26 Oct 2022


What Is Servant Leadership?

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Servant leadership is a form of leadership that transcends personal interest to serve the needs of others. Servant leaders are expected to take a non-focal position within a group in a manner that resources and support are extended to followers without any expectation of acknowledgement (Han, Kakabadse & Kakabadse, 2010). According to the servant leadership theory, leaders are motivated more by the desire to serve that to lead. Servant leaders are expected to put their followers first, help them grow, empower them while behaving ethically. This form of leadership can be witnessed across multiple religions and cultures. Servant leadership can be witnessed in the Chinese culture of Confucianism and the Sikh spiritual canon of the Sikh region. 

Confucian ethics embodies various concepts including the concepts of Ren (humanness), Yi (appropriateness), Li (ritual), Zhong (conscientiousness), and Shu (mutuality) with dictates the normative behavioral pattern for its followers (Zhang, Everett & Elkin, 2012). Various Confucian virtues have found their way into the Chinese leadership, with attributes, including the class system, obedience, benevolence, righteousness, and doctrines such as tolerance, forgiveness, and wisdom being advocated (Han et al., 2010). The five critical concepts of Confucianism contributes a critical facet to servant leadership. Humanness epitomizes a person’s concern for others. The second concept, appropriateness, advocates for a conscious interaction between people that demands contextual understanding and self-understanding (Zhang et al., 2012). The concept of ritual provides guidelines that dictate how a person is supposed to behave in relation to other people. The fourth and fifth concept of consciousness and mutuality advocates for sincerity and authenticity to self, respectively. 

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The primary concept of servant leadership, which is serving others to achieve organizational goals, is supported by many ideologies in the Confucian ethic. The concept of ren (humanness) advocates for people to help others take a stand and get others to achieve their goal. The first Confucian concept requires leaders to help their followers, and vice versa, to achieve their objective. Ren provides a cultural basis for attributes, including honesty, integrity, credibility, and trust, which are key characteristics of a servant leader (Zhang et al., 2012). Confucianism, through its concepts of Ren and Yi, advocates for self-sacrifices and self-restraint in the pursuit of personal interest for the benefit of the society. Therefore, leaders are encouraged to be selfless in taking up sacrificial roles and develop strong desires to make a positive impact on their followers. Yi and Li, in the Confucian culture, recommend people to be aware of their surroundings (Zhang et al., 2012). Just as in the servant leadership theory, a leader is required to have wisdom that combines the awareness of the surrounding and the ability to predict the consequences of his or her actions. Moreover, the Confucian culture advocates the virtue of listening, which is an attribute that is expected of a servant leader. In sum, the five concepts embodied in Confucianism advocates for a leadership system that is very similar to servant leadership. 

The core principles in the Sikh religion advocates for good leadership that possess many similarities to servant leadership. The religion, which emanates from the Punjab region of South Asia is among the ten most popular in the worlds. According to the Sikhism religion, a person should practice equality, liberty, and selfless services (Kaur, 2018). The religion has managed to produce multiple Gurus, who preach virtues of love, devotion, truthful living, liberty, equality, justice, and humanity, which are key elements of an ethical leader (Kaur, 2018). The religion also shuns vices such as lust, pleasure, greed, anger, and attachment, which can be considered to be traits of a selfish leader. 

The Guru Prophets leadership system, which was later replaced by the Guru leadership system, shows an example of self-sacrifice to lead the religion and the disciples. In the past five decades, multiple personalities have been witnessed in the Sikh leadership. Every Sikh Guru emphasized the balance between leading for the benefit of others while maintaining a sense of self-sovereignty (Kaur, 2018). In other words, the Gurus dedicated their lives to serving the Sikh disciples and expected nothing in return; they devoted a part of their lives to services and still managed to sustain their livelihood. Guru Amardas, the third Guru, said that leaders who are motivated by materialistic royalty are not worthy of noble recognition (Kaur, 2018). Instead, a leader should be fearless, creative, unbiased, and honest. An ideal leader, according to Gurus, is not only supposed to possess the knowledge, but also divine wisdom. Leadership virtues as per Sikh teachings advocates for a selfless leader who is ready to serve in an unbiased manner and for the benefit of the society, which is a primary requirement in servant leadership. 

Seeking harmony is paramount in a Sikh community. For that reason, no individual leader can make a Sikh related decision. From history leadership in the Sikh community, it is evident that collective interest is always given priority over self-interest. Furthermore, the concept of introducing the five dedicated Sikhs cemented the idea of non-reliance of an individual person (Tatla, 2008). The concept was introduced to reduce the chances of corruption, which is vice advised against in servant leadership. 

While multiple scholars have argued that servant leadership is a Western idea that cannot work in other areas of the world, its key concepts and elements are evident in various non-Western cultures and religion. The Chinese culture of Confucianism has five primary concepts, including humanness, appropriateness, ritual, consciousness, and mutuality, which promotes an interpersonal relationship that is based on self-sacrifice, self-restraint, and surroundings awareness, which is also part of the servant leadership theory. The Sikh religion, on the other hand, epitomizes servant leadership through its long history of Gurus and its core principles of equality, liberty, and selfless service. 


Han, Y., Kakabadse, N. K., & Kakabadse, A. (2010). Servant leadership in the People's Republic of China: A case study of the public sector.  Journal of Management Development

Kaur, N. (2018). Leadership: the essence of Sikhism. International Journal of Trend in Scientific Research and Development, 2 (2). 

Tatla, D. (2008). Sikhism and development: A review.  RAD Working Papers Series

Zhang, H., Everett, A. M., & Elkin, G. (2012). Philosophical roots of servant leadership in the Chinese Confucian context. 

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StudyBounty. (2023, September 15). What Is Servant Leadership?.


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