Updated: November 02, 2023

Servant Leadership: Definition, Examples & Tips

You found our article on servant leadership.

Servant leadership is a managerial approach that involves leaders prioritizing their team’s progress and well-being ahead of their own. For example, the manager serves the employee instead of the other way around. These leaders believe that their employee’s happiness and professional fulfillment translate to high-quality work and increased productivity.

Servant leaders display a variety of key leadership qualities and are often considered good managers. Such individuals tend to be effective team building leaders.

servant-leadership

This article includes:

  • definitions of servant leadership
  • examples of servant leadership
  • servant leadership tips

Here we go!

Definitions of servant leadership

Servant leadership is a philosophy where leaders focus on serving their team or organization rather than being authoritative figures. Popularized by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970s, this approach emphasizes leaders addressing the needs of their team members. Instead of pushing preferences from the top down, these leaders support the personal and professional development of those they lead. This support involves listening attentively to employees’ concerns, understanding and empathizing with their challenges, and providing guidance and resources to help them achieve goals.

Servant leaders often showcase humility and approachability. These leaders aim to create an environment of trust and collaboration within their teams. By prioritizing the growth of others, servant leaders foster a sense of shared purpose and motivation among their team members. This philosophy extends beyond the workplace and into the realm of social responsibility. Servant leaders encourage their teams to engage in activities that contribute positively to the community.

In summary, servant leadership is about putting others’ needs first while promoting humility, empathy, and a commitment to personal and collective growth. The style results in strong, cohesive teams and organizations that thrive on service, empowerment, and social responsibility.

Characteristics of servant leadership

Servant leadership is highly impactful on a company’s culture. The style does not need any technical expertise or magnetic appeal but rather an awareness and care for surrounding colleagues. The following are the attributes of a servant leader.

1. Vision

Servant leaders have a clear vision for their organization’s future, guiding their team with purpose and inspiration. These leaders communicate their vision effectively, ensuring the whole team understands their role in achieving organizational goals. This shared vision fosters unity and motivates collaboration among team members. Servant leaders also remain adaptable, allowing the vision to evolve while staying true to the organization’s values.

2. Actions, not words

Failure to deliver on your promises harms your relationships with customers and employees. The servant leader’s acts, not the words, have the most significant impact. Simply stating your concern for your workers’ mental health is not enough. You should also provide team members with mental health sick days or include virtual therapy in their benefits.

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3. Foresight

Foresight is the capacity to predict or anticipate future events or needs. In a servant leadership context, this ability means analyzing past performance and present objectives to forecast future results and the resources employees need to meet goals.

This concept applies if a job critical for a goal has been challenging in the past. Your foresight should tell you to be there to help while workers are executing challenging tasks. This forethought can also involve providing additional resources before employees have to ask to prevent struggles and roadblocks.

4. Conceptualization

The term “conceptualization” refers to the ability of servant leaders to chart a course for their organizations that results in success. This essential quality ties into the rest of the characteristics of servant leadership. When a servant leader envisions a goal for staff, they should be able to convince without coercing and supply workers with all necessary resources to achieve the objective.

5. Stewardship

In servant leadership, stewardship and accountability go hand in hand. As a leader, you can accept responsibility for your actions and understand how support for workers adds to the overall team’s success. For example, a servant leader might make their weekly progress report available to their team members. That way, employees can see their leader’s role and draw inspiration.

6. Empathy

Succeeding in your role as a servant leader begins with empathy for others. You can empathize with an employee without having a social work degree. For instance, ask your staff about their personal and professional problems. Also, let team members tell you about their triumphs and failures. This activity should not be a one-time-per-year endeavor. You have to regularly engage with your colleagues, business partners, and consumers and show that you care.

7. Commitment to employees’ development

A company with a strong focus on servant leadership will have employees continually striving to learn and develop. Instead of concentrating power in a few hands, servant leadership emphasizes the well-being and success of the majority.

Professional growth benefits everyone in the company. A servant leader would develop a mentoring program or a clear internal leadership path as part of the career development resources. Many companies claim to care about their employees’ and customers’ success but seldom prove it. A servant leader implements a customer-centric approach to the company to drive their leadership strategy and generate brand loyalty.

It is important to play your part in developing others. In the long run, the employees will be your most loyal consumers and the future leaders of your company.

