The Ultimate Guide To The Servant Leadership Model & How It Can Empower Your Team

Leadership, in the eyes of some people, is about wielding power. They are like a carpenter with only a hammer who sees everything as a nail. Whatever problems or challenges arise, this type of leader is confident that brute strength, force, and power will bring about a solution.

The servant leader, on the other hand, prefers to serve.

They lead, but are followed willingly instead of fearfully. They come to work thinking first about their team and what can be done for them instead of what power they can put to use that day.

The servant leadership model, in other words, flips the traditional idea of power and authority on its head. It leads from a point of serving.

Key takeaways

  • Put others first: At the core of the servant leadership model is the principle of prioritizing the needs and development of team members. This approach fosters a collaborative environment and builds trust among team members and leaders.
  • Focus on empowerment and growth: Servant leaders empower their team by creating opportunities for growth and skill development. This leads to a more engaged and motivated workforce, resulting in improved performance and innovation.
  • Listen and communicate: Effective communication and active listening are essential traits of a servant leader. By understanding the concerns and perspectives of team members, leaders can make more informed decisions that benefit the entire team.
  • Lead by example: Servant leaders lead through their actions and behaviors rather than relying solely on their positional authority. This encourages ethical behavior and promotes a positive organizational culture.
  • Serve a higher purpose: The servant leadership model emphasizes serving a higher purpose beyond just profit or goals. This can inspire a sense of shared mission and values among team members.

What Is Servant Leadership?

A servant leader is someone who serves others first, before anything else. Their thoughts and actions bend towards serving others right out of the gate.

Robert K. Greenleaf is given credit for coining the phrase “servant leadership” back in the 1970s. In an essay he wrote about the concept, Greenleaf noted that a person whose first inclination is towards serving others, and then leading, was quite different from someone who wanted to lead.

“That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…”

In other words, a servant leader thinks about others first, instead of self. They are more concerned about the benefit and growth of others rather than putting their own desires or goals first.

A servant leader:

  • Isn’t concerned about acquiring or holding onto power.
  • Isn’t focused on maintaining a certain reputation above all else.
  • Isn’t obsessed with staying ahead of everyone else on the ladder.
  • Doesn’t fear employees gaining skills and knowledge beyond their own.
  • Doesn’t use domination or fear to control people
  • Doesn’t think in terms of controlling people at all, really.
  • Places high value on the community.
  • Is committed to the growth and improvement of those being led.

As you can see, servant leadership differs from traditional top-down leadership. Traditional leadership tends to be about systems and structures that make repetitive work and authority a foundation. Servant leadership, on the other hand, tends to be about people.

Servant leadership vs. traditional leadership

While traditional leadership often revolves around hierarchy and authority, the servant leadership model takes a different approach:

  • Traditional leadership emphasizes results and directives, whereas servant leadership prioritizes the well-being and development of individuals.
  • Traditional leaders might make decisions unilaterally, while servant leaders involve team members and value their input in the decision-making process.
  • Traditional leadership often uses rewards and punishments for motivation, whereas servant leadership seeks to inspire intrinsic motivation through empowerment and trust.
  • In traditional leadership, a clear hierarchy is emphasized, whereas servant leadership promotes a flatter organizational structure where leaders collaborate with their team.
  • Servant leadership tends to have a more lasting impact, as it fosters a culture of growth, empathy, and collaboration, which can lead to increased employee retention and organizational resilience.

The 10 characteristics of becoming a servant leader

Servant leadership doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s much easier to think of leadership in terms of traditional authoritarian terms, particularly for personalities that place value on job titles and the expected respect of titles.

In order to be a good servant leader, you need to develop and practice a few skills, according to Regen University:

  1. Be a good listener. Leaders need to be good communicators and have decision-making skills, but a servant leader also places a high priority on listening to others. You must be able to listen to individuals as well as the group and try to determine what their will or desire is. Additionally, you must be able to “listen” to yourself and know what is motivating you.
  2. Practice empathy. The servant leader can empathize with the group and with individuals. While empathy can be crippling for some (e.g. keeps them from making decisions), the servant leader isn’t at the mercy of empathy but rather uses empathy to not make snap judgments about people. Empathy allows you to get past surface issues to what’s really going on.
  3. Embrace concepts of healing. Everyone (including you) is in some state of brokenness. There is something not working quite right for everyone. The servant leader recognizes this and instead of ignoring that reality and reverting to punitive punishment when that brokenness becomes inconvenient on the job, he or she looks for ways to make broken people well.
  4. Be aware. A typical leader is often completely unaware of what people are thinking, feeling, or even doing. A servant leader, on the other hand, makes a point of being aware of the obvious and the subtle, both in their own life and in other’s lives.
  5. Be persuasive. Servant leadership is about service, not domination. Traditionally, leaders will get people to do what they want them to do through typical dominating means (power, punishment, appeal to authority, etc.). A servant leader takes a different path, using powers of persuasion to help people choose the right path as needed instead of demanding the path.
  6. Be able to conceptualize. Servant leaders are big-picture thinkers. They inspire their team to think beyond the day-to-day grind, beyond the immediate issues in front of them. Traditional leaders are fixated on short-term or immediate goals. Servant leaders look beyond numbers and goal posts, thinking of what their team needs to do to accomplish everything, not just the one thing in front of them. They help their team get the training and tools they’ll need not just for today, but for next year and on.
  7. Be a good steward. A steward is someone who holds onto something and keeps it in good condition for others who need it down the road. Servant leaders are more motivated by thinking of the greater good than thinking of personal achievements or reward. They make decisions and take actions with a steward’s mentality instead of “achieve a goal at whatever cost!” mentality.
  8. Commit to building up people. Servant leaders understand their most important resource and concern is people. They are committed to the growth and well-being of their team, thinking first of them instead of themselves. This means that training opportunities, promotions, growth—these are given to the team instead of to self. As a servant leader, there is no fear that the people on your team will surpass you. You aren’t trying to protect your own place in the world. You aren’t keeping the best opportunities for yourself.
  9. Love the community. Servant leaders love the community more than their own individual success. They don’t sell out the community for any immediate or flashy goal. Servant leaders understand that the concept of community has the power to positively shape and influence lives, more than systems or other corporate structures do.

Why Does Servant Leadership Work?

Studies have shown that servant leadership, and the empowerment and teamwork that accompanies it, trickles down. Higher level managers who turn from selfish leadership to selfless leadership end up creating lower level managers and other employees who then do the same.

Think of how this plays out for employees and customers. Instead of being motivated by what’s best for them, they are motivated to serve others. As you can imagine, that’s going to have a positive impact on your customer’s experience! The studies show that service ratings, and subsequently customer loyalty, increases when the servant leadership model is in place.

Additionally, the servant leadership model creates people who are knowledgeable about the industry and their team because they are tuned into listening to others and being mindful of what is happening around them. The model also creates trust, ethical conduct, and valuing other people, which benefits not only the team but also the customer’s experience.

The Pros And Cons Of Servant Leadership

As you can see, servant leadership takes work. It doesn’t come naturally, particularly for people attracted to power and position. It also requires dedication to the concept because it takes a fair amount of time to get to a fully working model. You can’t make people trust you overnight. It’s something you build.

In some situations, the servant leadership model may not be the best option.

For companies that need to be turned around quickly for financial or other reasons (such as employee problems), servant leadership may take too much time. In those cases, leadership has to be decisive, clear, and quick. While servant leadership can help with employee retention, it’s a balance between the employees that stick around long enough for the model to actually work versus those that cycle through.

It also might not work well in companies that rely on hierarchy and complex organization in order to function in their industry. Hierarchy and its ensuing organization aren’t necessarily bad in certain situations and cultures.

The servant leadership model has the power to transform your team and, eventually, your customer’s experience. However, it takes dedication to implement, and daily requires a leader to control the impulse to lead by force instead of serving selflessly. While it is not a model for the faint-hearted, the positive impact on your team and your bottom line make it worth the effort.


The servant leadership model transcends the boundaries of conventional leadership approaches. By focusing on the well-being and growth of team members, you can create a positive work environment that breeds loyalty, innovation, and collaboration. As your team continues to evolve, embracing servant leadership can pave the way for sustained success and a more harmonious workplace.

In a world where leadership paradigms are continuously changing, the servant leadership model remains a timeless and impactful approach. By embracing the principles of putting others first, empowering team members, and leading by example, you can build a culture that thrives on collaboration, growth, and shared purpose.

Servant leadership FAQs

Can servant leadership be effective in all types of organizations?

Yes, servant leadership can be effective in various organizations, regardless of size or industry. However, its successful implementation might require adapting the principles to suit the specific context and challenges of each organization.

How does servant leadership contribute to employee engagement?

Servant leadership fosters employee engagement by valuing team member contributions, providing opportunities for growth, and promoting a sense of belonging. When employees feel valued and empowered, they become more invested in their work and the success of the organization.

Is servant leadership a sign of weakness or indecisiveness?

No! It requires a strong commitment to the well-being of the team and the organization’s success. Servant leaders can make tough decisions when needed but do so while considering the greater good and involving their team in the process.

How can someone transition from a traditional leadership style to servant leadership?

Transitioning to servant leadership involves a shift in mindset and behavior. Start by actively listening to your team, empowering them to make decisions, and focusing on their growth. Seek feedback and be open to adapting your leadership style based on their needs.

What are the potential challenges of implementing servant leadership?

While servant leadership offers many benefits, challenges can arise, such as the need to balance individual needs with organizational goals, managing conflicts within a collaborative framework, and ensuring that empowerment does not lead to chaos or lack of accountability.

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