Servant Leadership


The Functions of a Servant Leader

ARTICLE IS WRITTEN BY: by Michiel Frederick Coetzer, Mark Bussin
and Madelyn Geldenhuys

For the past four decades, servant leadership has evolved as a reputable leadership theory and construct. Characteristics and measures of servant leadership are well described in the literature and empirical research has started more recently to show the positive impact of servant leadership in individuals, teams, and organisations.

Servant leadership offers a multidimensional leadership theory that encompasses all aspects of leadership, including ethical, relational, and outcome based dimensions [1,2]. It is similar to but also different from current leadership theories and proposes a more meaningful way of leadership to ensure sustainable results for individuals, organizations, and societies. Servant leadership includes practices known to sustain high performing organisations such as (a) establishing a higher purpose vision and strategy; (b) developing standardised and simplified procedures; (c) cultivating customer orientation; (d) ensuring continuous growth and development; (e) sharing power and information; and (f) having a quality workforce [3,4,5]. In addition, servant leadership showed to produce favourable individual and organisational outcomes such as enhanced corporate citizenship behaviour [6,7], work engagement [8,9,10], organisational commitment [7,11,12], sales performance [13] and reduced turnover intention [14,15].

Servant leadership can be defined as a multidimensional leadership theory that starts with a desire to serve [16], followed by an intent to lead and develop others [17], to ultimately achieve a higher purpose objective to the benefit of individuals, organisations, and societies [18]. Although servant leadership was coined by Greenleaf [16], its original principles can be found in the Bible. For example, in Mark 10: 42–45 (New International Version), Jesus said: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be a slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many”.

Servant leadership cuts across a variety of leadership theories, but is unique in the sense of its philanthropic characteristics, leadership intent and focus, and multi-dimensional leadership attributes.


It focusses on serving people first [19], aims to achieve an extraordinary vision that creates value for the community [20], and includes situational, transformational, as well as personal trait dimensions of leadership. For example, the servant leadership theory shares similarities with transformational leadership in the way it focusses on people and results, but is different because it focusses firstly on people and applies a different leadership intent [19]. It also differentiates itself from transactional leadership in the serving practices it applies to achieve results [21]. Servant leadership also includes the relational aspects of leader-member exchange (LMX) to build relationships [22], uses the principles of situational leadership to develop people [21], applies the authentic attributes of authentic leadership, supports the collaboration aspects of enterprise leadership [23], includes some of the components of level 5 leadership [18], and shares the spirituality traits of spiritual leadership [24]. However servant leadership is much more comprehensive and include other important dimensions of leadership that are missing from these leadership theories [18].

Although the construct of servant leadership is well conceptualised in the literature and seems to provide favourable individual, team, and organisational results, research on the effective implementation thereof is still in need [8,25]. The application of servant leadership remains a challenge for researchers and managers [25] as the roles and functions of a servant leader are not yet clarified meaningfully in current literature. Researchers as well as practitioners call for more clarity on ways to apply servant leadership effectively within the organisational context [14].


A framework that summarises the functions of a servant leader could assist researchers, practitioners, and managers to implement servant leadership systematically and consistently within organisations. Such a framework will be valuable if it is based on the characteristics, competencies, and outcomes of servant leadership as defined by current servant leadership literature. The overall purpose of this study was to conceptualise such a framework.

Research Objectives

The general aim of this study was to establish a framework that summarises the functions of a servant leader in a meaningful way after reviewing servant leadership literature. More specifically, this study focused on defining the characteristics, competencies, measures, and outcomes of servant leadership as recently described in the literature. These characteristics, competencies, measures, and outcomes of servant leadership were used to conceptualise a framework to make servant leadership practical within organisations.

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Article Categories:
Leadership · Objectives

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