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Servant leadership is a philosophy and practice of leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf (1904–1990) and supported by many other leadership and management writers. Servant-leaders achieve results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organization's resources: human, financial and physical.
Robert K. Greenleaf never specifically defined servant leadership but, based on the writings of Greenleaf and others, it can still be defined as a management philosophy which implies a comprehensive view of the quality of people, work and community spirit. It requires a spiritual understanding of identity, mission, vision and environment. A servant leader is someone who is servant first, who has responsibility to be in the world, and so he contributes to the well-being of people and community. A servant leader looks to the needs of the people and asks himself how he can help them to solve problems and promote personal development. He places his main focus on people, because only content and motivated people are able to reach their targets and to fulfill the set expectations.
In his essay The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf said:
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 most common division of leadership styles is the distinction between autocratic, participative and laissez-faire leadership styles. The authoritarian style of management requires clearly defined tasks and monitoring their execution and results. The decision-making responsibility rests with the executive. In contrast to the autocratic, the practice of a participative leadership style involves employees in decision-making. More extensive tasks are delegated. The employees influence and responsibility increases. The laissez-faire style of leadership is negligible in practice.
Servant Leadership can be most likely associated with the participative management style. The authoritarian leadership style does not correspond to the guiding principle. The highest priority of a servant leader is to encourage, support and enable subordinates to unfold their full potential and abilities. This leads to an obligation to delegate responsibility and engage in participative decision-making. In the managerial grid model of Blake and Mouton, the participative style of leadership is presented as the approach with the greatest possible performance and employee satisfaction. However, there is the question whether a management style can be declared as universal and universally applicable. Situational contexts are not considered.
The servant leadership approach goes beyond employee-related behavior and calls for a rethinking of the hierarchical relationship between leader and subordinates. This does not mean that the ideal of a participative style in any situation is to be enforced, but that the focus of management responsibilities is the promotion of performance and satisfaction of employees.
Larry C. Spears, who has served as President and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership since 1990, has extracted a set of 10 characteristics that are central to the development of a servant leader:
As a result it has to be emphasized that these 10 characteristics are by no means exhaustive. They should not be interpreted as a certain manner to behave and they do not represent the best method to gain aims. Rather every person shall reflect, if these characteristics can be useful for his personal development.
"the king [leader] shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects [followers]" "the king [leader] is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people."
The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, Others will be unfaithful to you. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’
The concept has been included in many religious text such as this quote from the Christian New Testament (Authorized King James): "But ye [shall] not [be] so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve" or this quote from Islam's texts: "the leader of a people is their servant".
The term of modern Servant Leadership and servant leader were coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. He coined this phrase in his essay "The Servant as Leader" . Greenleaf worked a long time at AT&T and spent most of his career on management studies, management development and management training. After working at AT&T he started a career as visiting lecturer and management consultant for many companies, universities, churches and non-profit organisations, for example at the Harvard Business School, University of Virginia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or Ford Foundation. In 1964 he founded the international non-profit foundation named Center of Applied Ethics, which was renamed to The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in 1985.
The idea for his essay, "The Servant as Leader," came out of reading Hermann Hesse`s Journey to the East. The story is about a travel group on an exceptional mythical journey. The main character of this story is Leo. Leo is the companion and servant of the group, but he also sustains them with his charisma and spirit, and gives them well-being. Everything was going well until Leo disappeared; the group fall apart and the journey had to be prematurely interrupted. The group cannot exist longer without their servant Leo. After reading this story Greenleaf comes to the knowledge that a good leader is primarily a servant. A good leader must first be a good servant. Therefore he wrote down his essay The servant as leader, which has sold over 500 000 copies.
Most writers see servant leadership as an underlying philosophy of leadership, demonstrated through specific characteristics and practices. The foundational concepts are found in Greenleaf’s first three major essays, "The Servant as Leader", "The Institution as Servant", and "Trustees as Servants."
Larry Spears, who served for 17 years as the head of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, identified ten characteristic of servant leaders in the writings of Greenleaf. The ten characteristics are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. Leadership experts such as Bolman, Deal, Covey, Fullan, Sergiovanni, and Heifitz also reference these characteristics as essential components of effective leadership.
The Center for Servant Leadership at the Pastoral Institute in Georgia defines servant leadership as a lifelong journey that includes discovery of one’s self, a desire to serve others, and a commitment to lead. Servant-leaders continually strive to be trustworthy, self-aware, humble, caring, visionary, empowering, relational, competent, good stewards, and community builders.
Kent Keith, author of The Case for Servant Leadership and the current CEO of the Greenleaf Center, states that servant leadership is ethical, practical, and meaningful. He identifies seven key practices of servant leaders: self-awareness, listening, changing the pyramid, developing your colleagues, coaching not controlling, unleashing the energy and intelligence of others, and foresight. James Sipe and Don Frick, in their book The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, state that servant-leaders are individuals of character, put people first, are skilled communicators, are compassionate collaborators, use foresight, are systems thinkers, and exercise moral authority.
Unlike leadership approaches with a top-down hierarchical style, servant leadership instead emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. At heart, the individual is a servant first, making the conscious decision to lead in order to better serve others, not to increase their own power. The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement. A recent behavioral economics experiment demonstrates the group benefits of servant leadership. Teams of players coordinated their actions better with a servant leader resulting in improved outcomes for the followers (but not for the selfless leaders).
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