Leadership takes many forms, and no single approach is ideal in every situation. This breadth of styles allows leaders of all types to shine in their own distinct way. Increasingly, one model stands apart as uniquely capable of inspiring team members and fostering a supportive environment: servant leadership.
Marking a massive shift in power dynamics, this approach dispenses with the usual top-down design, replacing the status quo with a collaborative effort that emphasizes the needs of the entire team over the preferences of the executive suite. That's not to say that servant leaders lack influence or authority — instead, they recognize the greater purpose of their position and use their influence to move like-minded teams toward a shared, clear vision.
Implemented strategically and under the proper circumstances, servant leadership can produce impressive results — and not just gains in productivity, although those can be expected. Rather, servant leadership produces mutual respect, which, in turn, ensures that leaders and team members alike are equally invested in their common goal.
However, proper implementation is essential, and too often, well-meaning individuals quickly diverge from the servant model and veer into other leadership styles. As such, our goal is to clarify: What does servant leadership mean and why does it matter?
What Is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership is precisely what its name implies: a distinct model in which the leader's primary aim is to serve others and facilitate their growth. It is often defined in contrast to other models of leadership, in which the leader emphasizes the self and, more specifically, the personal acquisition and use of power.
While the underpinnings of this concept have existed for millennia, its current iteration emerged during the 1970s, as the rapid pace of innovation called for more innovative ways of thinking and leading. Robert K. Greenleaf introduced a revolutionary new concept of leadership with his seminal work: The Servant as Leader. He was inspired by the character of the servant Leo in the novel Journey to the East. Leo participated in menial tasks but promoted a high morale that kept the group connected and productive.
Servant Leadership Definition
Most people have an intuitive feel for what servant leadership encompasses, but that doesn't mean they can provide a definitive answer to the question, "What is the servant leadership style?"
Part of the reason it’s difficult to define is because it takes so many forms. How or why a particular leader acts as a servant will depend on the unique circumstances at play, including the leader's personality and vision.
The Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal defines servant leadership as a moral-based approach in which "leaders tend to prioritize the fulfillment of the needs of followers, namely employees, customers and other stakeholders, rather than satisfying their personal needs."
In The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf adds that servant leadership "begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first."
Examples of Servant Leadership
As servant leadership becomes more prominent, inspiring examples of this concept emerge in every sector imaginable. We can also look to history for powerful stories of leaders who put the needs of others first and used the power of persuasion to get employees, customers, and stakeholders aligned with their goals. Inspiring examples include:
Robert K. Greenleaf
No discussion of servant leadership would be complete without a close look at the concept's founder, Robert K. Greenleaf. We have already discussed his seminal work, but it's also important to mention how he put these concepts into action. His impressive career with AT&T saw the creation of the very first corporate assessment center, plus significant improvements in the treatment of minority employees.
Greenleaf was called to a greater cause, however, and retired early to found the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, which, from its inception, has advocated to "establish more people-centered institutions."
In an interview with Jacob Morgan, WD-40 CEO Garry Ridge continually conveys themes that are central to our modern notion of servant leadership. Speaking to the need for emotional intelligence and empathy in today's leaders, he explains, "Leadership is not about being in charge; leadership is about taking care of people in your charge." This approach is evident in the company culture of WD-40, which is described as "a self-sustaining place where people enjoy a sense of belonging and purpose."
As the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard regards his outdoor apparel company as "an experiment in doing business in unconventional ways." His model of servant leadership encompasses not only the core tenets of transparency and a supportive environment but also a spirit of giving best seen in his commitment to ecological causes. Patagonia famously commits 1 percent of its sales to the environment, and in 2022, Chouinard transferred ownership of his company to a trust and nonprofit meant to combat climate change.
Characteristics of Servant Leadership Style
No two servant leaders will look exactly alike, as their style and strategy will be dictated by the needs of their organization and the team members that serve it. Leaders will often not fully exemplify this style but rather weave components of it into more of a traditional leadership approach.
Respect and Honor Others
Servant leadership is all about putting others first. This begins with developing a deep-seated respect and appreciation for team members as they currently are — and for what they can eventually become, given the proper encouragement and support.
Pat Falotico — former IBM executive and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership — believes that the best way to identify a servant leader is to examine how team members benefit from their guidance. According to Greenleaf himself, servant leaders can be tested by determining whether those they serve “while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants."
This growth can only be achieved if it is evident that servant leaders want the best for their team members and are willing to go the extra mile to support them. This begins with accepting and empathizing with team members, while encouraging them to live up to their highest potential.
