When you think about it, this quote makes perfect business sense. But it’s so rare and hard to find. What is it and why is it important. Asked and answered inĀ Inc, by Marcel Schwantes.

Robert K. Greenleaf was the first to coin the term “servant leadership” in the modern corporate setting when he wrote these famous words in his legendary essay, The Servant as Leader, published in 1970. He said:

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.

Here’s some context on the importance of this quote: While working for AT&T as an executive and management trainer in the middle of last century, Greenleaf realized that the organizations that thrived had leaders who acted more as supportive coaches and served both the needs of employees and organizations. As he once put it: “The organization exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organization.” This was not a popular idea at the time. It still isn’t!

And so it became his mission to push his ideas forward to transform industry. In his essays, he stressed that servant leadership emphasizes a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community, and the sharing of power in decision-making. Unheard of ideas during that time.

Today, scores of colleges and universities teach servant leadership in their business schools and thousands of successful companies worldwide embrace and practice servant leadership, including some that have made Fortune magazine’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work for over the last decade:

SAS Institute, the software firm, was No.1 on the list in 2011. They’ve been ranked consistently in the top 10 over the years.

Wegmans Food Market was No.7 in 2014.

Credera, the management consulting company, was No.27 in 2016 (a favorite for Millennials).

Zappos, the online retailer, was No.11 in 2012 and has been on the list several times.

REI, the outdoor equipment retailer, has cracked the top 10 over the years.

Other notables: Nordstroms, Whole Foods Market, The Container Store,

TD Industries, Aflac, Marriott International.

These wildly successful companies–known for having high trust, high employee engagement, and low turnover–are guided by visionary executives and founders who walk the talk of servant leadership.

In fact, back in March, I published a top 10 list of the world’s best CEOs and founders whose companies operate in servant leadership cultures. The biggest challenge was narrowing down the list to just ten, since so many more are making a positive impact on business, society, and the future of work.


Looking at it again, notice that Greenleaf said, “It begins with the natural feeling…” In other words, it comes from within–from deep inside you, which is ingrained in your whole being. As a leader adapts a mindset to “serve first” then “conscious choice” kicks in — it’s intentional and actionable to now “aspire to lead” in this manner.

This leadership approach is designed for both head and heart to be in the game. And this is partly the reason why so many never attempt it, or try and fail miserably at servant leadership. It’s leadership by character, and not every person is equipped to meet the high expectations that servant leadership demands.

Think about it: “The servant leader is servant first.”

When you serve first, it’s for the other person’s benefit. It requires the best leaders to focus their attention away from themselves and put the spotlight on their employees — growing and empowering them first. Greenleaf noticed that these leaders got the best out of their employees; they were more motivated, creative, productive and that led to great business results.


Yet there’s so much tension in the paradox of the terms. The words servant and leader are usually thought of as being opposites. And this is tremendously counter-intuitive in today’s command and control leadership structures, who wrongly perceive servant-leaders as doormats.

But in reality, the servant-leader leads with authority, but they do so by supporting the employees from the bottom up. They demand excellence and hold employees accountable for success and high performance. They can be tough.

Now read it again:

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.

Let me bring this home. Servant leadership, in the most conventional business sense, is a total commitment to create the conditions for superior performance (by serving first). This is what it’s all about. The challenge is to set aside self and focus on others to help them reach remarkable results.

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