Business Leadership Today

How Servant Leadership Is Different From Other Leadership Styles


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

Leadership style refers to a leader’s approach to directing, motivating, and overseeing their employees, building influence, implementing strategies, and setting goals.

There are many different commonly utilized leadership styles. Some are more focused on autonomy, flexibility, and trust. Some of the more traditional leadership styles rely more heavily on coercion, positional authority, and micromanagement. 

Each leadership style has its strengths and weaknesses and can impact workers and their performances in vastly different ways. While different aspects of each leadership style can be beneficial in some industries and under certain circumstances, the best way to lead people, ultimately, is with kindness and understanding. 

The most effective leaders possess a high degree of self-awareness, invite employees to participate in decision-making, are committed to the growth of others, and forge relationships with team members that are rooted in trust. 

In short, the best leaders care about their employees and make the growth of team members their goal. Of all the leadership styles, servant leadership is the most effective at achieving this goal. 

The key to servant leadership’s effectiveness is in how it differs from traditional leadership styles.

Servant leadership is different from other leadership styles because it values service to others over personal gain, builds influence through persuasion and authenticity, and is focused on the growth of others. Servant leaders share power and help their team members achieve greatness through caring leadership.

In this article, I’ll discuss some of the most common leadership styles, how servant leadership differs from other leadership styles, and explore the tenets that guide servant leaders and help them inspire high-performance teams.

Common Leadership Styles

There are five common leadership styles that are distinguished by how they build influence, how they approach decision-making, and how much control and oversight they exert over employees. 

Authoritative (Autocratic)

Authoritative leadership is a traditional leadership style with a top-down command structure. Authoritative leaders rely on positional authority to build influence and do not include their employees in decision-making. 

There is an emphasis on obedience, rule enforcement, and following a clear chain of command, which leaves little doubt for employees about what is expected of them. Loyalty is built through coercion, control, and, sometimes fear. 

Because they do not seek input from those they are leading, authoritarian leaders can make decisions quickly and with a great deal of authority and confidence, which can be effective during times of crisis. 

However, these kinds of decisions can often have unforeseen long-term consequences, and this leadership style often demoralizes employees, leading to highly toxic work environments where trust is low. 

Participative (Democratic)

Participative leaders value input from their teams and invite employees to be a part of the decision-making process. They create environments of open-minded communication, collaboration, and transparency.

Participative leadership can be a great leadership style because it includes team members in the decision-making process, which makes them feel heard and valued. It can foster a more positive, more collaborative work environment.

However, it can be a difficult leadership style to maintain when fast decision-making and quick turnaround are priorities in an organization.

Delegative (Laissez-Faire)

Delegative, or laissez-faire, leadership is considered to be one of the least intrusive forms of leadership as it avoids micromanagement and delegates initiatives to employees. 

These leaders are strong proponents of autonomy and flexibility, often relying on intrinsic motivation and the expertise and experience of team members. 

It is a style best suited to teams with employees who are highly skilled, knowledgeable about their jobs, and able to work well with little supervision, which can be ideal in remote work environments. There is little guidance, lots of mentoring, and complete creative and decision-making freedom for employees. 

However, this type of leadership can rely too heavily on self-motivation, lead to stagnation, and create scenarios where teams are slow to react and adapt to change. In some cases, these leaders may avoid their responsibilities by handing most of them off to subordinates.

Transactional (Managerial)

Transactional leadership adheres to the ideas many have about the role of traditional managers, with an emphasis on organization, supervision, performance, compliance, and meeting goals. It utilizes rewards and penalties to motivate people. 

Transactional leadership produces consistent, predictable results, and employees can see the tangible impacts of their work when their goals are tied to the growth and success of the organization. 

This type of leadership reduces confusion about expectations and can create a sense of fairness amongst employees, but it does not tend to inspire greatness and leaves little room for creativity and innovation. 

It is also a very rigid style of leadership that does not value empathy, listening, or input from subordinates. This can harm performance, engagement, and retention, all of which can hurt the chances for the long-term success of an organization. 

Transformational (Visionary)

Transformational leaders focus on getting their teams to buy into the vision and unite over a shared sense of purpose. 

These leaders support their employees and use empathy, recognition, and empowerment to energize their teams, help them achieve positive outcomes, and motivate them to go above and beyond to achieve the vision. 

There is a high level of trust, motivation, commitment, and potential to inspire great work, high performance, and positive outcomes, with a focus on achieving long-term, big-picture goals.

It can, however, place more emphasis on long-term goals at the expense of day-to-day operations and short-term goals. It can also slow decision-making and lead to employee burnout.

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a non-traditional style of leadership that incorporates elements of participative leadership and transformational leadership. 

Servant leaders are visionaries who support the development of individuals in the organization, while transformational leaders provide a common vision and develop individuals to meet those goals.

“Servant leader” is a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the modern servant leadership movement and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. 

While the ideas that servant leadership encompasses have been around for a long time, Greenleaf is credited as the first person to articulate them as part of the modern servant leadership movement in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”

Greenleaf believed that to serve well, a leader must learn to be a servant first.  

How Is Servant Leadership Different From Other Leadership Styles?

The goal of the servant leader isn’t power and influence; it’s serving others. 

Servant leaders build authority and influence through supporting and serving employees and do not engage in the potentially toxic, more controlling tactics employed in some leadership styles and the hands-off approach of others.

Authenticity is central to servant leadership. Servant leaders work continuously to build strong, authentic relationships with their followers. 

This can create a tremendous amount of cultural buy-in, which can be hard to achieve with more traditional leadership styles where there is little emphasis on culture, and contributes to a positive employee experience, high employee engagement, and high employee satisfaction. 

