophy, a theory, a set of values, a list of characteristics, or a series of practices—or some combination of all these things. Stephen Prosser reviews the literature and research, and provides six reasons why servant leadership is not a theory but a philosophy concerning service and the practice of leadership.
Ann McGee-Cooper and Gary Looper, The Essentials of Servant Leadership: Principles in Practice (Waltham, Massachusetts: Pegasus Communications, Inc., 2001).
This is a short, simple, accessible introduction to servant leadership in the form of an article.
Implementing Servant Leadership in the Workplace
Cheryl Bachelder, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others (Oakland, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2015.
Bachelder is the CEO of Popeyes ® Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. This book describes the way she applied servant leadership principles to successfully turn around her company. Popeyes today is a $3 billion business with more than 2,500 locations around the world. This book is easy to read, and focuses on the importance of finding meaning and purpose in one’s work. Passion drives performance! I have quoted this book in my own writing.
Linda W. Belton, The Nobler Side of Leadership: The Art of Humanagement (Atlanta, Georgia: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2016).
Belton had the challenge of introducing servant leadership principles into the Veteran’s Administration—a huge, complex organization. She shares hard-won insights that can help anyone to introduce servant leadership into their organizations. I especially appreciate the way in which Belton shows how wisdom and compassion can be applied to practical problems and move an organization to higher levels of service.
Joseph M. Patrnchak, The Engaged Enterprise: A Field Guide for the Servant-Leader (Atlanta, Georgia: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2016).
Patrnchak applied servant leadership principles to improve employee engagement and patient satisfaction at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic. His book includes a description of that experience, as well as other experiences that have taught him important truths about organizational leadership. This is a practical book about leading change. I have quoted it in my own writing.
James A. Autry, The Servant Leader: How to Build a Creative Team, Develop Great Morale, and Improve Bottom-Line Performance (Roseville, California: Prima Publishing, 2001).
Autry has been a jet fighter pilot, a Fortune 500 corporate executive, and a poet. He wrote this book to describe the ways that servant-leaders can address difficult issues such as restructuring the organization, evaluating people, firing people, sexual harassment, alcohol and substance abuse, and lawsuits. The spirit of servant leadership is also evident in his book, Love and Profit.
Howard Behar, It’s Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks (New York: Penguin Group, 2007).
Howard Behar is one of the three senior executives who built Starbucks from 28 stores to more than 10,000 stores worldwide. During his years with Starbucks, he handed out lots of copies of Greenleaf’s essay, The Servant as Leader, to his colleagues. This is a personal, practical book about leading by paying attention to people.
Ken Blanchard, Scott Blanchard, and Drea Zigarmi, Chapter 12, “Servant Leadership,” in Ken Blanchard and the Founding Associates and Consulting Partners of the Ken Blanchard Companies, Leading at a Higher Level: Blanchard on Leadership and Creating High Performing Organizations (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Blanchard Management Corporation Publishing as Prentice Hall, 2007).
This is a 27-page chapter that summarizes the Blanchard group’s approach to servant leadership. The authors argue that leadership has two parts—vision and implementation. Hierarchical leaders are responsible for the vision, but then they become servant-leaders during the implementation process. The authors say that servant leadership is a question of the heart. Servant-leaders are not driven, they are called. One of the obstacles to overcome is ego. The chapter describes how servant leadership provides better leadership, better service, helps create a high performing organization, and yields both success and significance.
Don M. Frick, Greenleaf and Servant-Leader Listening (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2011).
This essay provides interesting background on Robert Greenleaf’s own journey as he learned about listening from his experiences with the Society of Friends, the Hawthorne studies, AT&T, and Wainwright House. It describes the ideas that Greenleaf used in teaching listening to others.
Don M. Frick, Implementing Servant Leadership: Stories from the Field (La Crosse, Wisconsin: D. B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership, Viterbo University, 2009).
