What is Servant Leadership?

Written by Haley Boyce

what is servant leadership

Let’s be real about this: Not every great business leader is necessarily a great boss to work for. They might excel as the mastermind of business, understand how a customer’s mind works, and what type of networking is needed to make their company succeed. They never mix the head and the heart and that seems to be their key to success. But is it sustainable? If their employees were surveyed about the way their boss cared about them on a personal level and how that impacted their performance at work, what would they say? 

Some of the most successful companies to ever exist reached the top of their game because they were run by CEOs who cared about the well-being of their employees.

We’re talking on a soul-deep level here, where a boss puts the needs of his employees ahead of his own. The result is happier employees who care about the company and thus extend the same care that is given to them toward the customers. This is a practice known as servant leadership. 

Servant Leadership Definition: Even if You Can’t Quantify it, You Can Still Define the Theory and Characteristics

discussing detailsThough the practice of servant leadership has gained momentum in recent years especially, the term was first coined in 1970 in the essay “The Servant as Leader” by Robert K. Greenleaf. It is here that he posited that a leader should serve his employees, customers, and stakeholders (and thus his company) by focusing on their personal growth and development. In essence, treating them like human beings instead of dollar signs. 

Based on the foundation of morals, servant leadership is a type of leadership in which a leader puts their employees, customers, and other stakeholders first and themselves last.

The belief is that servant leadership can positively impact how an employee is satisfied in their work-life and how committed they will remain to the organization. 

Servant leadership theory is the idea that suggests that the most effective leaders are those who work to support their employees, giving them the tools and resources they need to accomplish organizational goals. 

Servant leadership is about the leader taking care of their employees first, understanding that mutual success is interdependent. Smart leaders know they can only achieve benchmarks with a loyal and energized team behind them. Managers and other leaders skilled in applying the servant leadership style accomplish this by:

Some of My Favorite Servant Leadership Books 

stacks of booksThere’s no denying that good readers make good leaders. Knowledge is power and outside of learning through hard work we also learn from the expert advice from others. Here are five books written by experienced leaders who have charted the waters that we now tread, along with reviews from everyday readers and leaders like us.


  • Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness 25th Anniversary Edition

    – By Larry Spears and Robert Greenleaf


  • The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership

    – By James. C. Hunter


  • The Servant Leader: How to Build a Creative Team, Develop a Great Morale, and Improve Bottom-Line Performance

    – By James A. Autry 


  • Servant Leadership Roadmap: Master the 12 Core Competencies of Management Success with Leadership Qualities and Interpersonal Skills (Clinical Mind Leadership Development) (Volume 2)

    – By Cara Bramlett

Servant Leadership Characteristics – The Universally Agreed Upon Qualities of a Great Leader

businesswomen in an office windowYou won’t be hard pressed to find someone who considers themselves a leader in their field, but what about finding someone who can genuinely say they are a great leader? And If they do consider themselves a great leader, how many people on their team would agree with them? The following is a list of hallmark qualities of not just any leader but a great one. 

For someone to be a leader, they need to be worthy of following.

You’ll know you’re working for someone with servant leadership characteristics (or be that certain someone yourself) when you see them empowering employees and helping them to grow and succeed, exhibiting strong conceptual skills, and creating value for the community.


Do the right thing, even when nobody is looking. Trust is the bedrock of great leadership. Studies have found this to be a blind spot for many companies, so being aware of it as a leader will serve you, your employees, and – ultimately – your company well. 


Speaking of trust, the best leaders build trust in their company by delegating effectively. Delegating is one of the most critical  responsibilities of a leader. Delegating effectively is a honed skill. The goal isn’t only to free up your responsibilities. The truth is, It allows your direct reports to grow, encourages teamwork, provides autonomy, and results in stronger decision-making.


You’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred-million times. The key to any solid relationship is good communication. When it comes to business, it’s impossible to expect someone on your team to know something that they haven’t been told. Clear communication of a goal, expectation, vision, etc. is what will get your team to the finish line. 


