Business Leadership Today

7 Key Principles of Servant Leadership

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Matt Tenney, Author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom

The most effective leaders build influence through persuasion, not coercion. They keep their employees motivated to consistently produce great work by supporting a culture of care that helps employees feel valued and helping employees remove obstacles to performing at their best. 

While there are many different leadership styles that help leaders achieve this, the best leadership style, and the one most conducive to a positive employee experience, is servant leadership. 

The servant leader seeks not just to lead, but to serve those they lead by continually building positive influence (not positional authority) with team members and investing in their success. This idea is at the heart of servant leadership, according to Robert Greenleaf, founder of the modern servant leadership movement and author of “The Servant as Leader.” 

Greenleaf says, “The servant-leader is servant first, it begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first, as opposed to, wanting power, influence, fame, or wealth.”

In Greenleaf’s view, good leaders must first become good servants. He outlined 10 characteristics of servant leadership that help leaders both lead well and serve well:listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. 

These 10 tenets of servant leadership serve as a blueprint for guiding leaders to serve their teams and support seven key principles that inform the actions and behaviors of the servant leader. 

The seven key principles of servant leadership are authenticity, strong communication, integrity, compassion, empowerment, continuous improvement, and putting others first. They reflect the values of servant leadership, support a positive employee experience, and keep team members motivated to perform well.

In this article, I’ll explore how these principles guide servant leaders and help them build high-performance teams of happy employees. 

Note: If you’d like to see a free video training program I created that will show you how to dramatically increase employee engagement in your organization in the next three months, just CLICK HERE for instant, free access.

Authenticity

Trust-based relationships are essential in servant leadership and require a commitment to authenticity on the part of the servant leader. 

To build and maintain a high level of trust with team members, you can’t just rely on a title or positional authority to build influence. You need to convince those you lead to follow you, not because they have to, but because they want to

Servant leaders do this by building connections with team members that are rooted in trust and authentic influence gained through honesty, transparency, and accountability.

They also provide the space for team members to engage in authentic exchanges with leadership and each other, which can prevent toxic cultures from taking root and help employees avoid the constant pressure of needing to “blend in” that we see with code-switching and other behaviors in the workplace that can negatively impact culture, feelings of belonging, and psychological safety.

Strong Communication

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 set the tone for strong communication by making listening the most important part of the communication process. 

Part of a leader’s job is to communicate information about the company’s culture, clearly articulating and modeling the organization’s core values, mission, and vision. Servant leaders build consensus around a shared vision, inspire their teams to work according to this shared vision, and help employees remove obstacles to achieving the vision. 

Part of a leader’s job is to communicate information about the company’s culture, clearly articulating and modeling the organization’s core values, mission, and vision. Servant leaders build consensus around a shared vision, inspire their teams to work according to this shared vision, and help employees remove obstacles to achieving the vision. 

Good feedback is feedback that is constructive, compassionate, specific, focused, timely, and presented in a positive tone. When done well, good feedback provides an actionable and solutions-oriented framework that guides employees toward desired behaviors and helps them to grow.

Integrity

Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong ethical and moral standards, and it is just as important to building trust-based with team members as authenticity. 

Servant leaders are honest in their words, beliefs, and actions, support transparency, and follow through on their commitments to customers and employees. Servant leaders are guided by their inner moral compass and sense of integrity and build teams of high integrity.

They model core values as an example for team members to follow, speak with sincerity, offer feedback that is constructive, and consider the ethical impacts of every decision they make. 

Integrity as a value informs every other principle and tenet of servant leadership, and it not only helps to keep trust high, but it also helps build cultural buy-in with employees and helps them align more closely with core values. 

Compassion

Sympathy helps us feel sorrow for another’s misfortune. Empathy helps us understand and share the feelings of another. Compassionate leadership is what you get when you mix traditional leadership skills with a hearty dose of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. 

While empathy is one of the 10 tenets of social leadership, the true servant leader incorporates healing (another of the 10 tenets) into the process, which helps them move beyond feelings of sympathy and empathy and take action to heal the suffering of others. 

In my recent interview with investor Piyush Patel, we discussed the valuable role compassion plays in leading well and how a lack of compassion hurts the trust we need to maintain with employees to ensure they perform well.

Patel says, “Management stepping over employees to create resolution for customers breaks trust between employees and management. Short-term thinking and focusing on profits will ultimately lead to lack of compassion for your employees. As soon as that happens the quality of your service will begin to decline.”

Servant leaders are compassionate leaders who value relationships, put others first, and use foresight and conceptualization to identify long-term consequences of decisions made in the short-term.

Note: If you’d like to see a free video training program I created that will show you how to dramatically increase employee engagement in your organization in the next three months, just CLICK HERE for instant, free access.

Empowerment

Greenleaf’s servant leadership tenets, particularly foresight, persuasion, stewardship, and awareness, are closely tied to the idea of empowerment. Servant leaders empower their team members by giving them autonomy and the permission to fail… and learn from their mistakes. This is crucial for creativity and innovation to flourish.

Servant leaders consider the impacts of actions and decisions in the long-term, rely on persuasion rather than command and coercion to build influence, are good stewards of the resources they manage to ensure continuity for the next generation, and are aware of what their team members need to succeed. 

Leading in this way creates the ideal conditions for innovation to occur. When leaders truly care about employees and build healthy, trusting relationships with employees, the element of fear is removed, and one of the biggest obstacles to innovation is thereby removed as well.

Servant leaders know that a fearful environment is detrimental to innovation. Leaders who truly care about employees devote a good deal of time to creating and sustaining an environment that is free of fear, with team members who are not afraid to take risks and are empowered to make decisions.

Continuous Improvement

Servant leaders are committed to the growth of others and help them develop a continuous improvement mindset where learning is ingrained in the culture and mistakes are embraced and treated as learning opportunities. 

There are few policies that are more detrimental to growth, innovation, and morale in an organization than a “zero-tolerance” policy toward mistakes. Yet, many managers (and even CEOs) still push such policies. 

Servant leaders take a very different approach because they know that without trying, failing, learning from our failures, and trying again, innovation isn’t possible. 

Utilizing mistakes as learning opportunities paves the way for innovation and growth and improves accountability—and employees who take ownership of their roles are committed to continuous improvement. 

Putting Others First

Servant leaders are selfless leaders, and no servant leadership principle represents the leadership style of the servant leader more than the principle of putting others first.

For an organization to be sustainably successful, employees need to be empowered to participate in decision-making and need leadership who considers the impact of any decision on the well-being of employees. Servant leaders are committed to the success of others and use their power as leaders to enhance the organization and its employees, rather than themselves.

I recently sat down with Ben Licthenwalner, author of Paradigm Flip: Leading People, Teams, and Organizations Beyond the Social Media Revolution, to discuss how the humility that informs all aspects of servant leadership is essential for helping us become better leaders. 

Ben says, ”Being a servant leader is built upon the foundation of putting others first and yourself second. To truly serve your team, you must put their interests and needs before your own. If you’re not serving others, you’re being self-serving.”


Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world.  Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence.  Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings.  His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.

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