Leadership styles help describe and define various management practices in business and other contexts. Of several different leadership styles, servant leadership may well be the least understood and — paradoxically — the most effective when it comes to building efficient, engaged, and productive teams.

common leadership styles diagram
Image courtesy of Indeed

What Is Servant Leadership?

The name “servant leadership” conjures up images of the opposite of most traditional types of leadership, including and especially the autocratic leadership style. That’s not far from the reality, in fact, as the servant leadership style is the polar opposite of the usual hierarchy-based, patriarchal conception of leadership, where the richest or most powerful “naturally” find themselves in top positions. 

Robert Greenleaf is widely attributed as the first to define and promulgate the servant leadership theory. He first formulated this leadership theory in 1970 as an employee of AT&T for internal use within the corporation. It was designed to empower team members to feel confident in speaking up to and sharing new ideas with their supervisors. But it also helped those supervisors and managers by giving them permission to reveal their authentic, vulnerable selves. In turn, this generally resulted in stronger, more cohesive teams and departments. 

Servant Leadership Theory

Servant leadership rests on a foundation of commitment to empower others and a genuine desire to help. Putting others’ needs ahead of your own, or those of other stakeholders, helps you empower your team members to perform at a higher level than they may have previously thought possible. The passion and commitment of a servant leader feed the motivation and compassion of those who “follow.” 

Simply put, a leader who practices servant leadership fuels the desire of employees to connect with the leader and live up to that implicit high regard the leader has for their capabilities. 

Characteristics of Servant Leadership

Larry  Spears, the CEO of the Spears Center for Servant Leadership, identified ten major characteristics of servant leadership from Greenleaf’s writing. Framed as a non-exhaustive list of basic, practical leadership skills, each of these servant leadership characteristics builds on the previous one. 

Initially, these skills and traits may sound like basic common courtesy. On the other hand, how these characteristics play out in a business context can be quite a bit more complex. As each trait builds on the prior one, you can see how these skills fuel a worldview or approach to life and business that can be downright revolutionary in practice.

  • Listening: Servant leaders want to ascertain the “will of the group,” as Spears wrote. To do that, they listen actively and intently to others, especially those with differing perspectives. 
  • Empathy: An effective servant leader seeks to build compassion for and empathy with others. Empathy transcends sympathy or pity. It seeks to experience a situation the way others do, in order to build a broader perspective. 
  • Healing: Conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. Where an autocratic leader might simply order the parties to “get back to work,” a servant leader seeks to heal ruptured relationships between those in conflict with each other.
  • Awareness: Heightened awareness helps servant leaders spot inefficiencies and traps for the unwary, including those involving ethical disputes, conflicting values, or power struggles. That awareness helps a servant leader successfully resolve situations before they become uncontrollable.
  • Persuasion: Enforcing compliance with a decision from a top-down perspective is one approach to decision-making. Servant leaders choose a different approach, by convincing others through persuasion and consensus-building.
  • Conceptualization: For servant leadership adherents, it’s important to be able to conceptualize a situation beyond its current presentation. These leaders seek to stretch their thinking to encompass the “what-if”s and “could-be”s that fuel organizational vision and values. 
  • Foresight: A concept that’s related to conceptualization, foresight or forecasting is part intuition, part real-time analysis of relevant data, and part creative thinking. Servant leaders use foresight to predict likely outcomes and consequences.
  • Stewardship: Servant leaders are stewards of their business or organization and especially their employees. They emphasize compassion and holding the interests of others above their own.
  • Commitment to the growth of people: At its core, servant leadership is rooted in a sincere commitment to the furthering of others’ personal and professional development. An effective servant leader builds up others, empowers them to take on greater responsibility, secures funding, and makes space for professional educational opportunities.
  • Building community: We’ve all read many articles and op-eds about the relative merits of emphasizing community in business organizations. Servant leadership seeks to contribute to a greater sense of community within organizations, which in turn helps increase a sense of belonging among all employees or team members, reaping vast benefits in productivity and efficiency. 

How to Use Servant Leadership to Empower Employees

Servant leadership is an excellent way to help employees feel more valued, engaged, and empowered. It’s designed to build a community in which all are valued and to which all feel a strong sense of belonging — not by being a people-pleasing doormat, but by empowering others to grow and develop into their best selves, with their best possible lives and careers. This kind of community helps foster the best, most productive working environment.

Guidelines for Implementing Servant Leadership

Create a servant-oriented leadership culture by achieving buy-in and commitment from your company’s leaders on the following guidelines: 

  1. Resolve to provide an example of good servant leadership through your own conduct. Cultural change in modern organizations typically flows from a mix of formal policy changes and top-down modeling of the desired behavior. 
  2. Embrace and prioritize a mutual responsibility for building a supportive work environment for all employees. Their well-being, both physical and mental, as well as their personal and professional growth, should be a top priority for your leaders. 
  3. Focus on building consensus through persuasion and empowerment, not through heavy-handed directives. This requires strong communication and listening skills. 
  4. Actively work to help employees grow and advance their careers. This includes entrusting them with greater responsibilities and opportunities to grow, as well as offering constructive support and feedback
  5. Solicit and welcome feedback from employees on how the servant-leadership implementation is working — and where it could use some improvement. 

