Incorporating elements of participative leadership and transformational leadership, servant leadership is a non-traditional leadership style that is embedded in behaviors and practices that emphasize the well-being of those being served.
The servant leader builds authority and influence through supporting and serving employees and avoids the potentially toxic, more controlling tactics employed in some traditional leadership styles and the hands-off approach of others.
“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 quite a while, 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.”
Authenticity and trust-based relationships are central to servant leadership. Servant leaders are able to build strong relationships and generate cultural buy-in in ways that contribute to a high degree of employee engagement and employee satisfaction.
Some of the common characteristics of servant leadership include appreciation, a caring attitude, humility, strong listening skills, and a high degree of trust.
Greenleaf outlined 10 distinct principles of servant leadership that serve as a framework for the servant leader, guiding their actions and behaviors in ways that are conducive to both high performance and a positive employee experience: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.
How do leaders utilize these principles in their day-to-day interactions with team members to better serve them?
In this article, I’ll outline seven simple steps you can take to be a servant leader with a highly engaged team of committed employees.
1. Engage in Active Listening
Good communication, especially listening, is an essential skill for any leader who wants to lead well and is a central principle of servant leadership. How a leader executes on this step will determine their level of success as an effective leader.
Servant leadership emphasizes resilient, trust-based relationships, and a strong system of communication that supports unbiased listening. This is how the servant leader builds such relationships and maintains understanding.
Greenleaf says, “Don’t assume, because you are intelligent, able, and well-motivated, that you are open to communication, that you know how to listen.” Servant leaders listen without judgment and are always open and receptive to feedback from their teams.
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. When employees feel their voice is heard, they are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work.
Servant leaders understand that listening to their teams is crucial for inspiring employees to do great work and create opportunities for listening that give employees at all levels of the organization a voice and a place at the table.
Servant leaders do this by establishing a healthy system of feedback where employees are encouraged to give their input, inviting employees to participate in problem-solving and decision-making, and maintaining an open-door policy for employees to engage with leadership and resolve issues.
2. Lead Compassionately
While compassion isn’t included in the 10 principles of servant leadership as outlined by Greenleaf, it is central to the servant leadership philosophy and guides all the servant leaders’ behaviors toward and interactions with those they lead.
Servant leaders lead their teams compassionately by empathizing with team members and actively working to improve their personal and professional lives.
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, they also seek to empathize with them to better serve them.
Greenleaf wrote, “The servant always accepts and empathizes, never rejects.”
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.
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.
Empathy facilitates acceptance. But servant leaders don’t just empathize—they take actions to relieve the suffering of others through healing.
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.
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.
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 a wonderful opportunity to assist their people in the search for wholeness by helping them improve their lives and overcome past hurts.
One of the best ways to do this is to put people over profits to ensure the success your organization achieves is sustainable and not detrimental to team members’ well-being. If you take care of your people, they will stay motivated to consistently meet goals.
3. Demonstrate Awareness
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.
This can often be a blind spot for leaders. Servant leaders realize the importance of awareness and the need for self-awareness, in particular, to better serve their employees.
Greenleaf said that when we lack awareness, “we miss leadership opportunities.” When we are aware of ourselves and where our team members are coming from, we are better leaders to our teams.
4. Persuade Other To Follow You Because They Want To (Not Because They Have To)
This is essential for anyone in a leadership position, but particularly important for the servant leader looking to find common ground and build camaraderie rather than coerce and command.
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.
Persuasive leaders make rational arguments for action in ways that elicit a strong positive emotional response from those they lead. 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 principle shows how the servant leadership model differs from traditional leadership models. Because it emphasizes relationships, rather than results, it can help leaders avoid the retention and engagement issues that have resulted from toxic work environments.
Back in 1970, Greenleaf said, “A fresh look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways.”
This led him to predict that, in the future, the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led. While the progress has been slow, as employees increasingly leave jobs due to toxic cultures and leaders look for new strategies for holding onto top talent, his words have become more relevant.
5. Plan For a Sustainable Future Through Conceptualization, Foresight, and Good Stewardship
Servant leaders are, by principle and practice, visionaries, and their visionary perspective helps them set long- and short-term goals that will achieve the organization’s vision for the future without doing harm in the present.
Servant leadership emphasizes a strongly ethical approach to leadership that puts people before profits.
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 focus on the conceptual perspective, foresight, and good stewardship as the means to achieve goals while helping team members to thrive.
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.
Servant leaders are able to look beyond day-to-day realities and analyze problems from a conceptualizing perspective. The best servant leaders involve their team members in the process and understand that diverse points of view lead to innovative solutions.
The big-picture view of the servant leader helps their teams strategize, find meaning in their work, and see its impact, which is vital to motivating and 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.
According to Greenleaf, “Prescience, or foresight, is a better than average guess about what is going to happen when in the future.”
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.
Being a good steward of the people and resources they manage is important to the servant leader.
Stewardship is closely tied to foresight and conceptualization because the ability of a leader to take great care of these resources determines the kind of legacy they leave for the next generation of leadership.
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.
A culture of good 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.
Stewardship is the ultimate guiding force of the servant leader as they tend to the growth and success of their teams. It’s not just about working toward the greater good and demonstrating a commitment to serving and meeting the needs of others—it’s also about getting the people you lead on board so that everyone is united with a shared sense of purpose that will live on well into the future.
6. Empower Others and Commit To Their Growth
Greenleaf said, “The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be.”
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 are able to 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.
7. Forge Strong Connections that Build 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.