What is Servant Leadership and How to Cultivate It?

What is Servant Leadership and How to Cultivate It?

There are “officially” 12 leadership styles that have been identified and described in detail, ranging from autocratic to transformational, charismatic, and beyond. One concept in leadership that is getting a lot of ‘press’ lately is servant leadership.

Though this leadership theory was formed by Robert Greenleaf back in the 1970s, today it still has not lost its relevance.

What is Servant Leadership?

A definition of servant leadership is more than just a few words. It begins with a personal philosophy that a leader exists to enrich and improve the lives of others, putting that before those of himself or the organization for which he works.

In Greenleaf’s own words,

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Premises of the Servant Leadership Theory

Servant leadership is based on a primary premise of helping people to grow, personally and professionally. And here are some baseline principles for promoting that growth:

Encouraging, supporting, and promoting growth among those who are led increases the chances that they will be successful on the job. And greater success in their personal lives means they are more willing to focus while on the job.

When employees experience personal and professional success, they become more productive. And when that success is promoted and facilitated by their servant leaders, they become loyal. They understand that their growth has become a fundamental priority of their leaders and their organization.

When employee productivity increases/improves, the organization profits in many ways. It has employees with high morale and with a greater commitment to organizational goals. Its production of goods and services improves, and its customers or clients are better served.

Key Servant Leadership Characteristics

In general, the characteristics of servant leadership are as follows:

  • There are long-term relationships between leaders and their teams and promoted among team members as well.
  • People are served rather than just used for their skills or talents. In a business climate, leaders know their team personally – their goals, their challenges, and such – and work to support those team members as they work toward their development.
  • There is a concern for everyone within an organization, as well as for customers, outside stakeholders, and the communities in which the organization exists.
  • There is a sense of humility, as leaders internalize the belief that it is not about them – it is about meeting the needs of others. This permeates the internal workings of an organization but also the aspects of outreach, such as marketing, customer service, and support of external communities.

Servant Leaders Practices

  • Self-Reflection and Awareness: Servant leaders take the time to regularly reflect on their behaviors in terms of what effect they have on others.
  • Servant leaders listen, rather than just hear what others are saying to them. They solicit feedback often, in an open and trusting environment. They also maintain an “open door” policy so that others feel free to express issues, needs, and challenges.
  • Turn the pyramid upside down. With the leader at the top, passing out tasks and orders, there is not an environment in which team members feel fully valued and heard. If the pyramid is stood on its head, the team members become more important than the single leader. They are valued, listened to, and their thoughts, feelings, suggestions, and feedback matter. The overriding concept here is shared power.
  • Provide continual development opportunities for their teams. Meet with individuals and discuss their personal and professional goals and provide the training/development/counseling, etc. that will meet those needs and desires.
  • Servant leaders are coaches, not autocratic “dictators.” They focus on mentoring, engagement, and inspiration. Then model and show.
  • As team members become more developed, they are provided with opportunities for more responsibilities and realistic challenges. They will thus feel more valued within the organization and that their accomplishments are recognized.
  • Servant leaders have visions and communicate those visions to their teams. They always seek contributions from their teams about how those visions can be translated into goals, objectives, and tasks.

Servant Leadership Examples

Many organizations have adopted the servant leadership theory and are at various stages of adoption within at least some of their business processes. Here are several.


Despite its reputation as a pricey coffee shop whose customers are of a more privileged variety, Starbucks has a large commitment to serve its employees. Individualized benefits packages, based on employee choice, matching 401K plans, free bulk coffee or tea once a month, and health insurance are among the key employee benefits.

Most recently, it took its savings from corporate tax cuts to provide salary raises and bonuses to employees. And, there is a tuition reimbursement plan through the University of Arizona online degree programs, with no strings attached. Employees (called “partners”) may also buy into company stock plans, at reduced costs. Overall, Starbucks has opted to put its employees first, and it is working.

Toms Shoes

Toms idea of servant leadership is to reach out globally to those in need. It began with a one-for-one program. For every pair of shoes purchased, one would be donated to a child in need. Since that initial outreach, Toms has expanded its charitable work to clean water, eye care, maternity care, and more. Toms employees all play a major role in this outreach, often traveling to places throughout the world, at company expense, to deliver shoes and more. The result has been both employee and customer loyalty (and huge profits).

The Container Store

CEO Melissa Riff does not believe that the only function of a business is to reward its stockholders. Rather, employees must come first, for their satisfaction and morale will always translate to enthusiasm for the company and its success. She has explained some of these guiding principles (e.g., communication) in her open letter to shareholders.

Marriott International

Bill Marriott, founder, and CEO of the hotel chain says that his concept of servant leadership began with his father as a model. His dad owned a root beer stand and then a restaurant. One day, the cook did not show up, and it led his father to think about how to keep good employees – and the answer was to treat them well, make them valued members of the team. He hired a doctor and then a surgeon to provide healthcare to his employees – probably the fist employer-paid healthcare plan. Bill Marriott has carried his father’s servant leadership into a huge hotel chain.

During an interview with Forbes Magazine, he stated:

“It’s always been the major belief of our company, take good care of your people, they’ll take good care of the customer and the customer will come back. And we celebrate them. We train them and we teach them. We provide an opportunity for them. Fifty percent of our general managers have come out of the hourly ranks and we continue to promote…we know they make a difference, particularly in the hospitality business.”

How to Cultivate Servant Leadership Qualities

Servant leadership is, first and foremost, a cultural mindset within an organization – a mindset of being of service to employees and putting those employees first. It is a mindset of collaboration and personal care.

So, exactly how do you cultivate this culture in your organization? Here are a few starting points.

Be a Model for Your Company’s Leaders

They are your team, and you must lead by example. Reach out to them. Be present and get into the trenches with them. Ask for and listen to their goals, challenges, and needs – both personal and professional and find ways to help and support them. Doing so will encourage other manager to follow your example and do the same with their teams.

Encourage Team Members to Provide Feedback to Their Leaders

These can begin as formal sessions until people feel more comfortable, and they can even involve anonymous written feedback at first. Also, after your team shares their feedback, be sure to take further action. Proactively address the voiced our concerns or issues, so that the teams know they are being heard. The more often this happens, the more comfortable and open team members will be. They see that leaders value their opinions and act upon them.

Praise and Appreciation are Important.

Depending on the situation, switch between public recognition methods such as giving our employee of the month certifications and group praise, to more private, personalized methods. For instance, you can give your team members sports or concert tickets, gift cards, a gym membership or even donate on their behalf to a charity. Try to come up with a personalized offering.

Group rewards are also important. When your team met the project deadline and did a great job, praise everyone who participated and contributed to success.

Invest in Employees’ Growth

Be like Starbucks. Show your employees that you want to invest in their personal and professional development. Ask them what type of training, education, or counseling they might want or need. Pay for them to attend conferences, for their tuition, or personal counseling if they are in need. Again, personalize all the opportunities.


Embracing and implementing a servant leadership style is not an overnight proposition. It occurs in stages if it is going to “stick.” It should begin with the training and development of your current leaders, so they understand the importance of being “servants,” especially in a workplace that is more and more dominated by millennials. To them, the paycheck is not as important as the work culture, and organizations committed to service are high on their priority list.

The key to servant leadership is relationship building. And this is where leaders must begin – personal relationships with their team members that show care and concern for their well-being. The other facets of servant leadership will follow from this cardinal principle.

Photo by Bruce Mars

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