In 1958, an 18-year-old aspiring preacher sat down to write a letter he thought no one would answer. To his surprise, he not only received a response. He also received a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery as an invitation to meet with the man he penned the letter to.
Upon his arrival, the recent high school graduate was taken to First Baptist Church and ushered into an office.
As told to StoryCorps, the recipient of the letter asked him, “Are you the boy from Troy?”
The young man looked at the leader he would later stand beside throughout numerous arrests, jailings, and severe beatings.
He responded, “Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.”
The impact King had on Lewis’s life is only one story about the multitude of people he influenced to change the world for the better. Lewis went on to become a leader in the Civil Rights Movement (one of the “Big Six” who organized the 1963 March on Washington), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a member of the Atlanta City Council, and third chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Throughout his career, Lewis undoubtedly had the same effect on many more young people who went on to inspire another generation of leaders. This is a prime example of the power of servant leadership: an infinite loop of positive influence that develops strong leaders by serving the needs of others first.
Why This Leadership Style Matters
Somewhere along the lines, the meaning of leadership has been lost. Now, the modern understanding of the word “leader” often correlates with learning how to be the wealthiest person in the room. Yet, the mark of true leadership is transformation. For those who choose this leadership style, success is determined by how many lives they change for the better. Leading with a servant’s heart is the only answer to make a radical change in the world.
You might be thinking, “I want to serve people, but how can I make money and create a sustainable business doing this?” It’s important to note becoming a servant leader doesn’t equate to a life of poverty. In fact, some of the world’s most successful people practice this leadership style. Take Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba; Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A; Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes; Cher Wang, co-founder of HTC Corporation; and David Green, founder of Hobby Lobby, for example. While these people have all led multi-million and billion-dollar organizations, their purpose isn’t financial gain: positively transforming lives is. Increased revenue, growth, and success organically happen when a business leader prioritizes serving others’ needs above their own.
For those who hear the calling to become a servant leader, this article will:
- Answer the questions, “what is servant leadership?” and “what is a servant leader?”
- Show why transformation occurs through servant leadership
- Discuss how servant leaders think
What is Servant Leadership Theory?
Servant Leadership Definition
This theory is a philosophical concept in which people establish authority not through traditional top-down power structures but by serving with the innate desire to fulfill their team’s and community’s needs.
Those who practice this leadership style multiply leaders by positively influencing those they serve and fostering consistent development in their followers. For this reason, it is an infinite learning process that produces maximum influence and impact, making it one of the best leadership styles.
Who Developed the Servant Leadership Style?
Servant leadership has ancient roots and is centuries old. The life of Jesus Christ is a prime example of it in action. As a servant leader, Jesus taught his followers to live to serve others first. He demonstrated this type of leadership when he washed his disciples’ feet in John 13:15. In doing so, he tells them: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” By investing in his 12 apostles and teaching them how to lead in this manner, he created a group of servants who developed thousands more. Two millennia later, there are millions of servant leaders who exist today.
Modern-Day Servant Leadership
Today, people credit Robert Greenleaf for the servant leadership style. Greenleaf spent 38 years working for AT&T, rising to the ranks of Director of Management Development. During his career, he noticed a negative shift in business culture and traditional leadership. People desired to be a leader but didn’t have it in their hearts to serve others. Because of this, businesses started lacking integrity, operated with poor ethics, and began negatively impacting their employees and customers.
However, in the 60s and 70s, Greenleaf noticed a growing movement of people who were challenging the status quo. In 1970, he wrote “The Servant as Leader,” arguing these service-driven executives and managers were true leaders, not the people who were motivated by power and authority. Through his writings, he continued fueling the movement for ethical and positively influential business practices by teaching leadership qualities and calling servants to action.
Greenleaf is another great example of servant leadership as a multiplying phenomenon. His works influenced people like Stephen Covey, Margaret Wheatley, and Ken Blanchard. Additionally, his influence is seen in companies such as Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, and TDIndustries. Today, his legacy lives on through the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Here, thousands of people have been influenced by his teachings.
