The Servant Leadership Style Explained

A young Black woman leads her team in a project meeting

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INTOO Staff Writer

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Servant leadership is a philosophy that redefines traditional hierarchical models of leadership, emphasizing relationships and reciprocity. Here, instead of people serving the leader, the leader exists to serve its people.

To understand servant leadership, let’s contrast it with a leader-first mindset.

Those with an extreme leader-first mentality are typically fueled by personal interests, like acquiring wealth, influence, and authority. Their ambition centers around climbing the ranks of success, and they often perceive their followers as instruments for their own advancement.

On the other hand, servant leaders invert that model. Even as they rise to leadership roles, their drive is to serve others. Their natural inclination leads them to continually search for opportunities to create a positive work culture where their teams can thrive and achieve their maximum potential.

Let’s explore the principles, practices, and benefits of adopting such a transformative leadership approach.

What Is Servant Leadership?

The theory’s originator, Robert K. Greenleaf, once said, “…The great leader is seen as servant first…” The quote encapsulates the essence of servant leadership.

At its core, servant leadership is defined as a leadership approach that prioritizes the growth and well-being of employees, creating an environment that helps them reach their highest potential. Servant leaders strive to build trust, provide support, remove obstacles, and offer personal and professional development opportunities.

Rather than leading through positional authority, they lead through influence, empowerment, autonomy, and a genuine commitment to putting others first. When applied effectively, such a people-centric approach fosters collaboration, shared decision-making, and accountability.

What Are 8 Characteristics of a Servant Leader? 

1.   Listening

Intentional listening is the bedrock of servant leadership. Servant leaders who truly commit to understanding what others communicate beyond just words elevate their ability to serve. They give their full, undivided attention, observe body language, refrain from interrupting, and confirm their understanding through feedback.

Active listening demonstrates respect for ideas and experiences, cultivating an environment of trust and open workplace communication. This approach reduces misunderstandings and miscommunications, ensuring the speaker accurately grasps the message.

2.   Empathy

Servant leaders understand the importance of recognizing each individual’s unique journey in achieving personal and relational well-being. They are aware that unseen struggles exist and view their leadership role as a chance to support and guide others toward helpful resources to overcome obstacles.

By cultivating empathy, servant leaders work to comprehend these challenges, approaching them with good intentions and open communication. As a key component of emotional intelligence, empathy enables servant leaders to create meaningful connections and foster understanding, ultimately contributing to the well-being and growth of those they lead.

3.   Awareness

Awareness means recognizing one’s strengths and being attuned to team members’ needs, perspectives, and situations. One of the great strengths of servant leadership is observing and listening to pick up on cues about what support people need. Awareness helps prevent potential issues and identify opportunities to utilize people’s talents more effectively. It also means understanding the bigger picture.

As Greenleaf said, “Without awareness, we miss leadership opportunities.” This heightened awareness allows leaders to recognize the right moments to step up and serve others through their leadership.

4.   Persuasion

Servant leaders use persuasion over authority to build consensus and commitment within their teams. By employing logical reasoning, emotional connections, and engaging narratives, they enable group members to understand the rationale behind decisions, thus building consensus.

However, this is done through authentic dialogue and communication, not manipulation. Servant leaders create an environment where all perspectives can be openly expressed and considered, where individuals feel valued, and their input is integral to the decision-making process.

A manager and his team celebrate business success

5.   Conceptualization

The ability to transcend daily operations and conceptualize bold visions separates transformative servant leaders from those bound by the status quo. While others remain shackled by short-term thinking, the servant leader cultivates the discipline to dream audaciously—stretching their perspective to reimagine problems as opportunities and organizations as movements.

This conceptual capacity allows them to shoulder a crucial role that governing boards often fail to achieve because they mire themselves in execution details rather than charting an inspirational strategic vision.

6.   Foresight

As Greenleaf describes, foresight is the ability to make educated guesses about future outcomes based on understanding past lessons and present realities. This characteristic allows servant leaders to anticipate the likely consequences of their decisions, guiding their teams with a vision that integrates historical insights and current conditions.

By harnessing this intuitive skill, servant leaders can navigate complex situations with a strategic outlook, ensuring that their actions today pave the way for future success.

7.   Stewardship

Author Peter Block defines stewardship as “holding something in trust for another.” This translates to leading by example. Servant leaders must embody stewardship by demonstrating ethical behavior, integrity, and a commitment to the greater good.

Leading by example fosters a culture of trust and respect. When leaders model the behaviors they wish to see, they inspire their team to follow suit, creating a cohesive and motivated workforce.

8.   Building community

Servant leaders understand the significance of cultivating a robust community within their organizations. They recognize the importance of developing employees as part of that cultivation and invest in employee growth by providing financial support and resources for continuous learning.

Servant leaders also encourage open communication, diverse perspectives, and collaboration to create a sense of ownership and engagement. By offering personal and professional growth opportunities, they foster a supportive environment where individuals feel valued, leading to increased loyalty and a thriving organizational culture.

What Is a Real-Life Example of Servant Leadership? 

FedEx exemplifies servant leadership through its “People—Service—Profit” philosophy, which was instilled by founder and former CEO Fred Smith. This philosophy has resulted in a distinctive company culture that emphasizes servant leadership principles.

At the core is the belief that by creating a positive working environment for employees, they will provide better service quality to customers, which would lead to more profits. Employees are encouraged to take ownership, contribute ideas, and participate in decision-making processes, aligning with the principle of involving others and building consensus.

This customer-centric approach, driven by a servant leadership mindset, has enabled FedEx to establish itself as a leader in the logistics and transportation industry, known for its reliable and efficient services.

Become a Servant Leader in the Workplace

Whether stepping into their first leadership role or aiming to enhance existing skills, INTOO’s leadership training programs, coaching, and workshops equip leaders with the confidence and expertise that contribute to leading with purpose and impact.  

Contact us today to learn how INTOO can support focused skill development and broader leadership goals aligned with your business objectives.

INTOO Staff Writer

INTOO staff writers come from diverse backgrounds and have extensive experience writing about topics that matter to the HR and business communities, including outplacement, layoffs, career development, internal mobility, candidate experience, succession planning, talent acquisition, and more.

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