I highly recommend the first four chapters of this book in which Frick tells the stories of the Veterans Administration hospital in Tomah, Wisconsin; TDIndustries in Dallas, Texas; Peaberry’s Coffee Shop in La Crosse, Wisconsin; and a faith community located in a poor settlement in Cape Town, South Africa. The stories are well-written and very compelling. When I first read the stories, I felt a strong desire to go to work for each of the organizations Frick described.
Jerry Glashagel, Servant-Institutions in Business (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2009).
This book gives a very quick snapshot of eight companies that are implementing various servant leadership principles—TDIndustries, DuBrook Concrete, First Fruits, SBLI USA Mutual Life Insurance, Festival Foods, Johsonville Sausage, The Toro Company, and PPC Partners. The final chapter is a good summary of the characteristics of servant-institutions in business—how they serve their employees, customers, business partners, and communities.
Tom Green and Mary Miller, Servant Leadership in Hard Times: The Closing of the Delphi Brake Assembly Operations (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2012).
This essay is an excellent case study about the positive impact of servant leadership in an industrial operation. The Delphi brake assembly operations in Dayton, Ohio were told in 2006 that they would be closing in 2008, and all of the employees would lose their jobs. In the meantime, they had to keep producing high quality brakes for two more years. Tom Green, the plant manager, and Mary Miller, the human resources manager, met the challenge by introducing servant leadership principles. The result was that the brake assembly operations became the best they had ever been in their forty-year history. They became one of the safest manufacturing operations in the country, with single digit parts per million defects, 99.5 percent on-time delivery, and the lowest costs they had experienced in decades. I recommend this essay very highly for classroom study and discussion.
Kent M. Keith, The Ethical Advantage of Servant Leadership: Guiding Principles for Organizational Success (Singapore: The Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership (Asia), 2013).
The ethical behavior of leaders has a significant impact on the ethical behavior of others in their organizations. The poor ethical behavior of leaders can have a negative impact on the organization’s standards, productivity, and success. Unfortunately, many theories or ideas of leadership are ethically neutral—they describe techniques that can be used either ethically or unethically, by good people or bad. I wrote this essay to highlight the fact that one of the greatest strengths of servant leadership is its moral element. The ethical behavior of servant-leaders is embedded in the principles that guide them in their daily decision-making. These principles, which are described in the essay, support high performance and exceptional organizational results. For servant-leaders, it is not a choice between ethics and success. It is their ethical behavior that leads to organizational success.
Daniel Kim, Foresight as the Central Ethic of Leadership (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2002).
Foresight is difficult to get one’s arms around. This 21-page essay has helped many people get into the subject. Kim notes that foresight is about perceiving the significance and nature of events, not forecasting exactly when specific things will occur. Foresight requires us to continually expand our awareness and perception, and to develop insight, which is about grasping the inner nature of things.
Kent M. Keith, Servant Leadership in the Boardroom: Fulfilling the Public Trust (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2011).
This book presents and augments the views of Robert Greenleaf on the opportunity of board members of all types of corporations—for-profit and non-profit—to truly lead and make a difference for their organizations and the people their organizations serve. The book provides historical background on the public purpose of all corporations, the responsibilities of board members as trustees for the public good, the unique value of board judgments, the relationship between the board and administration, the role of the Chair, and keys to board effectiveness. The Appendix includes “An Overview of Servant Leadership,” “Key Reminders for Servant-Leaders in the Boardroom,” and “The Shareholder Primacy Issue.”
Kent M. Keith, Morality and Morale: A Business Tale (Honolulu, Hawaii: Terrace Press, 2012).
I wrote this short book for undergraduate business majors to stimulate classroom discussions on business ethics. It is a story about a young business manager faced with a moral dilemma at work. As he calls on others for advice, he learns that business is a way to serve others; that there is a universal moral code that each of us can follow in our businesses and our private lives; that morality and morale are related, so that when morality goes up, so does morale; that treating others right can be a source of personal energy and can result in business success; and that living morally makes life more meaningful. The book includes “Notes for the Reader” that provide background for the ideas introduced in the story.