SHRM and Servant Leadership
Aside from Greenleaf, another major contributor to the popularization of this leadership style is the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). By lobbying Congress, researching workplace issues and their effects on employees, releasing white papers and reports on their findings, providing educational resources, and holding conferences on work-related topics, they are a strong force in advocating for an increase in servant leadership.
How This Type of Leadership Works in Business
Chick-fil-A is a great example of an organization that created a work culture filled with employees who have servant’s hearts. By analyzing five of their best practices, any business owner can replicate this model.
5 Actions of a Servant-Led Organization
1. Write stewardship into the company mission.
For example, Chick-fil-A’s mission statement is: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.”
2. Establish strong company values.
If Chick-fil-A opened on Sundays, it could increase its profits by billions of dollars, but the restaurant refuses to compromise its employees’ day of worship and rest.
3. Select employees and business partners who align with the company’s values.
Chick-fil-A carefully selects those who will positively contribute to their organizational culture. Employees and especially franchise owners must align with their values and mission. For instance, they are extremely serious about this process—the business vets potential owners for up to a year and only accepts 1% of applicants.
4. Focus on the development of team members.
In 2018, Chick-fil-A provided financial resources for 5,700 employees in college. In total, the company spent $14.6 million dollars on scholarships.
5. Serve the needs of followers in their community.
The company’s headquarters are in Atlanta, Georgia, where the business gifts many of its large-scale donations. Most notably, the Chick-fil-A Foundation gave $1 million dollars to Atlanta’s non-profit City of Refuge and provided $500,000 to build a new YMCA in the city.
Characteristics of Servant Leadership in Practice
According to Larry C. Spears, founder of the Spears Center for Servant Leadership, those who practice this type of leadership share 10 common characteristics. Through decades of research he found they all:
Servants commit to asking questions, but more importantly, they actively listen to the answers provided. For instance, someone who has listening skills will often repeat what they’re hearing, which affirms understanding. By doing so, they facilitate constructive conversation and better comprehend the needs of the person or group. Additionally, listening well allows time for reflection and thoughtful responses.
2. Show Empathy
Being empathic is part of emotional intelligence (EI), which is one of the top skills of great executives and managers. EI increases by actively working on self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management. Empathy as a part of social awareness involves social interaction and practicing compassion, sympathy, concern, or understanding. In short, the more a servant leader gains perspective and walks in others’ shoes, the more they can fulfill their purpose by recognizing and serving the needs of those they lead.
Calling people to join them in serving a mission greater than themselves is a natural feeling for servant leaders. Their focus on purpose can bring long-term healing to those who are searching for a sense of fulfillment. By developing empathy, awareness, listening, and community-building, they equip themselves with essential tools to build trusting relationships with those they lead.
In essence, the healing process includes providing emotional support, encouraging team members, and seeing the best in employees by recognizing gifts and talents. Try creating this kind of healing experience during one-on-one discussions or in team meetings.
4. Have Self-Awareness and Social Awareness
Self-awareness focuses on the recognition of one’s emotions and how they impact others. Social awareness is recognizing, understanding, and caring about the feelings of others. In business, this means constantly checking in with yourself and your employees and taking care of their needs.
For example, at Ancient Nutrition, through a process the company has in place, a team member revealed their mother recently passed away, which was the cause of her recent low performance. To care for the employee, the business paid for her flight home, got her flowers, and made sure her work was taken care of while she was away. Being attuned to slight social changes like this and doing something about it is what makes for a great servant leader.
5. Persuade with Positive Influence
Authority is decentralized in this leadership model. Instead of deploying a top-down command, servant executives and managers guide with influence and persuasion. While persuasion often gets a bad rap, it shouldn’t be confused with manipulation. Persuasive leaders actively listen, look for commonalities, and build bridges.
For example, best-selling author and leadership expert Dale Carnegie writes in How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Begin by emphasizing—and keep on emphasizing—the things on which you agree. Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.”
