What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership style and philosophy whereby an individual interacts with others—either in a management or fellow employee capacity—to achieve authority rather than power. The system embodies a decentralized organizational structure. Leaders who follow this style include customer-facing employees in company decision-making. These employees have a close relationship with the consumer and can make better decisions to retain those customers and acquire new ones.

Key Takeaways

  • Servant leadership seeks to move management and personnel interaction away from controlling activities and toward a synergistic relationship.
  • The authority figure in servant leadership environments attempts to promote innovation, empower employees, and assure the well-being of those around them.
  • Servant leadership also aims to develop leadership qualities in others.
  • This leadership style requires an individual to demonstrate characteristics such as empathy, listening, stewardship, and commitment to the personal growth of others.
  • Servant leadership is not suitable for all situations. A military commander must assume complete authority in order to make swift life and death decisions.
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What Is Servant Leadership?

How Servant Leadership Works

Servant leadership seeks to move management and personnel interaction away from "controlling activities" and toward a more synergistic relationship. The term "servant leadership" was coined by Robert Greenleaf, a twentieth-century researcher who was skeptical about traditional leadership styles that focus on more authoritarian relationships between employers and employees.

The authority figure in servant leadership environments attempts to promote innovation, empower employees, and assure the well-being of those around them. Servant leadership also aims to develop leadership qualities in others. This leadership style requires an individual to demonstrate characteristics such as empathy, listening, stewardship, and commitment to the personal growth of others.

Servant Leader Characteristics

According to Greenleaf’s observations, the servant leader approaches situations and organizations from the perspective of a servant first, looking to lend their presence to answer the needs of the organization and others. Servant leaders seek to address stakeholder wants and requirements as their priority, with leadership to be pursued secondarily. This contrasts with the leader-first perspective, wherein a person aims to gain control quickly often driven by the desire and prospects for material gain or influence.

Developing and mentoring the team who follow their instructions, or the clients’ and customers’ needs, take precedence over personal elevation. Even upon attaining a position of governance, a servant leader typically encourages their subordinates to look to serve others as their priority over personal gains. A servant leader may aim to share power with others and encourage the development and growth of others. This trait can extend to listening to followers carefully to better understand their needs, but it also involves leaders holding themselves and others accountable for their words and actions.

Servant leadership is not suitable for all situations. For example, in a war setting, military commanders must make swift decisions in response to enemy actions, and there is no time to consult with a broad swath of stakeholders.

Servant Leadership Example

Where the leader-first dynamic is oriented to appease a personal desire for power, the servant leader looks first at how their service benefits others. For example, a servant leader might question how their efforts uplift those who are underrepresented or are from lower economic standing before seeking to attain a position of control. Their progression to a position of leadership comes after their commitment to service.

This can be seen in the healthcare world, for instance, as medical practitioners work to benefit their patients and assist their peers and teammates in providing that care. In the business world, this can mean seeing that employees, customers, and all other stakeholders can prosper through their service.

Servant Leadership Pros and Cons

Different leadership styles have their own advantages and disadvantages that make them a better model depending on the context.

Some of the advantages of servant leadership are that leaders earn respect from their employees; employees feel valued and that management is looking out for their interests; there is a shared vision; there is often greater trust among employees and leaders; leaders consider the opinions of staff, which is likely to improve innovative efforts; and individuals develop skills and can advance professionally in a supportive environment.

The disadvantages of servant leadership are that few leaders have experience in this type of management; adopting this style of leadership may require difficult cultural change; decisions can take time, which can be detrimental in times of crisis; or staff may be given more responsibility than they are able to carry.

Pros of Servant Leadership
  • Leaders earn the respect of others

  • There is often a shared vision and greater trust

  • Employee opinion contributes to company decision making for better outcomes

  • Individuals advance in a supportive environment

Cons of Servant Leadership
  • Few leaders are familiar with this type of leadership

  • Adopting this type of leadership may require difficult cultural change

  • This type of leadership is not conducive to rapid decision making

  • Staff may have responsibilities that are beyond their capability

Servant Leadership FAQs

What Is Servant Leadership Theory?

The theory of servant leadership is thought to have been coined by Robert Greenleaf, a twentieth-century researcher. Greenleaf considered that the leader should put the emphasis on their team members so that they can become autonomous and free-thinking. Servant leadership is a mindset that reflects a servant-first mentality rather than a leader-first mentality. Greenleaf considered that a leader-first mentality was "often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt."

What Are the Principles of Servant Leadership?

Greenleaf put forward 10 principles of servant leadership: listening; empathy; healing; awareness; persuasion; conceptualization; foresight; stewardship; commitment to the growth of people; and building community.

What Is the Role of a Servant Leader?

A servant leader's role is to be the steward of a group's resources and to teach other leaders to serve others while still achieving the goals set forth by the business.

Who Is a Good Example of a Servant Leader?

Dr. Martin Luther King assumed a leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement and chose to champion a non-violent approach. He fought hard for social justice and ultimately sacrificed his own life, not for accolades or personal gain, but because he wanted to help others. In doing so, Dr. King modeled servant leadership for all aspiring leaders that came after him.

The Bottom Line

There are pros and cons to any leadership style, and some styles are more suited to certain contexts. For example, in a military setting where precision accuracy and strict protocols are necessary, authoritarian leadership is required. In a less structured environment, such as a research setting where teams innovate together, servant leadership is more suitable.