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Natalia Rossingol

Servant Leadership: Empowering People for Business Excellence

Does success and fulfilment as a team leader come from serving others? The servant leadership style is based on the belief that the best leaders put their people first.

Leadership means high levels of responsibility, faith in your purpose, passion, and readiness to act. It also gives you a certain amount of power. This power can be intoxicating - eventually turning a leader into a tyrant. It can be tempting, urging you to use it for your own interest. Or it can be a tool for creating good – growth, success, and prosperity.

Of course, most leaders truly wish their companies to be successful, and their employees to be satisfied. This can be achieved through different methods. However, there is one approach that's literally built on the belief that true success comes from serving others.

This approach is servant leadership, and it's about using power for the sake of those whom you lead.

What is servant leadership?

The concept of servant leadership was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in his work “The Servant Leader,” published in 1970. This is a leadership philosophy that focuses on the growth and well-being of people across the communities to which they belong.

According to Greenleaf, servant leadership starts with a natural desire to serve others. For managers who are servant leaders, the needs of their employees are the first priority. Such managers do not pursue any personal goals – their only goal is to make their organizations better and their employees happier.

The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. - Robert K. Greenleaf

Servant leadership empowers employees, letting them take responsibility, and this way, learn and improve. This means that organizational structures build by servant leadership are often decentralized and bottom-up. It gives people decision-making power and encourages them to use their expertise and vision, collaborating with other team members.

Genuinely caring for their people, authorities in servant leadership are very empathetic and even humble. They are not controlled by their ego. They are selfless and do not seek material gains or influence.

Servant leadership is also about demonstrating high moral principles and developing them in followers, leading them by example:

Moral authority is another way to define servant leadership because it represents a reciprocal choice between leader and follower... They follow truth. They follow natural law... They follow a common, agreed-upon vision. - Robert K. Greenleaf

The core principles of servant leadership

Based on Greenleaf’s writings, Larry C. Spears, a President and CEO of Center for Servant-Leadership, Inc, identified ten characteristics of the servant leader:


A servant leader tries to understand the will of the group. This is why he or she listens carefully to what is said, and also reads between the lines to understand what’s left unsaid.

It’s really important to listen actively, giving the other person your undivided attention. Active listening includes a variety of skills, like the ability to read body language, empathize, and simply be patient, not letting yourself interrupt your interlocutor.


Every person strives for acceptance. We all have different characters, experiences, and perspectives. Yet, we all need to feel a part of a group.

Empathetic leadership helps cherish each individuality. It enables a leader to be open-minded and understand the situation from a different point of view, letting go of our ego. Empathy makes us more human. Servant leaders know that.


Losses, grief, and stress are unfortunately inevitable parts of the human experience. Even the people who seem consistently buoyant and positive will have faced struggles and sadness at points in their lives.

Servant leaders try to relieve the pain and restore the “wholeness” of their people – which is, their emotional and physical wellbeing.


This is the ability of self-analysis – the ability to understand your own feelings, behavior, and values, as well as how they affect people you interact with.

Awareness is not a giver of solace – it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. – Robert K. Greenleaf


Instead of using positional authority to influence their people, servant leaders rely on persuasion. They do not push on employees – they try to convince them, either through reaching a consensus or demonstrating expertise, which makes them reliable advisors.   


Conceptual thinking refers to creating a picture of the desirable future that you aim to achieve – in other words, creating a vision. You cannot bring your company to a new level without making long-term goals.

Servant leaders look more broadly, understanding that while everyday routine is mostly concerned with short-term goals, there must be something bigger. Because for people to be inspired, they must have something to strive for. They must have a dream.    


Foresight is the ability to predict the future by learning lessons from the past and analyzing the present. It’s closely related to intuition – a so-called “sixth sense,” our ability to see beyond what’s shown, based on our experience.

Servant leaders know the best predictions are made when you carefully analyze the situation and try to think about the consequences of your actions.


This is about taking responsibility for your team. Emotional climate, team members’ performance, and company culture values – basically, a servant leader is accountable for everything that happens in the organization.     

That’s why servant leaders must work both on their own values and actions – they set an example for the rest of employees, acting as role models. If they clearly communicate expectations about corporate behavior, and if they walk the talk, it will motivate people to act the same way.

Commitment to the growth of people

Douglas McGregor, an American social psychologist, developed 2 theories of motivation – Theory X and Theory Y:

  • According to Theory X, people are inherently lazy and avoid responsibility.
  • Theory Y, though, suggests that people are open to learn and, on the contrary, seek responsibility.

Servant leaders, obviously, support Theory Y. They believe that people have value as personalities, which is not measured simply by their contribution to the company. Even more, they understand that people can do much more if treated with respect.

For this reason, servant leaders focus on the professional and personal growth of their employees. In particular, this may include different development programs, as well as providing employees with decision-making power that lets them take responsibility and work autonomously.

