Business Leadership Today

Why Servant Leadership Is the Best Style of Leadership


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

People take a wide variety of approaches to leadership, with widely varying degrees of success. 

Some of the most common styles of leadership are authoritarian (autocratic), participative (democratic), delegative (laissez-faire), transactional (managerial), and transformational leadership (visionary). 

Each style takes a very different approach to leading others, has its own strengths and weaknesses, and can impact workers and their performances in vastly different ways. Some are more focused on autonomy, flexibility, and trust. Some rely more on coercion, positional authority, and micromanagement. 

The most effective leadership styles tend to involve a high degree of self-awareness on the part of the leader, participation by employees in decision making, and focus on developing individuals by forging strong relationships with team members and inspiring them to do well. 

While different aspects of each leadership style can be beneficial in certain industries under certain circumstances, the best way to lead people is with kindness and understanding. 

The best leaders care about their employees. They help them to thrive. And the best leadership style is one that demonstrates care toward employees and an investment in their success. 

The best style of leadership is servant leadership. A leader’s primary job is to inspire their teams to do great work. Servant leaders achieve this through listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.

There’s never been a better time for the servant leader. With record turnover and rampant burnout and stress among workers, the kind of patience and understanding the servant leader is guided by may just be the panacea the business world needs to cure what ails it. 

In this article, we will delve into some of the most common leadership staples, make the case for servant leadership, and explore the tenets that guide servant leaders and help them build trust and inspire teams.

The Most Common Leadership Styles

Authoritarian (Autocratic)
In this style of leadership, leaders do not include their employees in the decision-making process, instead relying on positional authority and coercion. 

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. It is considered a highly effective leadership style.

This style of leadership requires an inclusive mindset, strong listening skills, and a willingness to share power with employees. 

Including team members in the decision-making process makes them feel heard and valued and fosters a more positive, more collaborative work environment.

Delegative (Laissez Faire) 
Delegative leaders are strong proponents of autonomy and flexibility. 

This leadership style avoids micromanagement and delegates initiatives to employees. This style is particularly suited to employees who can work autonomously and require less supervision.

Transactional (Managerial)
Transactional leadership is focused on compliance and meeting targets. This style of leadership may lead to predictable outcomes, but it tends to stifle creativity and innovation, which can be detrimental to the long-term success of an organization. 

While compliance and meeting targets are an important part of managing others, this style of leadership does not tend to inspire greatness. 

Transformational (Visionary) 
Transformational leaders are all about the vision and getting their teams to buy into the vision and unite over a shared sense of purpose. 

These leaders are supportive of their employees and use empathy, recognition, and empowerment to energize their teams and help them achieve set goals and positive outcomes. 

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 1979 essay “The Servant as Leader.”

The goal of servant leadership is to build authority and influence through supporting and serving employees and avoids 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 and contributes to a positive employee experience, high employee engagement, and high 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. 

10 Principles of Servant Leadership

Greenleaf outlined 10 principles of servant leadership:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of people
  10. Building Community


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, they 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 to 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 is the contrast between the servant leadership model and the authoritarian leadership model. 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 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. 

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. 

Greenlead 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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