Servant leadership is a transformational leadership philosophy that puts the wellbeing and growth of others first.
In times like ours, in which fostering engagement, enhancing staff wellbeing, and preventing staff burnout are high on the agenda of many leaders and organizations, we have much to gain from revisiting the principles of this model.
Let us examine its core features, psychological benefits, and how servant leadership can serve us on our mission of being outstanding leaders.
Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy that prioritizes serving others and fostering their growth. It is, in that sense, a non-egoistic approach to transformational leadership; the servant leader really puts their staff and organization above their own status and ego needs.
Service leadership aims to satisfy the needs of self, others, and systems in ethical and prosocial ways. It rests on leadership competence, character, and care (Shek et al., 2023).
Servant leaders actively listen to, empathize with, and seek to empower their team members. They aim to create an environment where trust, collaboration, and personal development are the utmost priorities.
Servant leadership emphasizes morality and integrity and seeks to support emotional, relational, and ethical growth in followers. These leaders are committed to investing in personal relationships with employees. They seek to increase trust, loyalty, and commitment.
“Key qualities of servant leaders are humility, ensuring followers’ development, listening, sharing in decision-making, behaving ethically and promoting a sense of community. The idea is that when followers’ needs and well-being are prioritized, they are able to achieve their goals, and this flows upward so that the leader’s and the organizational goals are met in turn.”
Canavesi & Minelli, 2022, p. 414
When we think of powerful servant leaders, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela may come to mind. All served their communities with tremendous humility, compassion, and dignity.
We may also think of military personnel who serve in the literal sense, although the military is of course a highly hierarchical domain, and servant leadership in civilian organizations is based on different models.
An example of servant leadership in action in the business world is that of Herb Kelleher, the cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines. Kelleher prioritized his employees’ wellbeing, believing firmly that happy employees would lead to satisfied customers and, as a consequence, to business success.
As he put it, “Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that” (Hyken, 2018, para. 4).
Kelleher created a corporate culture that became known for employees who took themselves lightly, but their jobs seriously.
We can also recall Agile Scrum masters, whose key function is simply to serve their teams as effectively as possible. Depending on the situation at hand, Scrum masters use their soft skills to act as servant leaders, facilitators, coaches, managers, mentors, teachers, impediment removers, and change agents.
Servant Leadership Theory by Robert Greenleaf
Robert K. Greenleaf is often regarded as the pioneer of servant leadership. In 1970, he published an essay on the topic, and in 1977, he published an influential book called Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.
In this book, he outlines a comprehensive model that encapsulates the core principles of servant leadership. Greenleaf’s (1977) theory emphasizes the following key components:
Servant leaders listen actively to their team members and seek to understand their perspectives and needs.
They demonstrate empathy by caring deeply about the wellbeing of their employees.
Servant leaders aim to facilitate both healing and personal growth in their team members, at a professional and personal level.
They are highly aware of their impact on others and the world around them.
Instead of relying on authority, servant leaders use the art of persuasion to guide their team members toward shared goals.
They have the ability to paint vivid pictures and communicate compelling visions of a better future to their team.
Servant leaders are future oriented and always consider the long-term consequences of their decisions and actions.
Commitment to the growth of others
Servant leaders are passionately dedicated to helping others grow and reach their full potential.
Greenleaf also emphasized that organizations as well as individuals could be servant-leaders. He believed that servant-leader-organizations had the potential to change the world.
In his second major essay, The Institution as Servant, Greenleaf (as cited in Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, n.d., para. 6) wrote:
“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt.”
“If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”
Servant leadership differs from traditional leadership in various ways. In traditional leadership, power, control, status, and authority are often paramount. Servant leaders, by contrast, focus on nurturing trust, collaboration, and personal growth. By shifting the focus from the leader to the team, servant leaders create psychologically safe environments of empowerment and shared responsibility (Spears, 1995).
We can say that servant leadership entails a particular style of leadership that rests on clearly defined theoretical principles. However, it also requires particular traits and qualities in a leader, above all humility and altruism, as well as kindness and compassion. Servant leaders also need to master specific skills, such as active listening and building trust.
Servant leadership has been linked to various positive individual and collective outcomes (Eva et al., 2019). Servant leadership, for example, helps with fostering staff engagement (Howell & Shields, 2017; Zhou et al., 2022).
