Updated: August 27, 2022

Servant Leadership: Definition, Examples & Tips

You found our guide to 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 skills and good leadership qualities, and are often considered good managers. Such individuals tend to be effective team building leaders and collaborative leaders.

This article includes:

  • the definition of servant leadership
  • characteristics of servant leadership
  • examples of servant leadership

Servant leadership places a high value on fostering a culture of mutual respect and cooperation among employees. In business, servant leadership is critical because it fosters a culture of dignity, appreciation, and value amongst workers. This kind of leadership encourages a positive work environment and high staff morale and engagement.

The definition of servant leadership

Servant leadership is a leadership style where the manager’s top priority is to help employees grow professionally while also providing the resources necessary for job success. This style is different from conventional leadership since a leader does not impose their authority or regard employees as subordinates.

Robert K. Greenleaf invented the phrase “servant leader”  in his 1970 article, The Servant as Leader. According to the article, the servant leader “focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of individuals and the communities to which they belong,” and “puts the needs of others first and assist others in developing and performing to their maximum potential.”

In other words, the leader or executive of a firm serves the employees. It all starts with a natural desire to serve others first and foremost or a deliberate decision to put staff needs before your own. There are contrasting features between this individual and one who wants to be a boss for power, wealth, or status. Simply put, there are two extremes: the leader-first and the servant-first mindsets. These shades and mixtures represent the vast variation inherent in human nature.

According to this idea, the conventional top-to-to-bottom leadership strategy becomes obsolete. Instead, servant leaders put the demands of their subordinates ahead of their own. These leaders view themselves as working for employees instead of the other way around.

Your role as a servant leader in the workplace is not about being a martyr. Instead, your duty is to foster an atmosphere in which every member of your company feels valued. People often overlook servant leadership while running a business. However, this style affects both workers and consumers and may have a tremendous influence on the company’s identity. Employees who get leader support often have high productivity and work to provide the customer experience.

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. 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.

2. 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.

3. Persuasion

Servant leaders rely on persuasion rather than brute force to motivate and align employees. Therefore, you must persuade others and get their support without imposing your will on them or commanding them to follow your instructions.

Here is a list of books about negotiation.

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. 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 yet seldom prove it. A servant leader implements a  customer-centric approach to the company to drive their leadership strategy and generate brand loyalty.

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.

7. Healing

According to Greenleaf, healing is important since people are accustomed to working in conditions where their leaders exert their authority and demand conformity. Employees may require support in adjusting to the process.  Creating a working atmosphere that fosters trust can help them feel more at ease with your leadership style.

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. Listening skills

Servant leaders listen to learn more about the company’s employees and their values. Servant leaders can learn how to meet their employees’ needs if they take the time to hear workers’ thoughts and concerns. Employees can discuss their experience at work and share possible areas for improvement.

10. 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.

11. 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; give a discount to benefit your clients’ success instead. Leaders need to maintain the same humility as those they are guiding. People 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.

12. Social cohesion

Workplace communities encourage trust and unity, and workers feel like they are working toward a shared objective. Therefore, a servant leader should strive to build social cohesion by creating relationships with their employees and encouraging others to do the same.

Here is a list of community-building activities.

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. 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 United States 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 people.

2. Martin Luther King – Activist

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a superb example of a contemporary servant leader. For Dr. King, the goals of a servant leader were “one who gives an inclusive vision; listens closely to others; persuades through reason, and heals divides while establishing 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 praises but more about fairness and equality for all people. He was well aware that he might better appreciate the present by assisting others and allowing them to achieve greatness.

3. Jack Lowe Sr. – Founder of TD Industries

American business TDIndustries has a long history of using the servant leadership model. The founder of the company, Jack Lowe Sr., believed in servant leadership and adopted the model as he grew his business.

The company has incorporated the principle of servant leadership into its culture, and workers now have to take courses on this leadership style. The company also periodically evaluates the effectiveness with which firm supervisors implement servant leadership concepts.

The way the firm handles profit also demonstrates its dedication to the principles of creating a community and caring for its people. Around 30 percent of the company’s income goes to TDIndustries’ retirement savings plan and equity ownership plan for employees. In addition, the company has no separate plans for its executives; everyone gets equal treatment.

4. 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 more on persuasion, or as they put it, “remind more than instruct.” Every morning, the firm workers review their performance from the previous day. The comparison of yearly sales and the identification of the differences, and the defining of the path ahead are standard practices.

Servant leadership has made it possible for everyone in the meeting to share their thoughts, goals, and ambitions. The goal is to give everyone a chance to speak. This system guarantees that the lines of communication between upper and lower management remain open.

5. Cheryl Bachelder – Former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

You may not expect a fast-food chicken restaurant to embody servant leadership. Still, CEO Cheryl Bachelder has entrenched principles of caring for others and compassion at every level of the firm. Popeyes’ revenues increased by 45 percent when she took over as CEO in 2007. After the corporate rebrand, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen also returned to profitability and its original indigenous principles.

According to Bachelder, the company’s recovery may be due to listening to the franchise owners and prioritizing their success. “We put every decision we made through the filter of how well it served the franchise owner. Then, over the next several years, we checked performance against the measures of what makes franchise owners successful. Together, we’ve created this high-performing company.”

6. Dan Price – Founder and CEO of Gravity Payments

Dan Price co-founded Gravity Payments as a 19-year-old to help small companies increase their revenue on credit card transactions. In 2015, he earned a celebrity-like reputation for boosting the minimum pay of his staff to $70,000. As a result, Gravity Payments’ income has increased threefold.

This shift in employee relations came from a casual exchange between Price and a coworker. Price was able to change his company’s concept and emphasize the overall well-being of his workers by listening to what they had to say. As a result of the discussion, there has been an increase in output, public support, and corporate success.

7. Ari Weinzweig – the CEO of Zingerman’s

The deliciousness of Zingerman’s pastries contributed to its rise to cult culinary fame, but 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 person 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.”

Check out more examples of strong leaders.

Tips for servant leadership

To become a better servant leader, follow these guidelines:

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 to the company’s overall performance. Make sure your employees understand the significance of their job and how it contributes to the organization’s overall success.

3. Encourage teamwork and employee engagement

Servant leaders have a knack for making employees feel as if their thoughts and ideas are valuable. You can show your staff that you value their opinions and efforts by taking initiatives to foster teamwork and brainstorm new ideas for improving the company. This tip can spur your team to more tremendous effort and consequent high-quality work.

4. Help your colleagues grow and develop

Servant leaders are not only interested in improving their own leadership skills; they are also interested in 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. They 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. Do everything you can to ensure that your team members feel comfortable approaching you with ideas at any time and solicit feedback from those who are less inclined to do so.


Although servant leadership is still in its infancy as a theory, it is growing popular among leadership theories. A community-based approach, rather than an organization’s or its executives’ interests, is attractive in the present atmosphere of escalating inequality. The notion depends heavily on the philosophical ideas of what it means to be a servant leader and what a servant leader does. This leadership style displaces the traditional view of leaders as isolated and in charge, establishing a more democratic and people-centered approach.

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

We also have a guide to collaborative leadership and a list of leadership games to try.

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 Jack Lowe Sr.

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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Content Expert 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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