Let’s be honest here. It’s easy to let pride get in the way of accepting and then admitting areas that need improvement. As a leader, you’re constantly setting examples – even when it’s uncomfortable. Be mindful of your tone, the way you speak to certain people in comparison to others. Build in time for yourself to reflect on how you handle any given situation and allow yourself the grace to admit how it could have gone better. Sometimes a person on your team will be the one to bring this to your attention. Be grateful for the opportunity to improve.


Good leadership relies a great deal on understanding the psyche. Studies prove that an increase in self-esteem and a reduction in depression are related to gratitude. As a boss, being thankful – and showing it – elicit stronger work from employees.

Ability to Learn

It’s not just about being able to adapt to the ever-evolving world of business and organizations. It’s about the willingness to grow with the times. You’re a leader for a reason, and one of them is likely because you can forecast the needs of your organization. Stay ahead of the game, learn what’s new and unique and beat the competition to the punch.

As a leader, you’ll need to remain flexible for your team and be willing to learn quickly (and happily) so your team will follow suit.


Influence = Convince. Your team is going to be as strong as your ability to get buy-in from your team. It would be a dream to have everyone believe in your organization with as much passion as you do. Hopefully that’ll be the case. But there will be times when your team, or an individual, won’t be as willing to adapt to the changes necessary to grow evermore toward success. As a leader, you’re going to convince them that certain decisions are the right ones. For some, this sounds like a dirty word – like it’s manipulating people to believe what they don’t want to. 


Fact is, we work better when we know people care about us. Empathy means being able to see from someone else’s perspective, to put yourself in their position and see how it might make them feel even though you might not have the same perspective or experience. Showing empathy allows you to connect with your team members, and thus elicits better work from a team member in similar ways that gratitude does. 


Fortune favors the bold. That phrase is about you. Being a leader isn’t about being loud, it’s about being brave. Leading takes a confidence that will come easier for some than others. Make a practice of reminding yourself that you are absolutely the one who should be leading the charge toward success. 

Servant Leadership Quotes  

mlk memorialLet’s face it. This job isn’t easy. Being a leader means you’re in the spotlight, the subject of accolades and ridicule in sometimes unequal measure. It will feel incredible at the highest points and agonizing at the lowest. It’s nice to have reminders about why we’re doing this job in the first place, especially from our successors.

Here are the top ten quotes from leaders before us who remind us just a few words why we should keep charging ahead.


Servant leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, they don’t work for you; you work for them.”

Ken Blanchard


We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Winston Churchill


Life’s most urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?‘“

Martin Luther King, Jr.


A leader… is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

Nelson Mandela


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

Bill Gates, Microsoft


“Success is empty if you arrive at the finish line alone. The best reward is to get there surrounded by winners.”

Howard Schultz, Starbucks


“I’m learning that to be a CEO is to be a servant. My main job is to support our employees, and be a support to our clients and to our consumers.”

Sylvia Metayer, Sodexo Corporate Services Worldwide


“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients.”

Richard Branson, Virgin


“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

Servant Leadership Examples in the Business World

business meetingLeaders who exemplify servant leadership are motivated by a certain code of ethics. Though the basis of servant leadership is founded in the Christian tradition on examples set by Jesus Christ, being a Christian or having any other religious belief is certainly not a prerequisite to using these methods and being an effective servant leader. 

They succeed as leaders because they recognize their role as the support to those that they lead.

Those who have embodied servanthood and thus have become strong servant leadership examples are:

Kelleher believed in elevating his airline to new heights by treating his employees with respect. He believed in taking care of his employees who in turn took good care of their customers. He believed that his employees had potential, no matter their background or education. He believed they could soar, so they did. 

Bachelder has said, “[I’ve come to the] well-founded conclusion that serving the people and the enterprise is by far the best path to superior financial performance.”

With his practice in servant leadership, Barter turned his $10 million international multicultural radio manufacturing company into a $200 million one in the brief span of six years. 

For twenty years, Welch served his customers by first serving his employees. In his book, Winning, he wrote, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”