Robert K. Greenleaf coined 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 the past century, Greenleaf realized that the organizations that thrived had leaders who acted more as supportive coaches and served the needs of both employees and organizations. As he once put it: "The organization exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organization."

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 past decade:

  • SAS Institute, the software firm, was No. 1 on the list in 2011. It's been ranked in the top 10 consistently 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: Nordstrom, 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 10 companies, since so many more are making a positive impact on business, society, and the future of work.

Back to the Quote (and Why It's So Important)

Looking at the quote again, notice that Greenleaf said, "It begins with the natural feeling that ... " 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," "conscious choice" kicks in. It's intentional and actionable to "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, and productive and that led to great business results.

The Doormat Perception

There's so much tension in the paradox of the term "servant leadership." The words servant and leader are usually thought of as being opposites. And the term is tremendously counterintuitive in today's command-and-control leadership structures, which wrongly perceive servant leaders as doormats.

But in reality, servant leaders lead 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 creating 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.

Want to acknowledge a servant leader you currently work for, or have worked with in the past? Leave me a comment below, or hit me up on Twitter.