Servant Leadership

In his classic book on organizational life, The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams provided the following list of  “Great Lies
of Management.”

  1. Employees are our most valuable asset.
  2. I have an open-door policy.
  3. You could earn more money under the new plan.
  4. We’re reorganizing to better serve our customers.
  5. The future is bright.
  6. We reward risk-takers
  7. Performance will be rewarded.
  8. We don’t shoot the messenger.
  9. Training is a high priority.
  10. I haven’t heard any rumors.
  11. We’ll review your performance in six months.
  12. Our people are the best.
  13. Your input is important us.  

In his witticisms, Adams depicts organizational leaders as deceitful, manipulative, uncaring, and self-centered.
Essentially, from his perspective, leaders often act in ways that do not promote the well being of employees. This
leadership approach is the antithesis of servant leadership, which is becoming increasingly popular among
organizational leaders. According to Robert Greenleaf who popularized the concept, servant leadership produces
wiser, healthier and more autonomous employees.

Robert Greenleaf (1904 – 1990), who was a management researcher at AT&T, popularized the concept of servant
leadership in secular organizations through a series of essays. Greenleaf surmised from his research that
organizations were not serving their members in a manner that engendered growth and hope.  His aim was to
challenge leaders to serve their employees with “skill, understanding, and spirit” (p. 4). According to Larry Spears,
former Director of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, servant leadership is not a style but “an institutional
philosophy and model.”  The best description of servant leadership that I have found is the following one by authors
Berry, Parasuraman, Zeithami, Adsit, et at.

Larry Spears identified 10 servant leadership characteristics from Greenleaf’s writings:
  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Persuasion
  5. Awareness
  6. Foresight
  7. Conceptualization
  8. Commitment to the growth of people
  9. Stewardship
  10. Building community.

The heads of renowned companies such as Ritz Carlton Hotels, Royal Dutch Shell, Walmart, and Southwest Airlines
practice these principles and attribute this mode of leadership to the success, if not survival, of their companies. In
fact, several companies on Fortune Magazine’s list 100 Best Companies to Work for in America practice value-based
principles that align with servant leadership. Some of the companies are AFLAC, The Container Store, Synovus
Financial Corporation, and TDIndustries. These companies reported “simultaneously deliver outstanding service and
financial returns while being a great place to work.”

What’s interesting is that Greenleaf cited research that suggests the government environment is not conducive to
servant leadership and that government leaders prefer to lead in a less collaborative manner. Ironically, other studies
reveal that federal government executives have reached the same conclusion. I decided to challenge that notion for
my dissertation. I did so by studying former IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti, who I believe practiced servant
leadership. I reached this conclusion after working under his leadership for 1 year prior to my retirement from the IRS.
I conducted the study during Rossotti’s last month as commissioner by interviewing him and 21 IRS senior leaders who
worked closely with him.  

My research revealed that Rossotti practiced the 10 characteristics of a servant leader in his quest to transform the
agency. The participants in my study agreed that Rossotti’s led the transformation from the old, corrupt IRS to the
“New IRS” – a kinder, gentler agency – by demonstrating servant leadership characteristics. One interviewee said,
“We can stonewall with the best of them… He might have had a vision but would not have been able to move 100,000
employees in a new direction if he did not bring these things to the table.”

Bruce Winston, Dean of the Regent University School of Global and Leadership Studies wrote, “Servant Leadership is
the desire to see those you work with become all they can be.” IRS insiders and observers contended that Rossotti
strove toward that goal. An interviewee surmised,  

    I think in terms of leader’s primary job is to take an organization consisting of mere mortals and getting them to
    perform better than they ever thought they could by engaging them, by listening to them, by understanding
    what the limitations were and things like that. I think that’s what [Rossotti] had to do here.

Similarly, when Rossotti retired from the IRS Max Stier, President and CEO of Partnership for Public Service wrote:

    Rossotti has helped put a human face on the IRS, instilling in his employees the belief that their work can have
    a real and positive impact on the Americans they service. His philosophy of inclusiveness and respect for others
    has truly made a difference. We commend Mr. Rossotti for so successfully harnessing the energy and expertise
    of IRS employees to make customer service a cornerstone of the IRS.

At this point you might be like some of my interviewees, who expressed skepticism about the term “servant” in relation
to leadership. I surmised from their reactions a concern that my study might mislead the readers into thinking that
Rossotti was soft and not focused on results. However, the literature refutes such notions of a servant leader.

Greenleaf wrote that one his servant leader exemplars, “set high standards and was often uncompromising in his
demands on people.” Further, in his assessment of Horst Schulze, a self-described servant leader and CEO of the
Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, author Larry Julian (2001) wrote, “Horst’s servant leadership is not soft. A leader who
cares about people doesn’t have to care less about the bottom line.” Similarly, Rossotti was seen as a leader who
demanded competence and accomplishment.  

The appeal of servant leadership is on the rise among today’s business leaders. The topic is covered in virtually all
leadership programs. Further, each year in June hundreds attend the International Conference of the Robert K.
Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership where servant leadership practitioners, scholars, and researchers gather to
share ideas and insights. Arguably, there is a growing recognition that this revolutionary style of leadership has the
ability to effect positive individual and organizational success.    


Adams, S. (1996). The Dilbert principle. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Berry, L. L., Parasuraman, A., Zeithaml, V., Adsit, D. et al (1994, May).  Improving  service quality in America: Lessons
learned; Executive commentary.  The Academy of Management Executive. (Retrieved from ABI/INFO Database,
January 1, 2003).

Greenleaf, R. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York:
Paulist Press.

Greenleaf, R. (1998). In L. C. Spears (Ed.) The power of servant leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler
Publishers, Inc.

Julian, L. (2001). God is my CEO. Following God’s principles in a bottom-line world. Avon, MA: Adams Media

Ruschman, N. L. (2002). Servant –leadership and the best companies to work for in America. In Larry C. Spears and
Michele Lawrence (Eds). Focus on leadership: Servant-leadership for the 21st century (pp. 123-139). New York: John
Wiley & Sons.

Smith, P. R. (2003). Creating the “New IRS” – a servant led transformation: A case study describing how IRS
Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti employed servant leadership principles to transform one of America’s least popular
institutions. (Doctoral dissertaton, Regent University, 2003) Dissertations Abstract International.

Stier, M. (2002, October 28). Partnership's statement on the retirement of IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti.
Retrieved January 2, 2003 from

Tourigny, L. (2002). Relationship among servant-leadership, altruism and social performance: A study of American
presidents. (Doctoral Dissertation, Concordia University (Canada), 2002). Digital Abstracts International, 63 (05),
1981. (UMI No. NQ68208).

Winston, B. (1999). Be a manager for God’s sake: Essays about the perfect manager. irginia Beach, VA: Regent
University School of Business Press.
Workplace Wisdom
them to achieve. Such leaders fundamentally believe in
the capacity of people to achieve, viewing their own roles
as setting a direction and a standard of excellence, and
giving people the tools and freedom to perform.  
Because these leaders believe in their people, they
invest much of their personal energy coaching and
teaching them, challenging them, inspiring them, and, of
course, listening to them.