Robert K. Greenleaf (1904 – 1990), was the one whose thoughts and writings on the servant-leader introduced the servant leadership mindset to the business world. Greenleaf:
„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.“
„The best test (of a servant-leader) is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
Greenleafs approach has much in common with the popular transformational leadership approach. While the primary focus of transformational leadership is on the growth of the organization, Greenleafs focus is on the growth of the individual.
For Greenleaf the key to servant leadership is the desire of the leader to serve others first – which often turns out to be the crucial question, if a leader considers servant leadership.
Leaders use a variety of metaphors to communicate their understanding of leadership. Common metaphors are the organization-as-machine, the organization-as-ship, as sports team, or as orchestra. Not so common, but very apropriate for a servant leadership shaped organization culture is the organization-as-garden metaphor.
To get an idea if a certain leadership concept is based on servant leadership thinking or not, you can check what metaphors are used in the organization – especially by the leaders -, and listen to the staff if they feel that their growth is important to their supervisors. Going back to Greenleaf, the key questions are: Do the people in the organization feel that their leaders want to serve others first, and do the people grow as persons?