It also supports proactive and citizenship behavior, job satisfaction, and performance. Several companies, “including some of those ranked by Forbes as among the ‘best 100 to work for,’ such as Marriott, Starbucks, SAS, and Zappos.com, foster an organizational climate based on service, ethics, and healthy work relationships that significantly contribute to organizational success” (Canavesi & Minelli, 2022, p. 414).
What Does Servant Leadership Look Like in Practice?
Servant leadership isn’t just a theoretical concept. It is a dynamic, living approach to leadership.
In practice, servant leaders do the following: (Greenleaf, 1977; Sendjaya et al. 2008):
Listen actively to understand their team’s core needs
Empower and encourage team members to make decisions
Lead by example, demonstrating integrity and humility
Prioritize the wellbeing, personal growth, and healing of their team
Foster a culture of trust, collaboration, and innovation
Create value for their communities
Liden et al. (2015) created a seven-item composite measure of servant leadership, a shorter version of their previous 28-item Servant Leadership Questionnaire (Liden, 2008).
It covers seven different dimensions identified in servant leadership (see Canavesi and Minelli, 2022, p. 416):
Creating value for the community
Helping subordinates grow and succeed
Putting subordinates first
So then, how can you become a powerful servant leader in practice?
Knowing what servant leadership should look like and having completed the leadership questionnaire to get a measure of your current abilities, reflect on the following focus areas.
Listen actively to ensure employee wellbeing
Be committed to and involved in your team’s wellbeing. This includes taking a genuine interest in your employees’ personal lives and lending an ear when they experience personal problems. It involves connecting deeply and authentically to other people, not just seeing them as replaceable “human resources.”
Serve the community and create value
Ask yourself, “How am I serving the wider community of which I am a part? How could I serve it even better?” Consider the traits of a positive community.
Be a great communicator
The task of a servant leader is also to mediate between people, teams, and wider organizational goals and to communicate clearly and honestly when there is conflict or tension. Here is an article providing guidance: How to Improve Communication Skills.
Empower and trust
A servant leader trusts their employees and equips them with autonomy and responsibility. They also support them to use both wisely. In other words, a servant leader combines challenges with support and builds trust.
Support and encourage
Helps employees grow by supporting their personal and professional development, believing in them, and encouraging them to reach their full potential.
Be a role model
A servant leader models all the behaviors they want to bring out in their teams. They behave with integrity and honesty and own up to failures in an authentic way when they occur.
In that way, a servant leader creates trust. This also includes being vulnerable.
Inspire and motivate
Finally, a servant leader needs to inspire, motivate, paint a powerful picture, and share a compelling vision with their employees.
All of this involves the ability to mentalize, to imagine the world from other people’s points of view. What do your employees care about? What motivates them? What do they fear? What do they truly need to grow?
For more inspiration on how to become a great service leader, you may enjoy the following two videos.
Servant Leadership: how to lead with the heart? - Liz Theophille
The subversive power of servant leadership - Ian Fuhr
5 Excellent Servant Leadership Quotes
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi
“Leadership is not about being in charge. It is about taking care of those in your charge.”
Attributed to Simon Sinek
“It is not the genius at the top giving directions that makes people great. It is great people that make the guy at the top look like a genius.”
Simon Sinek, 2014, p. 21
“Every single employee is someone’s son or someone’s daughter. Like a parent, a leader of a company is responsible for their precious lives.”
Simon Sinek, 2014, p. 19
“The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”
Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, n.d., para. 2
4 Suggested Leadership Books
If you seek inspiration for how to become a powerful servant leader, there are outstanding books out there that can help you develop the core skills you need. These books cover the theory of servant leadership and also contain numerous practical examples from servant leadership in action.
1. Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness – Robert K. Greenleaf
This is the classic book on servant leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term.
Greenleaf outlines a transformative approach to leadership that puts serving others, including employees, customers, and community, first.
Listening, connecting, and deeply committing to building a positive organizational culture are central to Greenleaf’s approach. You will learn how to lead by example, generate trust, and create an environment in which your employees can truly thrive.
This book features a long essay by Robert Greenleaf, in which the author extends the idea of service leadership to institutions.
Institutions and organizations, too, Greenleaf argues, should operate with a servant leadership mindset. They should remember their social purpose and aim to increase the wellbeing of their communities and stakeholders.
