Being a servant leader isn’t a weakness in business. In fact, it’s one of the most powerful leadership styles used by some of the most famous leaders in history. If the term doesn’t sound familiar, the names of those who’ve practiced servant leadership will. For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi are all considered servant leaders. But servant leadership isn’t reserved for the history books. It’s also practiced by some of today’s leading entrepreneurs, too. For instance, Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba; Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A; Cher Wang, co-founder of HTC Corporation; David Green, founder of Hobby Lobby; and Ryan Coogler, film director, producer, and screenwriter (Black Panther, Creed, Fruitvale Station) are all examples of modern servant leaders.
Yet, people often categorize great leaders such as these under the transformational leadership style. Studying servant leadership is important because it identifies how and why transformation occurs under the guidance of a leader who chooses serving others above serving themselves.
Almost anyone who radically changes the world for good practices servant leadership. Learn how to live with purpose and positively impact those around you by following the principles listed below.
Table of Contents
What is Servant Leadership?
The Definition of Servant Leadership
Servant leadership is a philosophical concept in which leaders establish authority not through traditional top-down power structures, but by serving with the innate desire to fulfill their communities’ needs.
By positively influencing those they serve and fostering consistent growth and development in their followers, servant leaders multiply leaders. For this reason, it is an infinite process that produces maximum influence and impact.
Who Developed Servant Leadership Philosophy?
The practice has ancient roots and is centuries old. For example, biblical text describing the life of Jesus Christ brings to light what it means to be a servant leader. Although worshipped by others, Jesus lived by acting as a servant to his followers. Through positive influence, he taught his followers how to lead others. A prime example of how he demonstrated this type of leadership is 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.”
The Renaissance of Servant Leadership
Today, people credit Robert Greenleaf for the term servant leadership. In 1970, his revolutionary work, “The Servant as Leader,” repositioned the purpose of leaders as stewards to their communities. Greenleaf wrote his essay in the spirit of the social change movements occurring in the 60s and 70s. As people searched for answers on improving their work conditions and organizational cultures, he outlined the top leadership qualities of great leaders.
Servant Leadership in Practice
According to Larry C. Spears, founder of the Spears Center for Servant Leadership, servant leaders share 10 common characteristics. Through decades of research he found they all:
Servant leaders commit to asking questions, but more importantly, they actively listen to the answers provided. For instance, someone who listens 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 traits of great leaders. 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.
Servant leaders call people to join them in serving a mission greater than themselves. Their focus on purpose can bring 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
As mentioned above, servant leaders are emotionally intelligent. Social and emotional awareness are two of the four cornerstones of EI. Self-awareness focuses on the recognition of one’s emotions and how they impact others. Social awareness focuses on recognizing, understanding, and caring about the feelings of others. Both are necessary in order for servant leaders to master their own desires and tendencies in order to best serve the needs of their communities.
5. Persuade with Positive Influence
In this leadership model, authority is decentralized. Instead of deploying a top-down command, servant leaders 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 servant leaders 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 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
Servant leaders are stewards who 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 leaders 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 a key example of this. Since 1996, the organization has trained over six million people who have undoubtedly influenced the lives of millions of others.
9. Develop People
Nurturing the personal and professional growth and 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, leaders can influence others to become the best versions of themselves through mentorship and leadership development opportunities.
Grow team members by:
- Providing constructive feedback
- 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, servant leaders 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 leaders 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 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. Ultimately, Sinek says the key is to eliminate self-interested behavior and lead from a place of values and ethics.
The Servant Leadership Model in Action
The characteristics above help provide insight into how a servant leader acts, but what happens when this process is applied to a large-scale business model?
Chick-fil-A is a great example of an organization that has created a work culture filled with servant leaders. 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 and growth 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 providing 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 non-profit City of Refuge and provided $500,000 to build a new YMCA in Atlanta.
Passing the Servant Leadership Test
While business leaders can hold the characteristics identified above and follow the best practices listed, 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.
“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—by definition—a servant leader.
Interested in learning more about servant leadership? Read a case study on this leadership style in action, next: