A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of employees first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Not only is this leadership style grounded in ethics and empathy, it has proven to create a more productive, collaborative, and successful workplace.
For example, take John Robert Lewis, who in 1958, wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In response, he received a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery, Alabama. Upon his arrival, the 18-year-old Lewis was taken to First Baptist Church and ushered into King’s office. This meeting sparked a relationship that would see numerous arrests, jailings, and severe beatings in a joint effort to obtain equal rights. Lewis went on to achieve great things with the guidance of King, who was a servant leader. Due to King’s influence, Lewis became a prominent figure in the American civil rights movement and served as a United States congressman, thus inspiring a new generation of servant leaders.
As the story above demonstrates, servant leadership is an infinite loop of positive influence that develops strong leaders by serving the needs of others first. The power of servant leadership lies in its ability to inspire and empower individuals to reach their full potential, fostering a culture of trust and sustainable growth.
In this article, learn the definition of servant leadership, how it compares to traditional leadership, examples of successful servant leaders, and why this philosophy benefits company success.
- Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy that prioritizes the needs of the team, employees, or followers over the self-interest of the leader.
- This style of leadership promotes empowerment, trust, empathy, and ethical decision-making, with the goal of creating more socially responsible organizations and communities.
- Servant leadership flips the conventional leadership hierarchy upside down, where the leader exists to serve the people rather than the other way around.
- Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the term “servant leadership” in his essay “The Servant as Leader” in 1970. He believed that true leaders are service-driven and focused on helping others rather than being motivated by power and authority.
- Companies thrive under servant leaders because they promote employee engagement and satisfaction, foster greater collaboration, uphold ethical business practices, empower and develop employees, and contribute positively to communities and society.
What Is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership is a philosophical concept in which people establish a leadership role not through traditional top-down power structures, but by serving with the innate desire to fulfill their team’s and community’s needs.
Servant leadership flips the conventional leadership hierarchy upside down. Instead of people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When leaders shift their mindset to serve first, they unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, leading to higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees.
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.
A 2019 systematic review published in The Leadership Quarterly indicates that servant leadership has demonstrated better follower outcomes by 12% when compared to transformational leadership, 6% when compared to ethical leadership, and 5% when compared to authentic leadership.
The report measured outcomes related to:
- Positive behavior
- Task performance
- Team performance
Greenleaf and “The Servant as Leader”
“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 . . .”Robert Greenleaf, “The Servant as Leader”
The concept of servant leadership was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader,” an essay that he first published in 1970.
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 realized that although people desired to be in a leadership role, they 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.
Greenleaf believed true leaders were service-driven executives and managers, not those 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.
The 10 Principles of Servant Leadership
Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, build better organizations, and ultimately create a more just and caring world.
Greenleaf, who first coined the term, discussed the key principles of servant leadership, which have been identified as the following:
Servant leaders practice active listening with their team members and facilitate constructive conversation. They value their input and feedback and are responsive and attentive to their concerns and needs.
Become an active listener by:
- Helping people feel comfortable and more willing to share their opinions
- Giving speakers your full attention and avoiding distractions
- Asking questions and restating what you’ve heard
- Acknowledging emotions and being sensitive to them
- Making eye contact
- Avoiding interruptions and sticking to the subject
During her time as CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi showed a dedication to listening to the voices of all stakeholders, from customers to employees at all levels of the company. She was known for her deep engagement, often spending hours in conversation with employees to understand their perspectives and concerns.
2. Show Empathy
Servant leaders strive to understand and empathize with their team members. They validate their feelings and experiences, treating each person as unique and valuable. Research indicates that showing empathy to employees and team members also promotes better engagement, communication, productivity, and innovation.
Become an empathetic leader by:
- Giving specific positive feedback that’s sincere and meaningful
- Conducting one-on-one meetings to foster a supportive environment
- Offering help and support
- Providing emotional validation when team members express themselves
- Treating employees like capable adults
- Paying attention to body language and other non-verbal cues
Mother Teresa showed immense empathy for those she served, treating everyone with compassion, regardless of their circumstances. This deep empathy allowed her to connect with people and understand their needs, a key characteristic of servant leadership.
3. Foster Healing
Servant leaders are committed to the personal and emotional well-being of their team members. They work to create an environment that promotes personal growth and healing, which is done by providing emotional support, encouraging team members to share their opinions and grow in their roles, and seeing the best in employees by recognizing their gifts and talents.
You can create an environment that fosters personal growth and healing by:
- Engaging in active listening
- Providing positive affirmations
- Creating a warm and positive workplace environment
- Offering support and guidance
- Conducting one-on-one meetings that promote communication and honesty
- Encouraging discussions and opinion sharing
After spending 27 years in prison for his role in opposing apartheid, the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, advocated for reconciliation rather than vengeance upon his release. He focused on healing the wounds of apartheid and unifying the nation rather than perpetuating divisions.