James O’Toole, The Practical Idealist: Gandhi’s Leadership Lessons (Singapore: The Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership (Asia) Ltd, 2013).
In this essay, Dr. James O’Toole describes the leadership resources that Gandhi developed in South Africa that helped him to face the enormous challenges of leading India to independence. While recognizing Gandhi’s idealism, O’Toole analyses specific actions and behaviors that made Gandhi an effective leader. He argues that those actions and behaviors are appropriate and practical in a variety of leadership settings today, whether it be in business, government, or other modern organizations. O’Toole is the author of many books on leadership, ethics, and corporate culture. He recently retired as Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business.
Ken Melrose, Making the Grass Greener on Your Side: A CEO’s Journey to Leading by Serving (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1995).
This is an older book that is nevertheless a valuable example of the ways in which servant leadership principles can be introduced and become effective in a large corporation—in this case, the Toro Company, which Ken Melrose served as President and CEO for more than twenty years.
C. William Pollard, The Soul of the Firm (Grand Rapids, Michigan: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1996).
This is another older book that provides a valuable example of the positive ways in which servant leadership principles can impact the workplace. Pollard was the Chairman of the ServiceMaster Company. The company objectives were to honor God in all we do, to help people develop, to pursue excellence, and to grow profitably. Chapter Twelve is titled “Servant Leadership Makes Good Things Happen.”
William B. Turner, The Learning of Love:A Journey Toward Servant Leadership (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2000).
This is an autobiography by Bill Turner, who was Chairman of Synovus Financial when it became the #1 company on the Fortune magazine list of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America in 1999. Chapter 7 is “What Love Can Do,” and Chapter 8 is “First, Be a Servant.” For decades, Turner has promoted and provided philanthropic support for servant leadership programs in his home town of Columbus, Georgia. In 2010, the Greenleaf Center awarded Columbus its “Servant-Leader City” award.
Shareholders vs. Stakeholders
Greenleaf believed that organizations should care about all the people they touch—employees, customers, creditors, shareholders or members, business partners, and communities. Unfortunately, economists and business schools have promoted the idea that the purpose of a for-profit corporation is to maximize shareholder wealth, often at the expense of all the other stakeholders. One of the most important things that we can do to improve our society is to stop promoting the idea of shareholder primacy, which is not required by law and leads to unethical treatment of other stakeholders. Here are three resources on this issue:
Lynn Stout, The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, 2012).
Lynn Stout is a law professor who specializes in corporate law. In this book, she debunks the myth that corporate law mandates shareholder primacy. She also shows how shareholder value thinking endangers not only investors but the rest of us as well, leading managers to focus myopically on short-term earnings; discouraging investment and innovation; harming employees, customers, and communities; and causing companies to indulge in reckless, sociopathic, and irresponsible behaviors. I highly recommend this short, very readable book.
Jacob M. Rose, “Corporate Directors and Social Responsibility: Ethics versus Shareholder Value,” Journal of Business Ethics, 73: 319-331 (2007).
This study by Jacob Rose revealed that corporate directors were willing to put shareholders first, even when doing so would harm the environment and risk the health of human beings. The directors in his study believed that the law required them to set aside their own ethics in order to keep share prices high. In fact, the law does not require shareholder primacy, and ethics demands that the interests of all stakeholders be considered in decision-making.
Kent M. Keith, “The Shareholder Primacy Issue,” in Servant Leadership in the Boardroom: Fulfilling the Public Trust (Westfield, Indiana: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2011), Appendix, 69-83.
This is my review of the shareholder primacy issue, including the common misinterpretation of the Dodge v. Ford Motor Company case, the false but widely-held assumption that shareholders own a corporation, and the fact that the law provides for the primacy of the board of directors, not shareholders. A balanced view of all stakeholders can be found in “Principles for Business,” Caux Round Table, www.cauxroundtable.org, which respects stakeholders beyond shareholders.