Building community

Community is more than just a group – it’s a group of people who share interests and values. And it’s easier to achieve great results when efforts are fueled by a common purpose.

To build a community, servant leaders encourage people to socially interact – for example, by organizing different team-building events or providing opportunities for them to communicate informally, like putting coffee machines in the hallway so that people can take a break and talk.

How is servant leadership different from other leadership styles?

Autocratic leadership vs. servant leadership

Autocratic leaders believe that people will not work without outside incentives. They prefer giving directions and assigning tasks from above, closely controlling their employees’ actions, which often turns into micromanagement. Autocratic leadership doesn’t allow any room for autonomy.

An autocratic leader expects obedience, and loyalty is built through control and even fear.

This leadership style can be very productive for situations when decisions need to be made fast – but in a long-term perspective, it demoralizes employees and can create toxic environments, full of politicking.

Servant leadership, in contrast, gives freedom for employees, to let them develop professionally. Loyalty is earned, not required by default. Unlike the autocratic approach where people get motivated by outer stimuli, servant leadership develops true, inner motivation through empowerment.

The biggest difference between autocratic and servant leadership is this one: while autocratic leaders are mainly ruled by ego, servant ones focus on the needs of their people.   

Some authors say these two leadership styles are complimentary to each other - if they can be integrated and balanced in equal measure. When leaders manage to integrate the command and control, result-focused autocrat style with people-focused servant leadership, their team gets a chance to not only meet the standard, but also enjoy meeting it.

Democratic leadership vs. servant leadership

Democratic leadership is about letting multiple team members participate in the decision-making process. A decision is the result of consensus, but the leader has the final say. Responsibility is distributed, and all people are welcome to contribute, using their skills and sharing experience.

Democratic leadership tends to build a productive workplace, encouraging employees to be active participants of the work process. Typically, democratic leaders build an environment of psychological safety, which highly motivates employees to do their best at work.   

Like democratic leaders, servant leaders ask for input from their team to make a final decision. Both democratic and servant leaders share power, which makes team members feel valued and heard. They both foster a healthy, collaborative environment where people get a chance to grow.  

However, there is a difference. Servant leadership is based on stewardship – and this means that not all decisions of a servant leader will be democratic.

For example, democratic leadership does not work for situations when a decision needs to be made quickly, or for teams the members of which are inexperienced.

In this case, a democratic leader may make a mistake if he or she allows team members to look for a solution. While servant leader, on the contrary, will make a decision by him or herself, with the best intentions in mind.

This is best illustrated by military officers who make quick decisions on the battlefield, aiming to save their soldiers’ lives.  

Transactional leadership vs. servant leadership

Transactional leadership is based on the reinforcement theory of motivation, which states that behavior is driven by consequences. Transactional leaders use rewards, blame, and punishments to achieve the desired outcome – and this means they assume their people are not self-motivated and need instructions and supervision.

A transactional leader evaluates employees on their performance, on whether they meet the requirements and bring the results. A servant leader, in contrast, recognizes the intrinsic value and internal motivation of people, giving them autonomy instead of instructions. While transactional leaders foster a hierarchical, competitive environment, servant leaders create cooperative relationships among team members.

There are some similarities between these types of leadership though. Both theories emphasize the importance of communication between leaders and subordinates, like clarifying expectations and providing feedback. Both transactional and servant leadership theories recognize the role of motivation, and they both require a leader to adapt to the situation.

'Laissez Faire' Leadership vs. servant leadership

Laissez-faire leadership can be described as a “hands-off” approach – leaders who follow this style do not get too involved and don’t give guidance, unless it’s needed. They rely on their employees and let them use their own creativity and skills to solve problems and make decisions. Employees can feel free to make mistakes and learn from them.

This leadership style has some similarities to servant leadership. A leader who chooses to give up his or her power for the sake of team development literally puts the needs of the followers first. However, when a leader chooses not to control the group simply out of a lack of interest, this is a complete opposite of servant leadership. 

It’s all about the intent.

Examples of servant leadership

Even though the modern leadership movement took place after the publication of “The Servant as Leader,” we can find many examples of great servant leaders throughout history – like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus Christ.

