Since Robert K. Greenleaf wrote his seminal essay, The Servant as Leader, the servant leadership movement has risen from obscurity to the very principles of how the most successful companies on the planet operate and profit.

Roughly one-third of those companies are regularly featured in Fortune magazine's annual "100 Best Companies to Work For" list for having high trust, high employee engagement, and low turnover. Classic examples include TD Industries, Southwest Airlines, the Container Store, and Whole Foods Market.

To track the movement in published format over the past three decades, I dug around my own library and several web resources, plus the favorites of thought leaders, execs, authors, and academics to determine which books they feel have had the most impact on advancing the servant leadership movement. 

15 Best and Most Popular Servant Leadership Books of All Time

While my original list continues to expand as the movement grows, for this entry (and for the sake of blogging length), I'm narrowing it down to 15 notable books that would appeal to the mainstream, and anyone looking for his or her first immersion into servant leadership. I have listed them by publication year, from oldest to newest. Many below are quite popular, frequently recommended, and referenced in other books and the literature. 

Author: Ken Melrose
Date: 1995

Summary: Melrose, the former CEO of Toro Motor Company, gives us an inside look at how servant leadership became the catalyst for turning the company around. 

Author: James Hunter
Date: 1998

Summary: A great book for beginners on their immersion into servant leadership. Hunter's fable involves a businessman failing miserably as boss, husband, father, and coach. To get his life back on track, he reluctantly attends a weeklong leadership retreat at a remote Benedictine monastery, where he discovers the life-changing principles of servant leadership.

Author: Jim Collins
Date: 2001

Summary: This seminal classic should be in everyone's book case. Collins once admitted that his staff objected to the idea of calling his book by a servant leadership title, so he went with Good to Great. Regardless, his "Level 5 Leadership" framework as a means for advancing companies from good to great highlight the very best principles of servant leadership in action.

Author: Robert K. Greenleaf (edited by Larry C. Spears)
Date: 2002

Summary: The 25th anniversary edition of this ground-breaking 1977 book contains all of Greenleaf's classic text and central ideas as described in the first three essays that he wrote: "The Servant as Leader," "The Institution as Servant," and "Trustees as Servants." A must-have for students and diehards of the movement, but I don't recommend it as your first choice if you're at the beginner level.

Author: Max De Pree
Date: 2004

Summary: Referred to as the "bible for the business world," the book, written by the successful former CEO of Herman Miller, explores leadership as a kind of stewardship, stressing the importance of building relationships, initiating ideas, and creating a lasting value system within an organization. De Pree shows that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality and the last is to say thank you.

Author: James Hunter
Date: 2004

Summary: In this follow-up to his book The Servant, Hunter trots out examples of servant leadership ranging from that of Southwest Airlines and General Electric to the U.S. military and professional football. Written in a conversational and accessible tone, we learn that leadership is synonymous with influence and moral maturity in action: doing the right thing regardless of the cost.

Author: James Autry
Date: 2004

Summary: Best-selling author and former Fortune 500 executive James Autry reveals the servant leader's tools, a set of skills and ideals that transform the way business is done. The result is a more productive, successful, and happier organization, and a more meaningful life for the leader. 

Author: Kent Keith
Date: 2008

Summary: Keith, the former CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, offers up a universally practical definition for servant leadership, comparing it to the power model of leadership, and describing key practices of notable servant-leaders. This is another timeless and great introduction to the movement.

Author: Howard Behar
Date: 2009

Summary: Founding president of Starbucks International and former president of Starbucks North America, Behar details the 10 servant leadership principles that guided his leadership to extraordinary success -- and not one of them is about coffee.

Authors: James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick
Date: 2009

Summary: This book shows readers how to evolve and implement the competencies and behaviors of servant leadership using pointed questions, stories, exercises, case studies, and research-based activities that the authors field tested with numerous leaders in the public and private sectors. 

Author: Tony Hsieh
Date: 2010

Summary: Hsieh, the CEO of online retailer Zappos, shares the business lessons he has learned throughout his life, from a lemonade stand and pizza business all the way to Zappos. Ultimately, he shows how using servant leadership principles as a framework can produce profits, passion, and purpose both in business and in life.

Author: Simon Sinek
Date: 2014

Summary: The author of the wildly popular book Start With Why offers insights on how to build a workplace around trust and avoid the infighting and silos that doom unsuccessful cultures. Note: Sinek's latest paperback version, published in 2017, includes an expanded index on leading Millennials.

Authors: Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert 
Date: 2016

Summary: While Jennings and Stahl-Wert use an easy-to-read parable to outline the key ideas and practices of servant leadership, all the characters in the story are based on real people; the organizations depicted are based on real organizations; and the results they achieved are what really happened. This one is quickly becoming a classic.

Author: Kristen Hadeed 
Date: 2017

Summary: Hadeed built Student Maid, a cleaning company, while attending college 10 years ago. It is now widely recognized for its industry-leading retention rate and its culture of trust and accountability. But that's far from how it started. Hadeed shares through a brutally honest (and hilarious, at times) account how she went from totally inept leader to making Student Maid a place her people couldn't imagine leaving.

Authors: Various (edited by Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell) 
Date: 2018

Summary: Legendary business author and lifelong servant leader Ken Blanchard and his longtime editor Renee Broadwell edited this recent release, which is the most comprehensive and wide-ranging servant leadership guide ever published. The collection features 44 renowned servant leadership experts and practitioners who offer advice and tools for implementing the servant leadership model.

What would you add to this list? Leave me a comment.

Published on: Mar 17, 2018
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