8. Going the extra mile

A servant-leadership trait is inherent in the entrepreneur’s personality type. If you are serious about starting and growing a successful company, then you have already mastered the notion of getting your hands dirty. Delivering a product to a client or sorting out office files yourself are simple examples of going above and beyond. You will be less able to step in and provide a helping hand as your company grows.

You need to develop creative ways to show your employees and customers that they matter. For example, organize a goal-celebrating party at your house, take customer service calls at peak hours, or send thank-you messages to contractors. You will have a greater impact on your team’s motivation if you demonstrate your dedication to minor details.

9. Community engagement

Servant leaders extend their leadership beyond work into the community. These professionals actively participate in activities that benefit society, setting an example for their team. Servant leaders encourage their teams to participate in community service and support causes they care about. This outlook strengthens the organization’s community ties and instills a sense of pride and fulfillment among team members. Community engagement reflects servant leadership’s commitment to making a meaningful difference.

Here is a list of community-building activities.

10. Generosity with humility

Servant leadership is all about sacrificing yourself for the sake of others. As a servant leader, you will know how to meet the needs of others since you will embody a giving spirit. Possessing a modest mindset is essential to charity. For example, do not simply provide a discount because you know it will boost sales. Instead, give a discount to benefit your clients’ success. Leaders need to maintain the same humility as those they are guiding. Folks often see through a leader’s lack of sincerity or overcompensation.

If you are a generous and humble leader, then talent will flock to your organization.

Examples of servant leadership

Traditional leadership approaches are very different from servant leadership. A servant leader is a collaborator who works alongside employees to help them succeed rather than a strict enforcer. Here are some examples of leaders and company executives who exemplify servant leadership.

1. Martin Luther King: Activist

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a superb example of a contemporary servant leader. For Dr. King, a servant leader was “one who offers an inclusive vision; listens carefully to others; persuades through reason; and heals divisions while building community,” according to James Perry in the Huffington Post.

It is possible that Dr. King, unlike previous servant leaders, saw the bigger picture of this concept. In his words, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” For him, leadership was not about praise but more about fairness and equality for all individuals. He was well aware that he might better appreciate the present by assisting others and allowing them to achieve greatness.

2. Abraham Lincoln: US President

Many folks look to US presidents as role models for servant leadership. Lincoln had the two primary attributes of a servant leader. First is the notion of long-term transformation or sustainable change. Lincoln also reshaped the structure of the US government, empowering the people to pursue something bigger. He exemplified the concept of putting the people’s interests above personal gain. Lincoln did not want the presidency for power but rather because he believed it to be necessary for serving the masses.

3. Fred Rogers: TV Show Host

Fred Rogers, often affectionately known as “Mr. Rogers,” was an iconic figure in American television and a shining example of servant leadership. As the host of the children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which aired from 1968 to 2001, he used his platform to educate and inspire generations of young viewers.

What set Mr. Rogers apart was his constant commitment to fostering kindness, empathy, and emotional intelligence in children. He approached each episode with a deep understanding of a child’s emotional world. Mr. Rogers used gentle words and comforting gestures to address difficult topics. He believed in the power of love and compassion to make the world a better place. His dedication to children’s well-being, his advocacy for quality educational programming, and his authentic and humble persona made him a beloved figure. He continues to inspire generations of both children and adults.

4. Desmond Tutu: South African Anglican bishop

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is highly respected for his tireless efforts to promote reconciliation, justice, and human rights. He became well-known during South Africa’s apartheid period, where he stood up against the unfair government. Tutu advocated for peaceful change and worked hard to bring divided communities in his country together and encourage forgiveness.

His leadership was crucial during South Africa’s shift to democracy. He led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to address the wrongs of apartheid through open discussions and healing. Tutu’s unwavering commitment to fairness, strong support for human rights, and ability to help people unite with love and understanding have made him a recognized symbol of servant leadership. Additionally, he stands as a source of hope for justice and reconciliation in challenging times.

5. David Skogen: Chairman of Festival Foods

Over a decade ago, the founders of Festival Foods in the United States decided to implement servant leadership principles in their company. Success chairman David Skogen outlined the company’s strategy and the resulting benefits.

When it comes to servant leadership, the company focuses on several elements, including “having a continuous improvement mindset.” Every morning, the firm workers review their performance from the previous day. The comparison of yearly sales, the identification of the differences, and the defining of the path ahead are standard practices.

6. Herb Brooks: Olympic Hockey Coach

Herb Brooks, the iconic coach of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, used servant leadership in his unique coaching approach. Brooks understood that beyond athletic skills, success required a cohesive and motivated team. He prioritized his players’ well-being, both on and off the ice, nurturing their personal growth and camaraderie.

Brooks was known for pushing his athletes to their limits to help them realize their full potential. He instilled a sense of discipline and work ethic while fostering trust and unity among the team. His servant leadership style was evident in his willingness to listen to his players, respect their individuality, and empower them to believe in their abilities. Ultimately, this technique led to the historic “Miracle on Ice” victory and inspired generations.

7. Ari Weinzweig: CEO of Zingerman’s

The deliciousness of Zingerman’s pastries contributed to its rise to cult culinary fame, but Ari Weinzweig’s management style also had a role. As a result of Weinzweig’s servant leadership, the service sector experienced transformation. Weinzweig’ considered his principal clients as heads of various companies. The CEOs of each Zingerman company view the service managers as their most important clients. Even the worker at the service counter is aware of this strategy.

According to Weinzweig, the leadership style works: “Because the front-line staff are nearly always the people who are dealing with paying customers and/or making the products we sell. And we want to make sure their energy is freed to give the best possible service to customers coming in the front door, over the phone or via email. Why? Because, quite simply; the better the service we give to those front-line customers, the better the organization is going to perform.”

Servant leadership tips

To become a better servant leader, here are some guidelines you could consider following.

1. Set a good example for others

The best strategy for a servant leader to inspire their team is to lead by example. It would be best if you were willing to do anything your team asks of you. By demonstrating that you are just as hardworking as your coworkers, you encourage them to put in the same level of effort.

2. Demonstrate the significance of the work individuals do

Employees are more motivated to go the extra mile when they believe their efforts are making a difference in the company’s overall performance. It is important to make sure your employees understand the significance of their job and how it contributes to the organization’s overall success.

3. Commit to social responsibility

Servant leaders take their responsibility to society seriously. These professionals actively engage in activities that help others and benefit the community. This activism can include volunteering, supporting charitable causes, and adopting environmentally friendly practices.

Servant leaders lead by example, encouraging their team members to get involved and contribute to improving society. Leaders’ commitment to social responsibility improves the organization’s reputation. In addition, this commitment reflects leaders’ genuine concern for the well-being of others. Ultimately, being socially responsible emphasizes the principle of serving the community alongside organizational duties.

4. Help your colleagues grow and develop

Servant leaders are interested in improving their own leadership skills as well as enhancing the leadership skills of others around them. It would help if you encouraged your employees to take part in educational and training programs.

You can encourage your team members to assume leadership roles for group projects. These employees will be more receptive to recommendations on improving their work if they see that you are invested in their professional development.

5. Ask for feedback

Servant leaders continually look for new and better methods to lead and contribute to their organizations. You can encourage your team members to give feedback and suggestions to improve workflow or contribute to accomplishing goals. It is essential to ensure your team members feel comfortable approaching you with ideas at any time and solicit feedback from those who are less inclined to do so.

Conclusion

While servant leadership is a relatively recent leadership theory, it is gaining popularity. This style emphasizes a community-based approach over the self-interest of organizations or their executives, which is particularly appealing in a time of increasing inequality. The concept revolves around the philosophical principles of servant leadership and their actions. Servant leadership challenges the conventional perception of leaders as authoritative figures. Instead, this method promotes a more democratic and people-centric approach to leadership.

Next, check out these lists of books on diversity and inclusion and guides for new managers.

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FAQ: Servant leadership

Here are common questions and answers about servant leadership at work.

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is the style where the manager’s top priority is to help employees grow professionally while also providing them with the resources necessary for job success.

What are good examples of servant leadership?

Examples of servant leadership include Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Herb Brooks.

How do you become a good servant leader?

You can become a good servant leader by asking for feedback, setting a good example, and showing your employees you care about their professional growth.

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Author:

People & Culture Director at teambuilding.com.
Grace is the Director of People & Culture at TeamBuilding. She studied Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, Information Science at East China Normal University and earned an MBA at Washington State University.

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