Since a leader’s primary job is to inspire their teams to do great work, leaders must also foster work environments that are conducive to doing great work. Servant leaders achieve this by following 10 principles outlined by Greenleaf: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.

These principles set servant leadership apart from other leadership styles, particularly in its approach to building authority and influence (through trust, compassion, and persuasion), setting and achieving goals (through the growth and betterment of others), and making decisions (with consideration for their long-term impacts and implications). 

Guiding Principles of Servant Leadership

Greenleaf’s servant leadership principles guide the actions of servant leaders and help them both serve and lead well. 


Good communication, especially listening, is an essential skill for any leader who wants to lead well. Employees become disillusioned with their leaders and their jobs when they don’t feel heard, and leaders miss out on helpful feedback when they don’t listen. 

This is why servant leaders listen without judgment and are always open and receptive to feedback from their teams. Unbiased listening leads naturally to understanding, which is so important for building trust-based relationships.

Servant leaders understand that listening to their teams is crucial for inspiring employees to do great work. When employees feel their voice is heard, they are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work.


A recent study by Catalyst found empathy may be one of the most important leadership skills because of its positive effects on innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, and work-life balance.

When we empathize, we understand and share the feelings of another person. Servant leaders seek not only to understand where their employees are coming from, but also seek to empathize with them to better serve them.

Empathy is key to helping a team grow. Servant leaders listen with empathy, understand with empathy, lead with empathy, and encourage empathetic behaviors in their employees. 


According to Larry C. Spears, one of the great strengths of servant leadership is its potential for transformation through healing–healing of one’s self and one’s relationship with others. 

In “The Servant as Leaders,” Greenleaf said, “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.” 

Servant leaders recognize that leadership provides them with the opportunity to improve people’s lives and help them overcome past hurts. With toxic workplace environments driving so much of the turnover we’ve seen with the Great Resignation, the ability to heal the wounds inflicted by negativity in the workplace is an essential leadership skill. 


A strong awareness of ethics and values, combined with a strong sense of self-awareness, is indispensable to servant leaders and guides them in all their actions and behaviors. 

Self-awareness refers to a person’s ability to accurately perceive their emotions and remain aware of them as they occur, and it is essential to conscientious, mindful leadership.

For a leader to be effective, they must be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, yet a surprising number of people lack this skill, and they don’t even know it. 

Research from Dr. Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, found that while 95% of people think they are moderately or highly self-aware, less than 15% of people are actually self-aware. 


Persuasive leaders make rational arguments for action in ways that elicit a strong positive emotional response from those they lead. Servant leadership relies on persuasion, rather than positional authority, to help drive decision-making. 

Servant leaders want to convince, not coerce, and work to build consensus on their teams. It’s not about getting employees to comply; it’s about getting them to understand the decision-making process and to be active participants in it.

This aspect of servant leadership shows just how stark the contrast between the servant leadership model and the authoritarian leadership model is. Servant leadership asks the question “What would an authoritarian leader do?” and seeks the opposite path when it comes to decision-making.


Servant leaders are, by principle and practice, visionaries. One of the most fascinating aspects of servant leadership, and the one that truly represents the servant leader’s capacity to help their teams achieve great things, is its emphasis on the conceptual perspective. 

While many managers often become so focused on achieving short-term operational goals that they miss the big-picture view, servant leaders play the long game. 

They are able to achieve what needs to be achieved in the short-term while also taking in the big-picture view that helps their teams strategize, find meaning in their work, and see its impact, which is vital to engaging employees. 


Foresight refers to the ability to foresee possible outcomes of situations and approaches to addressing those situations and is closely linked with conceptualization. 

Foresight helps servant leaders identify the best approaches and the ones that are most closely aligned with the organization’s mission and achieving its vision. 

The ability to learn from past mistakes, an awareness and understanding of the current reality, and the ability to identify the pros and cons of a decision and its impact on the future are part of foresight, and these skills are rooted in intuitive thinking. 


Stewardship is all about working toward the greater good and is a demonstration of commitment to serving and meeting the needs of others. Stewardship is the ultimate guiding force of the servant leader as they tend to the growth and success of their teams.

A culture of stewardship helps employees find meaning and purpose in their work and makes them feel satisfied in their roles, committed to the organization’s success, and motivated to perform well. 

Servant leaders seek to improve the lives of team members who, in turn, seek to improve the performance of the organization and the lives of others through their work. 

Commitment To the Growth of People

Servant leaders are committed to the growth of all their team members and interact with them in ways that facilitate and encourage growth. 

Through the lens of servant leadership, leaders can see the intrinsic value their employees bring to the table, which goes beyond their more tangible contributions or the monetary success they can help the organization achieve. 

Servant leaders nurture the personal and professional growth of employees by providing opportunities for professional development through learning, training, and leadership development. 

They also encourage such growth by establishing a healthy system of feedback, mentoring and coaching teams, and giving employees the autonomy they need to perform well and take ownership of their roles. 

Building Community

It can be difficult to build a strong sense of community at work, especially in large organizations. Servant leaders recognize the importance of building community and forging connections that help those they lead not only do the best work but also take pride in doing that work. 

Whether it is helping coworkers connect or helping the organization connect with the community it serves, it doesn’t have to be an ambitious undertaking; small actions by many have a profound impact. This is the key to building community. 

Greenleaf wrote, “All that is needed to rebuild a community as a viable life form for large numbers of people is for enough servant-leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by each servant-leader demonstrating his or her unlimited ability for a quite specific community-related group.” 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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