Everything You Need to Know About Servant Leadership

  • September 21, 2018

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant Leadership “enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” A servant leader focuses on the “growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”


The above quotes are from the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership website and perfectly encompass the idea that that Greenleaf himself set out set out to define and promote five decades ago.

Though Greenleaf first pioneered this philosophy back in the 1960s and ’70s, it’s even more vital to successful organizations today. Why? Because an organization is defined by its people. If you empower your people to do their best work, you give yourself an edge that no other organization has.

When applied to businesses, servant leadership fosters a culture of respect, collaboration, and success. For these advantages to take hold, leaders need to reconsider their relationship to their employees and the organization as a whole. Servant leadership in the workplace or any other group dynamic involves listening, recognition, celebration, teamwork, and, especially, trust.

The reason servant leadership works so well in the real world is that it is an evergreen framework, rooted in experience and constantly field-tested, and it continues to be adopted by leaders around the world. Greenleaf worked as a management research, development, and education expert at AT&T. After his 38-year tenure with the company, he began a second career as a writer and consultant, at which time he developed his concept of service leadership.

Greenleaf died in 1990, but not before his philosophy of servant leadership emerged as a way to develop a more caring organization—and society.

How Servant Leadership Empowers Employees

Obviously, employees who feel appreciated by their superiors—and who feel their leaders are serving their needs and not the other way around—tackle every day of work with a different attitude than someone who feels like a cog in the machine.

Stephen M.R. Covey, in Servant Leadership in Action (a compilation of essays edited by Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell), offers advice for servant leaders to practice what they preach and set the example of service: “Behavior is ground zero for the servant leader. It is the place where conviction becomes real; where intent becomes a potent force for value-creating change; and where the leader can make intentional moves for the purpose of establishing a servant leadership culture. … For the servant leader, behavior isn’t just what gets done, but how it gets done.”

Ultimately, that behavior becomes transformative for employees on the service end of servant leadership. They feel empowered to do good work and don’t hesitate to offer their own contributions and suggestions. They treat each other—and their customers—with the same level of service and care. Plus, when employees feel valued, it leads to better retention, improved production, and increased innovation.

How Servant Leadership Strengthens Leaders

In her book, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others, former Popeyes CEO Cheryl Bachelder makes a compelling case for servant leadership, not only in how it inspires and engages employees, but also in how it benefits the leader doubling as a servant. The five benefits she spells out for leaders are:

  • People will tell you the stuff you need to know.
  • People will be more likely to follow your bold vision.
  • People will actually do the stuff you need to get done without reminding.
  • People will perform better.
  • People will watch out for you and protect you from yourself.

Of course, when these benefits are realized, you become a better servant leader. This will help you better manage your employees, who will then deliver more of these benefits, and so on. You bring out the best in your employees, and they bring out the best in you.

How Servant Leadership Propels Organizations

Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work, writes in Servant Leadership in Action what servant leaders can achieve for their organizations amid this evolving workplace mindset: “In these companies, leaders relinquish the autocratic, command-and-control ways that dominated business cultures in the twentieth century. Thanks to a shift to servant leadership, lower-ranked employees experience more passion about work, collaborate more, and engage in innovation behaviors that propel the business.”

And as we said before, passionate employees enhance the passion of their servant leaders, leading to mutually assured benefits for the employee, servant leader, and ultimately the organization. In Servant Leadership in Action, Bachelder (who contributed an essay) notes the growth Popeyes experienced when it embraced the principle, with shares of its stock jumping from $11 to $64 in less than a decade. The bottom line can be a powerful driver of change, and although profits shouldn’t be a primary impetus for serving employees, it’s nonetheless a desirable result and an added bonus.

Perhaps Greenleaf offers the best summary of how servant leadership serves everybody, taken from a collection of his essays, The Power of Servant Leadership: “How can an institution become more serving? I see no other way than that the people who inhabit it serve better and work together toward synergy—the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.” 

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