Like leaders, institutions have an obligation to contribute to the greater good. The success of a service leadership institution is measured by not only the usual metrics of success, but also how it positively affects society. They focus on long-term sustainability, rather than just on short-term profit and gains.
3. Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t – Simon Sinek
In Leaders Eat Last, the international bestselling author Simon Sinek investigates great leaders who don’t just sacrifice their place at the table but often their own comfort and even their lives for those in their care.
They range from Marine Corps officers to the heads of big business and government. They all share that they put aside their own interests to protect their teams. For them, leadership is not a rank but a responsibility.
Positive Leadership Tools From PositivePsychology.com
Positive psychology offers valuable tools that align seamlessly with the servant leadership philosophy. Here at PositivePsychology.com, we provide resources like strengths assessments, gratitude exercises, self-awareness worksheets, and emotional intelligence tools that can help leaders cultivate a positive and supportive work environment.
You may find these articles on related topics of interest:
Servant leadership is a transformative leadership approach that empowers individuals and organizations to grow.
If you wish to become a powerful servant leader, you can begin by embracing principles like active listening, empathy, and a serious commitment to the development of others. Your key priority should be creating a thriving organizational culture in which compassion and empowerment are key.
Servant leadership is based on the ancient virtues of humility, temperance, and altruism. It is a form of leadership that rests on character strengths and genuine care for others. It is therefore important to model these virtues in your organization and to see service leadership as a daily developmental practice.
Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy that prioritizes serving others, active listening, and empowering team members. It emphasizes the wellbeing and personal growth of those who are being led, rather than the leader’s need for status and power.
Why is servant leadership important?
Servant leadership is vital as it fosters trust, collaboration, and engagement within teams and organizations. It leads to higher job satisfaction, improved performance, and a more positive work environment in which employees can truly thrive.
What are the four main principles of servant leadership?
The four main principles of servant leadership, as outlined by Robert K. Greenleaf (1977), are listening, empathy, healing, and self-awareness. These principles form the foundation of servant leadership philosophy.
Canavesi, A., & Minelli, E. (2022). Servant leadership: a Systematic literature review and network analysis. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 34, 267–289.
Eva, N., Robin, M., Sendjaya, S., van Dierendonck, D., & Liden, R. C. (2019). Servant leadership: A systematic review and call for future research, The Leadership Quarterly, 30(1), 111–132.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Paulist Press.
Howell, E. E., & Shields, J. E. (2017). Servant leadership and employee engagement: Does the leadership style of the supervisor matter? Advances in Developing Human Resources, 19(3), 299–315.
Hyken, S. (2018, March 18). How Southwest Airlines Keeps the Romance Alive With Its Customers. Forbes. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2018/03/18/how-southwest-keeps-the-romance-alive-with-its-customers/.
Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., Zhao, H., & Henderson, D. (2008). Servant leadership: Development of a multidimensional measure and multi-level assessment. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(2), 161–177.
Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., Meuser, J. D., Hu, J., Wu. J., & Liao, C. (2015). Servant leadership: Validation of a short form of the SL-28. Leadership Quarterly, 26(2), 254.
Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. (n.d.) What is servant leadership? Retrieved September 24, 2023, from https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/.
Sendjaya, S., Sarros, J. C., & Santora, J. C. (2008). Defining and measuring servant leadership behavior in organizations. Journal of Management Studies, 45(2), 402–424.
Shek, D. T. L., Zhu, X., Dou, D., & Tan, L. (2023). Self-leadership as an attribute of service leadership: Its relationship to well-being among university students in Hong Kong. Frontiers inPsychology, 14.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t. Penguin.
Spears, L. C. (1995). Reflections on Robert K. Greenleaf and servant-leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 6(2), 315–319.
Zhou, G., Gul, R., & Tufail, M. (2022). Does servant leadership stimulate work engagement? The moderating role of trust in the leader. Frontiers in Psychology, 13.
About the author
Dr. Anna K. Schaffner is a coach, writer and Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent. Her latest non-fiction book explores the long history of the idea of self-improvement. It traces formulas for self-improvement in philosophical, religious, psychological and self-help texts from ancient China to the present day. She is also a qualified coach and has a deep interest in positive psychology and the art of self-improvement.