what is servant leadership

Becoming a successful leader is a time-consuming ordeal and you can never quite say you’ve mastered it. It’s a life-long learning journey because there are always new skills to acquire and different leadership styles to embrace in order to get the most out of your team.

Servant leadership, although not a new concept, is a leadership methodology that is becoming increasingly viewed as an ideal leadership style. The term servant leadership was first coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf. In his essay “The Servant as a Leader” he put forth the basic principles of servant leadership.

servant leadership examples

What is servant leadership?

Unlike traditional leadership, the servant leader is focused on the employees and their well-being. Apart from honing the necessary skills, to become a servant leader you also need to change your perspective and adapt your behavior.

In servant leadership, you focus on your employees’ needs, before considering your own. The servant-leader is a servant first: he gives other people the support and acknowledgment they need to reach their goals.

Decision-making involves the entire team and it is the servant leader’s job to build a sense of community and trust. As a result, you have higher employee engagement and stronger relationships with team members. It can also lead to increased motivation and innovation.

The basic idea is that if your employees feel that their voices and ideas are heard and that they’ve got your support, they will be more productive and efficient. Your team, and thus your company, will prosper.

Though more conservative leaders express their doubts as to the effectiveness of servant leadership, there is an abundance of real-life examples of the positive impact this style of leadership can have on companies as well as in other spheres of life.

10 real-life examples of servant leadership

Abraham Lincoln

The former President of the USA is a shining example of servant leadership. In his desire to serve all people and to give them what they need, during the Civil War he was able to demonstrate his servant leadership characteristics.

He gave all Americans freedom and opportunity by freeing the slaves and transformed the USA into a true democracy.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa, a catholic nun, is one of the world’s greatest and most famous servant leaders. She dedicated her life to serving other people. As a nun and a charity worker in India, she spent her life helping the poor, sick, and dying.

Also, she never sought personal recognition. When accepting the Nobel Prize, she did so in the name of the poor.

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He listens to the people he serves, offers them compassion and understanding, and guides them toward the solutions to their problems.

In his relentless campaign for peace, reconciliation, and democracy, especially among different religions, the Dalai Lama has met with various religious and political representatives in an attempt to find common ground.

Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines

Herb Kelleher, the co-founder, and CEO of Southwest Airlines was a huge supporter of servant leadership. He believed that “the business of business is people.”

As CEO, Kelleher was responsible for the 10 Customer First Principles that were at the foundation of the airline’s customer-first policy. He also implemented a set of Employee First Principles, focused on fulfilling the needs of the employees. By doing so he created a workplace that aims to respect all individuals.

Cheryl Bachelder, Former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

These days a vocal advocate for servant leadership, Bachelder says servant leadership is what helped her achieve a turnaround at Popeyes. During her time as CEO, the value of the company quadrupled.

She left the head of the company in 2017 when it was sold to Burger King for $1.8 billion. Bachedler is the author of a book on servant leadership “Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others” in which she shares her insight on the benefits of servant leadership.

Jack Welch, Former CEO of General Electric

Jack Welch’s most famous servant leadership saying is: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

During his tenure at General Electric from 1981 to 2001, he transformed it from a company known for appliances and light bulbs to a successful multinational corporation with a much wider specter of services.

Alan Mulally, Former CEO of Ford Motor Co and Boeing

Mulally is credited for saving not one, but two major American companies – Boeing and Ford. Following the 9/11 attacks, Boeing was in trouble, but thanks to Alan’s leadership skills it didn’t merely survive, it prospered.

He went on to Ford, which was losing millions of dollars when he took the wheel. Mullaly turned things around quickly and is considered today as the man behind the most impressive corporate comeback. He mostly attributes his success to his servant leadership style.

Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube

According to Wojcicki, “it’s the people in power who pass power to others…in a way that in the end, will benefit everyone”. Susan Wojcicki is one of the key people behind Google’s development and success. Some estimates say that around 90% of Google’s present income is in direct correlation with Susan’s decisions and initiatives.

Currently, she is the longest-standing YouTube CEO and is considered an excellent servant leader.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks

Under Howard Schultz’s leadership, a small Seattle coffee retailer became a worldwide coffee-selling business. His managerial style is often analyzed. Schultz applied servant leadership both to employees and to customers.

Most importantly, Schultz realized that he was creating an experience for his customers rather than selling them coffee. When it comes to employees, he realized the benefits of offering medical insurance to all of them, including part-timers. His servant leadership principles resulted in a positive culture that inspires employees and attracts customers.

Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx

Fred Smith founded FedEx in 1971 and he still leads the company today. From the very beginning, he put people first. Smith believes that “when individuals are placed first, they will provide the best possible service, and profits are a natural outcome.”

Smith is a true servant leader who believes that pleased employees lead to happy customers which in turn makes a profit for his company. The company’s famous People-Service-Profit policy, which is the foundation of its growth and success, emerged from Smith’s servant leadership principles.

Servant leadership characteristics

In traditional leadership models, the primary focus is often on the growth and success of the company or organization itself. This can involve strategies aimed at increasing profits, market share, or the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the organization. The leader in this model typically maintains a top-down approach, making decisions that they believe will best serve the organization’s goals.

In contrast, servant leadership shifts the focus to the people who make up the organization. A servant leader prioritizes the needs, growth, and well-being of their team members. By sharing power and helping employees develop their skills and abilities, servant leaders aim to foster a more supportive and collaborative work environment. This approach is based on the belief that when employees feel valued, supported, and empowered, they are more likely to be engaged, productive, and innovative, which in turn contributes to the overall growth and success of the organization.

Here are the key characteristics of servant leadership:

Empathy: A servant leader strives to understand and empathize with others. Employees and other stakeholders are seen as whole persons with their own unique sets of personal and professional needs.

Listening: Servant leaders prioritize effective listening as a key aspect of their leadership style. They focus on truly understanding the perspectives, ideas, and concerns of their team members.

Awareness: This involves being aware of oneself and the impact one has on others. It also includes understanding the broader context of the business environment.

Persuasion: Rather than using their authority to coerce, servant leaders rely on persuasion to convince others. This means making decisions is a process of building consensus within the group.

Conceptualization: Servant leaders dream big. They seek to balance between conceptual thinking and a practical approach to solving problems.

Foresight: This is the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation. It is deeply rooted in the intuitive mind of the leader and is a combination of their experiences, present reality, and future possibilities.

Commitment to the Growth of People: They are deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within the institution. They believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their contributions as workers.

Building Community: Finally, servant leaders are focused on building a strong community within their organizations. They believe this is key to a thriving, successful team.

Servant leadership quotes

These are some inspirational quotes from a few popular servant leaders:

As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others

– Bill Gates, Founder of Microsoft

Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge

– Simon Sinek, Author of Start With Why & Speaker

It has generally been my experience that the very top people of truly great organizations are servant-leaders

– Stephen Covey, Author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

What I have learned is the power of a compelling vision, a comprehensive strategy, a relentless implementation process, and talented people working together based on those commitments

– Alan Mulally, Former CEO of Ford

Servant-leadership is more than a concept, it is a fact. Any great leader, by which I also mean an ethical leader of any group, will see herself or himself as a servant of that group and will act accordingly

– M. Scott Peck, American Psychiatrist and Author of The Road Less Travelled