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Servant leadership is both a leadership philosophy and set of leadership practices. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
Servant leadership is an ancient philosophy - one that existed long before Robert Greenleaf coined the phrase in modern times. There are passages that relate to servant leadership in the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao-Tzu, who is believed to have lived in China sometime between 570 BCE and 490 BCE:
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 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."
Servant leadership can be found in many religious texts, though the philosophy itself transcends any particular religious tradition. In the Christian tradition, this passage from the Gospel of Mark is often quoted in discussions of servant leadership:
"42 Jesus called them together and 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. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. 45 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.” Mark 10:42-45 
Islam ("the leader of a people is their servant") and other world religions have long embraced the philosophy of servant leadership.
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?“
Robert Greenleaf recognized that organizations as well as individuals could be servant-leaders. Indeed, he had great faith that servant-leader organizations could change the world. In his second major essay, "The Institution as Servant" (1972), Greenleaf articulated what is often called the “credo.” There he said:
“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.” 
The most common division of leadership styles is the distinction between autocratic, participative and laissez-faire leadership styles. The authoritarian style of leadership 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 leadership 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 leadership 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 leadership responsibilities is the promotion of performance and satisfaction of employees.
Scholars generally agree that these characteristics 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.
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 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, 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).
Some see a difference between a leadership philosophy (e.g. “servant leadership” or “ethical leadership”) and a leadership theory (e.g. functional and situational leadership theories). The former is a values-based view of how leaders should act whereas the latter is usually a way of teaching leaders how to be more effective.
For decades, the older leadership theories (e.g. traits, behavioral/styles, situational and functional) did not explicitly support or address the philosophy of servant leadership. However, this changed with the emergence of integrated psychological leadership theory – as represented by James Scouller’s three levels of leadership model (2011). Scouller’s model – which attempts to integrate the older theories while addressing their limitations by focusing on the leader’s psychology – emphasizes the idea that leaders should care as much about their followers’ needs as their own and view leadership as an act of service. Thus, the link between the philosophy of servant leadership and modern leadership theory has strengthened in the 21st century.