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.

Mahatma Gandhi as the Servant Leader

Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century. His great leadership can be attributed to different leadership theories and approaches. But the servant leadership theory should be on or near the top of any list of theories or approaches describing Gandhi’s leadership, throughout his life, Gandhi the displayed of the ten characteristics of servant leadership identified by Spears (2002) from Robert K. Greenleaf’s work on the subject.

Gandhi showed great awareness of what was going on around him in South Africa and he considered different courses of actions in dealing with oppression that Hindus and Muslins were faced with. While sitting on a train platform after being forcibly removed from a train, he considered his options to deal with the oppression he and the other Hindus and Muslins were facing. Instead of just accepting the oppression, mounting attacks against the ruling class, or just returning to India. Gandhi chose to organize the Hindus and Muslins to resist the oppression by non violent means.

Gandhi was able to use his influence to keep his followers from resorting to violence even in the light of the Amritsar massacre of 1919, where thousands of his followers were kill by order of the British government. He also was able to stop the fighting between the Hindus and Muslins by going on hunger strike until the two stopped fighting.

The way that Gandhi conducted his salt march of 1930 showed his ability to conceptualize and it also showed the foresight that he had. He took his time, only covering 10 miles a day for 24days, allowing time for the world press time to arrive and cover the event. He knew this would bring the British oppression of the India people to the world stage and garner support for their cause throughout the world. This slow pace of his march also allowed him time to stop in each village along the way and listen to what the villagers had to say and treated each of them as an individual, valuing what they had to say.

Gandhi showed his empathy for his followers by remaining to reside in his modest home and wearing the same simple clothing of his Hindu followers, even though, he had risen to the champion of the fight for freedom from British rule.

Amit Kulkarni’s Video on Servant Leadership