Servant Leadership Workplace-Invented

Who Invented Servant Leadership?

That’s not a very good question, if it assumes a single individual “invented” servant leadership.

To ask who invented servant leadership is like asking who invented love or justice.

Like love and justice, servant leadership has its origins in human prehistory.

Indeed, servant leadership surely has been a key to our remarkable evolutionary success as a species.

It’s not hard to imagine early bands of homo sapiens being led successfully by servant-leaders – leaders who served collective interests first, who clearly saw and conveyed the goals necessary for survival and who helped followers flourish in an otherwise hostile environment.

I believe servant leadership is one of humanity’s most important cultural assets, tracing its origins back tens of thousands of years.

But we can find servant leadership in a more modern cultural asset – religion.

The scriptures of Hinduism, considered the oldest religion in existence today dating back 3,500 years or more, contain the ethos of servant leadership. Many passages in the Tao Te Ching (probably written 2,400 years ago) resonate with modern servant-leaders. Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi of London, locates the idea of servant leadership in the Torah’s Book of Numbers. Christians and Muslims find reference to servant leadership in their sacred texts as well.

But while the world’s great religions embody servant leadership, no religious figure invented servant leadership.

In more recent times, people refer to Robert K. Greenleaf as the founder of the modern servant leadership movement.

Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. On one hand, Greenleaf received a burst inspiration from Journey to the East, a work of fiction by Hermann Hesse. But on the other hand, Greenleaf built on the steady work of giants, including Douglas McGregor, professor of management at MIT and author of a classic from 1960, The Human Side of Enterprise.

Greenleaf did not invent servant leadership. He just described servant leadership particularly well, in his particular context.

So, who invented servant leadership?

Again: No one.

And at the same time: Everyone!

In a manner of speaking, each of us “invents” servant leadership as we practice it in our daily lives. Each of us helps servant leadership evolve and adapt to our particular contexts. Collectively, we thereby keep servant leadership refreshed and relevant.

What do you think? As you see it, who invented servant leadership? Do you think I’m right when I say that no one invented servant leadership . . . and everyone does, too?

Let us know.

As always, we appreciate your views!


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