4. Demonstrate Self-Awareness
Servant leaders are highly self-aware and conscious of their own values, emotions, and behaviors, as well as how these factors impact those around them. Having self-awareness allows you to recognize your own emotions and actions and pay close attention to how your employees or team members are affected by them.
Increase self-awareness by:
- Practicing mindfulness exercises, like meditation, journaling, and deep breathing
- Asking for feedback to gain a better perspective
- Paying attention to how people act around you
- Learning from your mistakes
- Showing gratitude to yourself and others
Mahatma Gandhi valued peace and non-violence and dedicated his life to serving others, particularly the poorest and most marginalized citizens of India. His philosophy was deeply rooted in “seva,” or selfless service.
5. Persuade With Positive Influence
Rather than relying on their authority to get things done, servant leaders use influence and persuasion. They seek to convince others to follow their lead rather than coerce compliance. This is possible because servant leaders establish a trusting, open, and honest relationship with their followers or team members.
Persuade with positive influence by:
- Leading by example, demonstrating the behaviors and attitudes you wish to promote
- Engaging in positive communication and encouraging collaboration
- Showing your credibility by displaying your knowledge and skill sets
- Building relationships and rapport with followers or team members
When Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014, the company was seen as losing its edge in the technology sector. Nadella helped turn this around by persuading employees, stakeholders, and customers of a new vision for Microsoft that emphasized cloud computing, AI, and other emerging technologies. His vision and strategy, which were communicated persuasively, helped Microsoft regain its position as a leading tech innovator.
6. Cast Vision and Conceptualization
Servant leaders can conceptualize their vision and goals for their team or organization, looking beyond day-to-day realities to understand broader contexts. Without a vision, people within a community or company cannot be called to achieve a collective purpose.
Conceptualize and communicate your vision by:
- Deciding what you want your future to look like
- Defining what problem or burden you are working to solve
- Raising awareness of this problem with your team and creating a sense of urgency
- Developing a vision statement that clearly articulates your mission or “why”
- Engaging in visualization strategies with your team
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. showed the ability to envision a better future with his “I Have A Dream” speech and inspired others to work toward achieving this common vision.
7. Use Foresight as a Strategic Tool
Servant leaders have the ability to foresee future outcomes by using their past experiences and present realities to make predictions that help guide their followers or employees. In Greenleaf’s essay, 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.
Obtain foresight by:
- Continuously learning about trends that may impact your industry or focus of work
- Expanding your network to provide a broader perspective and new spark ideas
- Listening and encouraging feedback
- Learning from mistakes of the past
- Embracing change and using new approaches to solve problems
- Encouraging innovation and exploration of new ideas
Paul Polman, who became CEO of Unilever in 2009, quickly laid out a bold vision for the company and increased its positive social impact through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). This was a time when few companies were making such commitments and his foresight about the importance of sustainability has not only improved Unilever’s environmental and social impact, but also contributed to its financial success.
8. Act as a Steward
Servant leaders view themselves as stewards, or caretakers, of their organizations. They are committed to serving the needs of the organization as a whole, instead of being focused on their own ambitions. 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.
Act as a steward to your followers or team by:
- Prioritizing the long-term success of your business, team, or organization
- Acting in a way that aligns with your values
- Focusing on growing and developing your followers
- Empowering the people around you to make decisions and succeed
- Holding yourself accountable and fostering transparency
As CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra led the company to prioritize electric vehicles and sustainable practices. In 2020, she announced GM’s commitment to producing only electric vehicles by 2035 and becoming carbon neutral by 2040. This kind of forward-looking strategy represents stewardship as it ensures the company’s relevance and competitiveness in the future.
9. Commit to Growth in People
Servant leaders are deeply committed to the personal and professional growth of their team members. They nurture the personal, professional, and even spiritual growth of employees.
Through consistent motivation, inspiration, and encouragement, servant leaders can influence others to become the best versions of themselves. They also provide mentorship and leadership development opportunities.
Commit to growth in people by:
- Providing learning opportunities and encouraging personal and professional development
- Assigning challenging projects that allow them to grow their abilities and build confidence
- Providing regular feedback
- Encouraging healthy work-life balance
- Delegating tasks and trusting that they’ll be completed
- Recognizing and awarding achievements
- Encouraging self-reflection and mindfulness
Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, is a strong believer in empowering employees to make decisions. He often states that the best ideas and innovations come from employees who are on the front lines of business operations. By empowering his employees, he encourages their growth and development.
10. Build a Trusting Community
Servant leaders strive to build a sense of community within their organizations. They facilitate collaboration and promote a sense of belonging and mutual support among team members. Organizations that are built to last have leaders 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.