6. Cast Vision and Conceptualize
Vision is a key component of servant leadership. Without a vision, people within a community cannot be called to achieve a collective purpose. It’s important that stewards establish a daily visualization practice. Doing so helps them to determine and communicate the organization’s direction.
In The Infinite Game, best-selling leadership author Simon Sinek brings to light the importance of having a vision that serves a just cause. Think about what the organization fights for. Whether it’s being an advocate of diversity and inclusion, bringing clean water to those in need, or feeding the poor, what are you doing to serve the greater good? Start casting a vision for what can be accomplished by a team of people working together toward a better future.
7. Use Foresight as a Strategic Tool
While similar to conceptualization, foresight is a part of the strategy development process. Having foresight means using analytical thinking skills to visualize potential outcomes in the future. In Greenleaf’s “The Servant as Leader,” he writes, “Foresight is the ‘lead’ that the leader has. Once he loses this lead and events start to force him to act, he is a leader in name only.” Essentially, foresight is a strategic decision-making tool that proactively guides the organization in the right direction.
8. Act as a Steward
Stewards feel a sense of duty and obligation to humbly serve the needs of others. In action, they practice accountability and discipline while sharing their wisdom. Stewardship takes people from the top of the organizational food chain and places them on the ground, working to fulfill the needs of those they serve. In turn, they multiply leaders, which is a core component of servant leadership. For instance, John C. Maxwell and his EQUIP Leadership® program is one of the best servant leadership examples. Since 1996, the organization has trained over six million people who have undoubtedly influenced the lives of millions of others.
Another great example of a leader with a steward mentality is Eli Manning, former quarterback for the New York Giants and two-time Superbowl Championship winner. In 2020, he won the Bart Starr Award for character and leadership. During his speech, he first honored his fellow nominees, demonstrating humility and the desire to recognize others. “I’m happy to say that there are so many others in the league who deserve to be singled out for the way that they conduct their lives on and off the field. That’s especially true of this year’s finalists. Congratulations to all of you,” he said in front of a crowd of 1,500 people. In doing so, he shows the spirit of a steward.
9. Develop People
Nurturing the personal and professional development of community members is a core tenet of servant leadership. This means recognizing a person’s full potential and providing guidance on how to achieve it. Through consistent motivation, inspiration, and encouragement, managers and executives can influence others to become the best versions of themselves. They also provide mentorship and leadership development opportunities. Ultimately, with their organizations, servants demonstrate a commitment to the growth of others.
Grow team members by:
- Providing constructive feedback
- Teaching employees new skills
- Creating mutual accountability
- Encouraging people to set their own challenging, but achievable goals
- Recognizing and rewarding hard work and acts of service
- Offering resources for leadership development
- Serving as a mentor
10. Cultivate Trusting Communities
Finally, servants cultivate communities where people feel a sense of trust and belonging. As leadership expert Simon Sinek says in an interview with Capture Your Flag, “Trust is not something that can be dictated . . . It’s environmental . . . Leaders determine the environment.”
When executives and managers start serving themselves first, the community’s environment negatively shifts into one where people feel paranoid, anxious, or fearful. Self-interest takes over because those in the organization go into survival mode and trust diminishes. However, organizations built to last have people who put the needs of others ahead of their own. Companies excel when those at the top focus on helping everyone in the business to flourish and fulfill their goals. Ultimately, Sinek says the key is to eliminate self-interested behavior and lead from a place of values and ethics.
Learn more about the answer to, “What are ethical values?”
Passing the Servant Leadership Test
While business executives and managers can practice the above characteristics, how do they know if they’re truly a servant leader? In “The Servant as Leader,” Robert Greenleaf developed a “best test” that helps identify whether or not someone is practicing this leadership style. He writes, “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?” If these three objectives are met, a person is a servant leader.
Similarly, you will know if someone is learning to be a servant leader by the fruit they yield. Are they generating positive transformations in employees’ and customers’ lives? Do they create change in their community? Have those closest to them developed into strong servant leaders, too? Good trees produce healthy fruit, whereas bad trees bear rotten or bitter fruit. It’s a simple test, but one that will determine the quality of a leader each and every time.