Servant Leadership – Definition, Pros/Cons, Examples

Mashum Mollah 10 August, 2022

“Organizations exist to serve. Period. Leaders live to serve. Period.”

–Tom Peters

The more stereotyped command and control type of leadership allow leaders to operate only to a certain extent. It has an unbreakable closed cap; it gets the job done, but the flare of thriving in the industry remains dormant somewhere. 

Leaders nowadays are following an old-school leadership style (almost five decades old). It is called Servant Leadership. In 1970, Robert Greenleaf first coined the term and came up with the idea of such leadership through his essay The Servant As Leader.

Of course, you have heard of it. Despite being an old leadership style, servant-style leadership too, is effective and can potentially outperform competitors in an industry.

A servant leader gets the employees to serve an organization by serving them first. Under such leadership, employees feel heard, recognized, and valued. Leaders following this leadership style put the objective of their organization above their own.

If you are curious, let me indulge you in reading about the servant leadership style in this article.

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What Is A Servant Leadership Style?

What Is A Servant Leadership Style?

A servant style leadership is a few steps away from controlling organizational activities. This type of leadership aims to build a synergistic relationship. Entrepreneurs shooting for the greater good, trying to build something while valuing, motivating, and inspiring their employees, can adopt a servant leadership style. Simply put, a servant style of leadership requires the leader to act as a servant for a greater purpose.

As Greenleaf puts it –


Authority figures in such environments will promote innovation, empower employees, and assure the well-being of the people surrounding them. They also aim to develop leadership qualities in others.

Background/History Of Servant Leadership Style

Background/History Of Servant Leadership Style

The idea of servant leadership arose in 1970 with Robert Greenleaf. Greenleaf, who was skeptical about traditional leadership, innovated this leadership style inspired by Journey To The East, a novel by Herman Hesse.

Herman’s novel was about a group of people going on a pilgrimage. A servant among them, Leo, shows his morals throughout the journey. The servant, Leo, once disappeared, and the group of pilgrims falls apart without Leo to serve them. Once Leo returns after years, the narrator discovers that Leo is the leader of the organization that sponsored the pilgrimage. Even as a fictional character, Leo sets an example for a servant leader.

A servant type of leadership style aims at gaining authority, not command, and is applicable in all situations. It is effective at making swift life/death decisions. This leadership style motivates employees enabling them to work to the best of their capabilities (by 4.6 times).

Some noble principles like stewardship, listening, commitment, and respect add both success and satisfaction to organizations adopting this leadership style. To make more sense of such a leadership style, we may quote John C. Maxwell

John C. Maxwell

Characteristics Of Servant Leadership Style:

Characteristics Of Servant Leadership Style:

Much like Leo, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr are some noble examples of the Servant leadership style. Some common characteristics of servant style leadership will make it more clear to you.

1. Honoring/Valuing Others

Honor is a two-way track. You need to honor others before they honor you ‘back.’ As Einstein would say –


A servant leader would put others before their own objective and would honor others before they honor them. Approaching others with dignity and attention and responding to their calls is a good way to start.

2. Inspiring Vision & Dreams

There is no point in walking a hundred miles if you are coming back to the same place, eventually going nowhere. A visionary following servant leadership style will stand in one place and establish a vision that expands across the world and keeps expanding for decades. You can relate to Greeleaf’s quote saying –

Greeleaf's quote saying

3. Listening

An elemental characteristic of servant leadership management style is listening to employees attentively. Listening is the first step to understanding what your employee feels and what they have to say. As George W. Bush puts it –

George W. Bush

4. Empathy

Empathy from a leader can make a lot of difference. It can help employees and organizations heal; it can make them solve problems and grow. A follower of this leadership style should keep being empathetic when it is expected of them. As Oprah Winfrey says –

Oprah Winfrey

5. Humility

A leader adopting a servant leadership style acknowledges the effort of the employee. They acknowledge the collective effort that goes into accomplishing something. Hence, they are humble, down to earth, and are always putting others before themselves. To quote Greenleaf again –

Greenleaf again

6. Stewardship

Leading by example is an efficient skill characterizing servant style leadership. As a servant leader, you should lead by example so that your employees can follow them. They don’t need to do what you say. You can create a path for them to follow and do what you do. To quote American columnist and CEO John Gerzema

CEO John Gerzema

Servant Style Leadership: What’s Good…And What’s Not So Good?