Build trust within your community or workplace by:
- Leading by example, acting with integrity and transparency
- Keeping lines of open and honest communication
- Showing consistency with your actions, decision-making, and responses
- Valuing and respecting the people around you
- Keeping commitments
- Encouraging collaboration and participation
Tony Hsieh, the late CEO of Zappos, was renowned for his efforts to build a trusting community within his company. His leadership philosophy focused on prioritizing company culture and employee happiness, which he believed were the foundations for creating a successful business. Hsieh invested heavily in ensuring that Zappos’ culture was one where employees felt valued, respected, and happy. This commitment to culture helped to build trust, as employees felt that the company genuinely cared about their well-being.
Servant Leadership vs. Traditional Leadership
Servant leadership and traditional leadership differ primarily in their focus and approach toward leading people and organizations.
Here are the four key differences:
Traditional Leadership: The primary focus is often on the success of the company or organization. This can be achieved through various means such as achieving set goals, increasing profits, or other measures of corporate success. The leader’s role is generally viewed as one of command and control, with employees serving their leader.
Servant Leadership: The primary focus is on the well-being and development of the people within the organization. Servant leaders view their role as serving their employees, helping them reach their full potential, and fostering a positive and supportive environment. They believe that this, in turn, leads to organizational success.
2. Power Dynamics
Traditional Leadership: Power typically resides at the top, with the leader giving instructions and making important decisions. Employees are expected to follow these decisions and directions.
Servant Leadership: Power is shared and decentralized. Servant leaders empower their employees to make decisions and contribute ideas. They view their role as facilitators and enablers rather than being the primary decision-makers.
3. Approach to Success
Traditional Leadership: Success is usually measured in terms of output, such as meeting targets or increasing profits. Leaders are judged by their ability to steer the company toward these objectives.
Servant Leadership: While meeting organizational objectives is important, success is also measured by the growth and development of the people within the organization. Equal value is placed on creating a positive work environment, nurturing employees, and contributing to the community.
Traditional Leadership: Decisions are often top-down, with the leader or a small group of top executives making important decisions.
Servant Leadership: Decision-making is more participative, with leaders seeking the input and involvement of their teams. They value diverse perspectives and strive to reach decisions that benefit all stakeholders.
Why Companies Need Servant Leaders
Servant leadership promotes a leadership style that focuses on serving others before oneself.
Companies need more servant leaders for the following reasons:
- Employee Engagement and Satisfaction: Servant leaders often cultivate an environment of trust, respect, and fairness. This approach can lead to increased employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention. One report by Haiilo shows that when employees trust their employers, they experience 74% less stress and 40% less burnout.
- Greater Collaboration: Servant leaders foster a cooperative environment where team members feel valued, heard, and motivated to contribute to their full potential. This can enhance innovation, productivity, and overall team performance. According to Gartner, 82% of employees say it’s important for their organization to see them as a person, not just an employee, but only 45% actually believe their leaders see them that way.
- Ethical Business Practices: Servant leaders prioritize doing what’s right over profit maximization. They uphold high ethical standards, which can foster a moral and socially responsible business culture. Data collected by Ethisphere shows that companies recognized as the most ethical outperformed similar companies by 25% overall.
- Empowerment and Development: Servant leaders empower their team members to take the initiative, develop their skills, and progress in their careers. They see their success as a byproduct of the success of their team members. A large-scale study by Employee Benefit News found that the top reason for employees leaving a job is a lack of career development and growth opportunities.
- Community and Social Impact: Servant leaders often extend their servant mindset beyond their organizations, serving their communities and society at large. This can result in a significant positive social impact. A global Zeno study revealed that consumers are 4–6 times more likely to support, champion, and trust purpose-driven companies.
- Long-Term Vision: Servant leaders tend to take a long-term view, focusing not just on short-term profits but on sustainable success. This approach helps organizations remain resilient and adaptive to change. Research indicates that companies operating with a true long-term mindset consistently outperform their industry peers across various financial measures.
Exploring Other Leadership Philosophies
A leadership philosophy, like servant leadership, isn’t a permanent set of rules. Leaders must remain open-minded to changes in their philosophy as they and their organizations evolve. Your framework for decision-making, goal-setting, and leading others should always reflect your vision and values.
In addition to servant leadership, other prominent leadership philosophies include:
- Transactional Leadership: Promoting compliance through both rewards and punishments.
- Transformational Leadership: Inspiring and motivating teams to exceed their personal bests and reach new heights.
- Democratic Leadership: Implementing a high level of team involvement in decision-making processes.
- Autocratic Leadership: Making decisions without consultation or input from their team.
- Laissez-Faire Leadership: Giving team members a high degree of freedom in how they do their work.
- Charismatic Leadership: Inspiring and motivating teams with a captivating charm and energy.
- Visionary Leadership: Seeing the long-term direction of the team or organization and communicating this vision in a way that is compelling to their team members.
To explore what leadership philosophy is right for you and your purpose, read this article next: Leading With Purpose: How a Strong Leadership Philosophy Will Transform Your Team.
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