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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

The Servant Leader as a term comes in from a Leader who “Serves”. Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century who Served the people to get results. Following are some of the reasons why I think that Mahatma Gandhi was one of the finest Servant Leaders.

  • Knowledge, Respect, Influence : Servant Leader gains his/her power from the knowledge, respect and influence that he/she creates. Mahatma Gandhi created an influence on the people via his “Non-Violence” campaign and gained the respect of the people. With the influence that Mahatma Gandhi created, people got herded in the direction of a decision which resulted in the independence of India in 1947.
  • Awareness : A servant leader shows awareness of the current situation before influencing. Mahatma Gandhi showed various instances of awareness. Initially when the country needed to be convinced that it did not have much of an option fighting the war of independence with weapons, he was very effective in convincing the people that poverty was a great weapon that people possessed. Later during the 1940’s when World War2 started, Mahatma Gandhi showed great awareness and called for people to take the call of “Quit India” which was one of the greatest timings for calling out the independence criteria.
  • Empathy : Being able to put oneself into others shoes and think. Mahatma Gandhi can be one of the finest examples. The attire that he worn from 1915 onwards shows the empathy that he had about the country’s economic status.
  • Stewardship : Mahatma Gandhi created so many disciples to carry forward the torch of the non-violence and leadership which enables.
  • Influence : Even to date, people follow the non-violent philosophy. There have been instances where Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela carried forward the non-violent philosophy which Gandhi taught the world.
  • Healing and conflict resolution : Mahatma Gandhi showed many instances which healed the bad feelings that people had and throw out the hatred. While the partition was a sad part of Gandhi’s life, he still tried his best to heal the hatred.
  • Sacrificing self Interest for the good of others – No better example than the Mahatma. Led a simple life sacrificing himself for the poor and down-trodden.

Amit Kulkarni’s Video on Servant Leadership