Best Practices for Servant Leaders

Understanding the general guiding principles of servant leadership is one thing. Putting them into actual practice can be a bit tricky without first engaging in some practical planning and design work. 

Start by emphasizing strong communication skills for your company’s leadership. Learning how to persuade without commanding and how to bring high-level visions to immediate life for front-line employees is crucial to achieving persuasion and buy-in. 

In the same regard, servant leaders must sharpen their listening skills. Active, engaged listening isn’t simply a matter of parroting back what you hear to the speaker to make them “feel heard.” Try to listen from the perspective of one who truly wants to fully understand the speaker’s position — that is, from a position of empathy, not paternalistic sympathy. 

Evaluate your organizational policies and their impact on employee wellness. This includes your formal benefits, such as paid time off, insurance offerings, access to employee assistance programs, and other perks that help employees lead happier, healthier lives both in the workplace and elsewhere. 

Finally, institute policies that welcome and encourage honest feedback through anonymous surveys and in-person conversations. Prioritizing feedback and demonstrating its value to the organization will enhance collaborative work and even help increase innovation. 

If you still aren’t sure about servant leadership, check out New York Times best-selling business writer Ken Blanchard’s talk about the breakthrough leadership method with the London Business Forum.

Benefits of Servant Leadership

The emotional intelligence that serves as the foundation of servant leadership benefits companies and employees in a number of ways. Primarily, it creates an atmosphere and culture of strong trust and a sense of community. Both of these traits help employees feel more secure in their work for your company. These improvements can also increase employee engagement, which in turn reduces employee turnover with all its associated costs. 

Another benefit of servant leadership is improved collaboration and teamwork. When employees feel supported and valued, they’re more inclined to work openly with each other to reach team goals. They’re also more likely to support the organizational vision and feel comfortable offering their own input and feedback. 

Servant leadership may also help nurture future leaders more readily. By asking your top leaders to become role models for others, their team members are more inclined to want to follow in their footsteps. The organizational support of their own career development will also help them become well-trained and prepared to transition to leadership positions of their own. 

Drawbacks of Servant Leadership

Leadership style is often a matter of preference and personality. While servant leadership offers many benefits to businesses and organizations of all kinds, there are situations in which a more traditional approach may be preferable. Likewise, there are usually situations in which any one of the other leadership styles may be preferable to others.

For example, first responder organizations such as fire departments and ambulance services may benefit from a well-planned roll-out of servant leadership principles generally. However, occasionally a more top-down traditional style of leadership, based on respect for the chain of command, may be more prudent. That’s especially true in emergency situations

Similarly, organizations that are in the midst of culture or industry changes may not benefit from servant leadership while the situation is still fluid. Major leadership changes such as the implementation of servant leadership are more likely to succeed in more stable business environments. 

Finally, if the model of servant leadership doesn’t quite align with the innate skills and personalities of your in-place leaders, you’ll face a difficult decision — that is, whether to change the identity of the leaders or to ditch servant leadership instead. Such high-level changes are sometimes necessary, but if your company is growing at a healthy clip and hitting its revenue and innovation goals along the way, perhaps now is not the best time to upset the proverbial apple cart. 

That might also be true when personalities are too well aligned, as well. For example, consider a scenario where one of your top leaders is on board with servant leadership but prefers stepping in and fixing things for their team members, rather than supporting them as they figure things out for themselves. You may well eventually experience a workforce that has no interest in pursuing greater productivity or increased responsibilities. 

Examples of Servant Leadership

What does servant leadership look like when it’s put into practice? The name may be new, but the examples can be found throughout history. 

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, is often cited as a great real-life example of a servant leader. As he famously wrote in his book, Winning: The Ultimate Business How-To Book, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

jack welsh's book Winning

His embrace of servant leadership illustrates the benefits of servant leadership, as the company transformed itself into a global leader offering a much broader array of products and services. 

Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of FedEx, has reportedly always prioritized his employees as servant leaders do. He has stated, “When individuals are placed first, they will provide the best possible service, and profits are a natural outcome.” Prioritizing people is a hallmark of servant leadership.

Finally, Cheryl Bachelder, the former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc., is such a fan of servant leadership and its concrete benefits for adopting businesses that she wrote a book about it. “Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others” documents how servant leadership helped her quadruple the company’s value during her tenure as CEO. 

The Bottom Line

Servant leadership is often misconstrued as producing indecisive pushovers who can’t focus on real business priorities. In fact, servant leaders are far more nuanced and beneficial to both organizations and the people who work in and for them. Your preferred leadership style may depend primarily on your skills, preferences, and personality, but servant leaders present a fuller opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to the growth of all employees.

Building a community based on a culture that supports employee well-being and cares for its team members at all levels pays real dividends in greater employee engagement, higher productivity, and even improved revenue and profits. That’s a leadership style that yields dividends for everyone, and that’s why servant leadership can be so powerful.