Highlighting the need for compassion in leadership, Greenleaf explains that "The servant always accepts and empathizes, never rejects." When team members feel respected and appreciated, they are more likely to respond in kind — and when leaders see the best in them, they will rise to the occasion.
Inspire Through Visions and Goals
Servant leaders are unquestionably passionate. They feel driven to make a difference and have an uncanny ability to communicate their ambitious goals in a way that gets team members similarly excited and invested. The language they use to convey their vision is uplifting and action-oriented — they're able to convince team members to buy into their vision and contribute to the cause.
Goal setting is a central part of servant leadership, but the composition of the goal and the involvement of others looks distinct when compared to goal setting in traditional leadership. With servant leadership, one of the central goals is to treat team members well — with the understanding that if this crucial goal is not met, others cannot be either.
Difficult decisions are always a critical component of leadership — servant-oriented or otherwise. Like other types of leaders, those who qualify as servants will eventually need to make tough choices that may prompt at least some undesirable consequences.
These decisions are never easy to make, but servant leaders consider the many nuances of such critical situations with care. Their choices are guided by ethical frameworks that allow them to feel confident that, no matter how difficult it seems in the moment, their path forward will play out positively. These convictions are bolstered by the knowledge that the needs of their entire team remain at the forefront when making any tough decision.
Humility and Empathy in Leadership
Servant leaders hold the opposing qualities of confidence and humility. They are confident enough to move forward with ambitious initiatives but also humble enough to recognize their weaknesses — and realize that they can't do it alone. Rather, servant leaders make strong efforts to seek and respond to feedback while still relying on their central vision and faith in that overarching goal for guidance.
Because servant leaders regard evaluation and improvement as central to their role, many are willing to take part in standardized and regular surveys or questionnaires that actively seek insight.
Robert C. Liden highlights this need for self-awareness and humility with a dedicated questionnaire that reveals the differences in how self-described servant leaders perceive their own behavior — and how team members view it. Known as the Servant Leadership Questionnaire (SLQ), this helpful resource highlights several core areas of servant leadership (such as emotional healing and ethical behavior) and encourages the aspiring servant leader to analyze results and actively seek improvement based on gathered feedback.
Communicate and Persuade — Not Force
Servant leadership is at its most effective when it relies on intrinsic sources of motivation, rather than forcing team members to perform in a certain way through fear or obligation. Rather, servant leaders recognize that they have the power of persuasion on their side. This begins with determining what it is exactly that team members value and then finding creative solutions to align these individual goals or priorities with a clear, overarching vision.
At times, servant leaders may still need to make or implement decisions that will not be popular with team members. This is where an important distinction must be made: servant leadership is about doing what is needed for the team as a whole and for its individual members, but not necessarily about doing exactly what those team members want now.
Even when specific decisions are unpopular, the servant leader should be able to explain why those tough choices need to be made and how they will contribute to desired results in the long run. Through such powers of persuasion, servant leaders can convince team members to go along with initiatives that they may be unenthusiastic about, at least at the outset. Because they trust and appreciate their leaders, team members are more inclined to willingly follow in their footsteps.
Servant Leadership vs. Traditional Leadership
Servant leadership is just one of several leadership styles used in today's dynamic business environment. It is increasingly the preferred solution but may not be relevant or ideal in all situations. As such, it is important for leaders (and aspiring leaders) to get familiar with alternate systems and solutions, including the more traditional approaches that they may have eschewed.
Traditional leadership is often highlighted in contrast to servant leadership, and there are distinctions worth mentioning. Sometimes referenced in the context of authoritarian leadership, this approach involves vast differences in mindset and purpose, as compared to its servant counterpart: traditional leadership focuses on how the business in question is positioned within the market, rather than emphasizing what the organization can do to serve others.
Technically speaking, this need not be an either/or prospect. Businesses can establish themselves within competitive markets while also positively impacting the employees they rely upon. The differences between servant and traditional styles come down to what is emphasized and how leaders view their role within the organization.
Take the Next Step with Lindenwood Online
Do you have the makings of a genuine servant leader? If so, you should already recognize the need for self-awareness and self-improvement. Now is the time to gain the comprehensive skills needed to pursue meaningful goals as you bring valuable support and encouragement to today's most inspiring teams.
Your journey begins with leadership training, which is best achieved through a well-rounded business degree program. We offer multiple options through Lindenwood Online, including the opportunity to complete your bachelor's or master's degree. If you're ready to take the next step, don't hesitate to get in touch.