Really, A Servant’s Heart?

We could say that a servant-leader has a “servant’s heart.”

Really, a servant’s heart?

Yes, really.

Servant leadership is grounded in a desire to serve. That’s the primary thing that distinguishes servant leadership from other leadership approaches.

Robert Greenleaf coined the term servant leadership in his important 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. There, Greenleaf recognizes that the desire to serve is foundational to servant leadership:

“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.”

In Greenleaf’s formulation, the desire to serve is a “feeling” – an emotion or awareness – which, in a manner of speaking, comes “from the heart.”

OK, but what about in the workplace? Isn’t it a little silly to talk about a servant’s heart? Especially in gritty, competitive businesses?

You mean like airlines?

Southwest is one of the best-known companies with a servant leadership culture. In the Southwest statement of values, you will see the three things you need to “live the Southwest way” – a “warrior spirit,” a “FUN-loving attitude” and a . . . drumroll please . . .

. . . “servant’s heart.”

Julie Weber is vice-president of people at Southwest Airlines. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, she explains:

“At Southwest, we talk about hiring not for skills but three attributes: a warrior spirit (that is, a desire to excel, act with courage, persevere and innovate); a servant’s heart (the ability to put others first, treat everyone with respect and proactively serve customers); and a fun-loving attitude (passion, joy and an aversion to taking oneself too seriously.)”

Moreover, Southwest employees are rated in these categories, including the servant’s heart.*

In my experience, company cultures differ in the language they use to describe servant leadership and its foundational desire to serve. Some, like Southwest, use terms like “servant’s heart.” Others use other terms – “service before self” is common. But regardless of their language, companies embracing servant leadership would agree with the words of Robert Greenleaf:

“The great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his or her greatness.”

What do you think? Would you agree that servant leadership is grounded in a desire to serve? Do you like the term “servant’s heart”? How have you heard the desire to serve described?

Let us know.

As always, we appreciate your views. Thanks!


*Here’s the HBR article. It’s good: “How Southwest Airlines Hires Such Dedicated People”.