If you’re a leader, you’re no stranger to pressure. You need to meet (or exceed) your targets, stay in step with the broader organizational vision, and keep your own leaders happy. 

All those lofty expectations make it easy to lose sight of the people you’re most accountable to: your team.

The servant leadership style points the spotlight away from you and shines it on your team. Essentially, it challenges you to stop asking, “How can I be the best leader?” and instead, “How can I best serve my team?”

What is servant leadership?

According to the Greenleaf Center, a nonprofit founded by the originator of servant leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf, servant leadership is “a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” 

With a servant leadership style, the leader is focused on improving the whole — their direct reports, organization, industry, or community — rather than just themselves. And they accomplish this by placing the needs of others above their own desires.

TL;DR they serve first and lead second. 

10 characteristics of a servant leader

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Servant leaders are ready and willing to set their own to-do lists aside, roll up their sleeves, and help out whenever and on whatever is needed.

But beyond being accessible and available to their teams, there are a few other important qualities that make a servant leader. 

1. Serve first

Serving first is about putting others’ needs ahead of your own, but also approaching work with a collaborative mindset. Instead of thinking, “How can I win?” leaders with a serve-first mentality look to make situations a win-win for everybody involved.

2. Fuel growth

While a more authoritarian leader is concerned with maintaining their own prestige and position of power, a servant leader is deeply committed to the growth and advancement of other people. Not because their direct reports’ performance reflects directly on them, but because they’re genuinely invested in others’ success.

3. Share knowledge

Knowledge is often viewed as currency in the working world, and people are wary of sharing too much of their wisdom or insights for fear of hurting their own status. Not servant leaders. Because they’re genuinely invested in the growth of others, they freely share information and guidance that helps them thrive. 

4. Build trust

Servant leaders foster a high degree of trust, not through management courses or compelling speeches, but by acting with integrity. They follow through on their promises and make decisions with other people’s best interests at heart. That trust goes both ways too – servant leaders also trust their direct reports to do their jobs without rigid directives and micromanagement. 

5. Listen to understand

Servant leaders practice active listening, which means listening to truly understand and retain information. This means eliminating or tuning out distractions and dedicating your full attention to whoever is communicating. To build comprehension, try saying “tell me more” or “help me understand.” These questions open the door for others to share their perspective, without feeling like they’re being undermined or doubted. 

6. Demonstrate courage

People often mistake servant leadership for simply being “nice,” but sometimes the kindest thing you can do is have difficult conversations with people, deal with conflict, make tough decisions, and hold people accountable. Demonstrating courage is about encouraging people to move forward, even if it’s uncomfortable.

7. Model humility

For servant leaders, leadership is an opportunity to make an impact — not a chance to get all the glory. While they might be the ones steering the ship, they know nothing happens without the work of their entire team. They keep their hubris in check, give credit where it’s due, and readily admit to their own mistakes or shortcomings. 

8. Stay flexible

What’s required of a servant leader can change from day to day. One day their team might need sage wisdom or encouragement and another day might need the leader to lend a hand with the dirty work. Servant leaders are able to adapt to circumstances and offer whatatever the situation (and their team) requires. 

9. Offer appreciation

Celebrate those little wins to keep your team motivated

Servant leaders offer genuine appreciation for their team members — not just for what they bring to the table, but for who they are as people. They’re never ones to skimp on praise, recognition, or gratitude. 

10. Practice empathy

In order for servant leaders to meet their team’s needs, they need to be in tune with what’s happening. Servant leaders are not only highly aware and emotionally intelligent, but are also able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and empathize with their experiences

Servant leadership in the real world: 3 servant leadership examples

What can leaders learn from pop culture’s most beloved coaches?

Because servant leaders are so good at shifting the focus away from their own contributions in the interest of spotlighting their team, they’re sometimes a little tougher to identify – so we did that for you! Here are three examples of servant leaders.

1. Tony Hsieh, former CEO of Zappos

Tony Hsieh didn’t just model a servant leadership style — he quite literally wrote the book on it. “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose” is often cited as the go-to guidebook for fostering a positive company culture through servant leadership. 