As for the modern examples of successful servant leaders, we can mention the following:  

  1. Southwest Airlines. Herb Kelleher, the former CEO, would always put employees first. He would never embarrass anyone who was not correct or whose ideas differed from his own. He would communicate with his employees openly and respect their life-work balance. The company still consistently provides growth opportunities for its employees.
  2. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. In her book “Dare to Serve,” Cheryl Bachelder, the former CEO of the company, describes how she refocused attention from serving not just customers, but also staff, which made the company lucrative.
  3. Nordstrom. Its leadership assumes that people who directly interact with customers are the most important in the company. Nordstrom also states women’s empowerment as one of their goals.
  4. Marriot International. The company provides many opportunities for growth, like the Voyage Global Leadership Development program that prepares graduates for management roles within Marriot. They also provide video courses and virtual simulations of real-world situations that are aimed to train new and already existing staff.
  5. TDIndustries. The company CEO describes leaders as servants and role models for their teams. New managers are coached about the benefits of the servant leadership philosophy. Part of the manager’s job is to give employees information they need to do their job well.  
  6. General Electric. Jack Welch, the former CEO of the company, said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is about growing others.” He would speak with candor, calling lack of candor “a killer” that blocks smart ideas. He was very curious and kept asking questions. He would personally make hiring decisions, trying to get the right people in right positions, and help them thrive.     

Pros and cons of the servant leadership approach

Like any other approach, the servant leadership theory has its advantages and drawbacks. Let’s examine them in turn:


  • Improved employee satisfaction and motivation. A servant leader makes people feel valued, and this definitely boosts morale in a team. Employees start to see work as something more than just a way to make a living – they get to see the purpose, the true meaning behind what they do. Since they are involved in decision-making and know their opinions will be taken into account, people are more motivated to look for the most optimal decisions.
  • Improved psychological safety in teams. When leaders show empathy, their team members feel safer. When leaders trust their subordinates, it builds trust across the whole company. In such an organization, no one fears speaking up. You know you can tell the truth; you can be vulnerable and admit you don’t know something; you can make suggestions and correct your boss. This way, you don’t waste energy on trying to fit in – you’re accepted, and this inspires you to contribute.    
  • More effective mentorship. Servant leaders help their team members grow, which means they provide the opportunities of professional development, and are always there to advise. It can be very helpful for new hires.


  • Balancing servant leadership with organizational goals. When leaders focus their attention on building healthy relationships among team members, when they look for professional and personal growth opportunities for their people, and when they try to implement cultural changes, there is a huge possibility that they won’t have enough time and resources left to keep pursuing their primary goals, like finding a new development strategy or increasing profits.  
  • Decisions can take longer to make. The more people are involved in decision-making, the longer decision-making takes. It’s especially difficult in a big company with thousands of employees. But even in a smaller company, opinions will vary, and finding a decision that would satisfy everyone can be hard. Finally, the quality of opinions will vary as well – those who have special expertise will provide better solutions that, however, may not be accepted immediately by the majority.     
  • It can be a difficult adjustment for old-school leaders. To adopt a new philosophy, leaders need to get rid of the usual way of thinking and do so something they have never done before. This is challenging, especially for people who have been practicing a certain leadership style for years. Besides, even if you try to act differently, it’s very tempting to get back to old habits – sometimes it happens unconsciously.   

How can you adopt a servant leadership style?

The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? – Robert K. Greenleaf

Becoming a true servant leader requires you to change both your mentality and behaviors. This means that a leader who decided to take a serving path will have to undergo some transformation, implementing changes gradually, day by day.

Here’s some advice on how to practice servant leadership on a management position

Seek feedback and learn from others

Try to learn more about yourself as a leader. Assess your current behavior, identifying strengths and weaknesses. Think if you have the qualities necessary for a servant leader – compassion, humility, empathy, and stewardship. You may not be objective, so it makes sense to ask for feedback. Be open, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable – it only makes you more human.

Admit that you don’t know everything, and don’t feel bad asking for advice from those subordinates who you know something you don’t.  

Work on your listening skills

You cannot truly understand the other person if you don’t listen. We’re often so immersed in our own thoughts and emotions that we miss out on what people are trying to tell us. Active listening can really help build the bridge of understanding.

You need to be genuinely interested in the other person’s opinion. You need to consider their body language, as it provides you with valuable clues. You have to be respectful enough to not interrupt. Finally, you should give feedback – or at least repeat and preferably restate what has been said, to prove you have been listening and understand the point. 

Show everyone on your team that you value them

Don’t separate yourself from your team. Be approachable. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings to make your communication with team members more personal. Discuss not only work-related issues – ask people about their private life, to see if they need support or a break. Let them know you appreciate their contribution and value them as individuals.

Celebrate and encourage individual growth

Publicly recognize achievements of your team members. For example, you can organize meetings to celebrate a successfully accomplished project. This way, you will encourage people to grow.

Also, it’s a great idea to implement different programs aimed to help people improve their skills. 


The concept of leadership undergoes changes, and servant leadership - a relatively new philosophy in the business world - may not be easy to understand at first. Indeed, the idea that a leader is someone who serves you, and not the one whom you serve, can sound eccentric - especially considering long history of more autocratic, top-down leadership which has generally been the rule for most companies (see our article on Taylorism for more about that...)

However, nowadays, when companies are constantly faced with rapid changes, a leader who empowers employees and truly cares for them can help actually help the company develop adaptability - and overcome diverse challenges.       

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