In his own words: “Imagine a greenhouse with lots of plants, and each plan represents an employee…I think of my role as the architect of the greenhouse, and to help figure out the right conditions within the greenhouse to enable all of the other plants to flourish and thrive.” 

2. Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Cheryl Bachelder took over Popeyes at a challenging time — stocks were plummeting and the company was on the brink of another bankruptcy. Bachelder took steps to right the ship, including going on a “listening tour” to hear from employees, stakeholders, and guests. She also treated franchisees as valued partners (including asking how she could help them). By the time she left the company, stock prices quadrupled. 

In her own words: “The leader must have both — the courage to take people to a daring destination and the humility to selflessly serve others on the journey.” 

3. Irene Rosenfeld, former CEO and Chairman of Kraft Foods

Irene Rosenfeld is credited with turning around an underperforming Kraft Foods when she took over in 2006. While she readily admits the importance of hard work in the process, she specifically highlights the organization’s people as crucial to the rebound. Specifically, she decentralized the company and gave people more independence and authority to make decisions. 

In her own words: “Employees today don’t want command-and-control leadership. They want leaders they can learn from and who can help them get their jobs done. The golden rule is one of the simplest and most prescriptive management philosophies that I know. Show others the respect, dignity, and candor you’d want them to show to you.” 

What are the pros and cons of servant leadership?

Servant leadership is often touted as one of the most effective leadership styles, and it does offer plenty of benefits for teams and organizations. However, it’s not without its drawbacks. Here are some of the most notable pros and cons of the servant leadership style. 

Advantages of servant leadership

  • Better business performance and higher profits
  • High degree of trust between the leader and direct reports
  • Improved employee morale, motivation, and engagement
  • Greater innovation and creativity
  • Employees feel empowered to take ownership over their work and decisions

Disadvantages of servant leadership

  • Demanding and time-consuming for leaders
  • Decisions can be slow, especially if leaders need to balance a lot of individuals’ preferences
  • Often needs to be supported by bigger organizational and cultural changes
  • Leaders can be viewed as weak by people who favor a more traditional approach
  • Requires a high degree of transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability, which can be uncomfortable for some leaders

How to be a servant leader: 3 practical tips 

Servant leadership offers some distinct benefits. But it can also be tough to implement — particularly if you’re working in an organization that leans toward a more traditional leadership style. Here are a few tips to help you start adopting a servant leadership style right away. 

1. Ask how you can help

Sometimes it really is as simple as asking your team, “How can I help?” or “What do you need?”

Here’s the important part, though: You need to actually do something with the answer. For example, if they tell you they’re overwhelmed, take something off their plate (even if that means you need to do the work yourself). 

Soliciting feedback but then failing to act on those insights will only breed distrust, frustration, and resentment. 

2. Offer praise and opportunity

Supporting and celebrating your direct reports doesn’t need to be costly or time-consuming. Something as simple as dedicating the first five minutes of your team meeting to shoutouts can go a long way in showing people you’re engaged in their success.

Praise is important, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you offer your direct reports. Whether it’s a chance to spearhead a project or an introduction to a potential mentor, find ways to support your team with plenty of opportunities for learning and development too. 

3. Act like your team is always watching 

Some people claim that evolution hard-wired humans to be selfish (it’s all about survival, right?). But research actually indicates that we’re innately cooperative — and our selfishness only bubbles to the surface in certain contexts. 

If you’re concerned that you might not always act with integrity, try this little trick: act like your team is always watching you. That mindset shift can help you behave and make decisions in the best interests of your team — whether they actually find out about it or not.  

Serving is leading

The classic perception of a leader might make you think of someone who hoards information, views colleagues as competitors, and attempts to win at all costs.

But that cutthroat approach is not only misguided, it’s also counterproductive. Collaboration and a servant mindset can increase your chance of success, not only as a leader, but as a business. As it turns out, sometimes the best way to lead is to serve.

Special thanks to Kat Boogaard for her contributions to this article.

Putting your people first: the not-so-secret magic of servant leadership