Yes, most of what you read until now sounds inspiring. And a servant style of leadership is effective as well. But, like all things, his type of leadership also consists of some benefits and some downsides.

The Benefits Of Servant Leadership Style: Pros

Characteristics like humility, empathy, and building vision have some good sides. For instance-

  • Servant leader earns the respect of their followers.
  • Such leaders share their vision with others, forming a trust that helps them build something.
  • Such leaders hear what employees have to say. Also, employees’ contributions go into making decisions for the organization.
  • The supportive environment a servant leader creates makes the employees advance. 
  • Such leadership strengthens corporate culture.
  • Encourages ownership and a sense of responsibility among the employees.
  • A servant leader develops a work culture focused on People.

The Disadvantages Of Servant Leadership Style: Cons

Such leadership also puts a leader at different types of disadvantage. Such as –

  • The first disadvantage of such a leadership style is that only a few leaders know about such leadership style.
  • Adopting such a style requires a massive cultural change.
  • A servant style of leadership takes more time to make a decision.
  • Sometimes employees have responsibilities that they aren’t capable of carrying out.
  • Such a leadership style is time-consuming and difficult to attain.
  • Some might perceive such a style as ineffective and weak.
  • It has the potential to cause misalignment among the team.

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Servant Leadership Style: Case Studies (Examples)

Such leadership skill, as Tom Peters says, gives birth to more leaders –

Tom Peters

While we can definitely cite the names of some great historical servant leaders, they mainly make themselves known for their societal contributions. Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teressa are some such noble names. But, in the corporate industry, there are few names we are aware of. 

Here are some inspiring names worth knowing as servant leaders in the business world.

Case Study 1: Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher

Fortune Magazine notes Kelleher as “the best CEO in the US.” a pioneer in the aviation industry, Kelleher possesses the qualities of a servant leader. The innovator created one of America’s best success stories in the commercial aviation industry.

The disruptive business model he innovated focused on efficient operation, low-cost pricing, and innovative solution for logistics. The secret to his way of building an organization is in his focus on the customers. Kelleher followed a servant leadership style to make something that serves the purpose of the greater good.

Case Study 2: Sylvia Meyer

Sylvia Meyer

Fortune magazine has listed Sylvia’s company Sodexo Corporate Services in the list of “World’s Most Admired Companies.” She has been able to improve the quality of life of 75 million in the world. Her leadership style. Her organization focuses on the lives of its employees.

They try to ensure a comfortable working environment for the employees. Ensuring the health and well-being of the employees is another of Sodexo’s good sides. Under Sylvia’s leadership, Sodexo makes the employees recognized and valued.

How To Become A Servant Leader?

If you want to be a servant leader, then you need to build the characteristics talked about above. As Mahatma Gandhi had said –

Mahatma Gandhi

Here are some how-to guides to lead you in the right direction.

Build Communication Skill

The first and foremost need would be to develop good communication skills to be a servant leader. Your body language, vocabulary, conciseness of speech, clarity and humility in vocal tone matter a lot in building your servant leadership style.

Listen…Truly Listen

There is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening to your employees is a process of feeling concerned about them. You need to start seeing from others’ points of view to be able to truly listen to them.

Be Empathetic

A part of being a servant leader is to be empathetic. You might often have to put yourself in another’s shoes to be truly empathetic. It is also a skill that transformational leadership style followers try to master. But empathy, at its core, is important for all work cultures.

Put Others First

Servant leadership style means that you have to put a collective objective before your own. Once you start putting others first, you will go forward.

Influence Others To Do Good

As a servant type of leader, you need to lead by example. When you do something inspiring, your employees will also come around and do something extraordinary inspired by you. A good persuasive skill has its root in setting good examples.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

Although there are some cons to servant leadership style, you can still adopt this leadership style to create a thriving work culture. Some of these popularly asked questions and answers might help you get more clarity about the topic.

Q1. What Are The 5 Characteristics Of Servant Style Of Leadership?

A servant leader focuses on five of these major characteristics.
1. Such a leader should value others.
2. A sense of humility is a necessary characteristic.
3. Such leaders need to be good listeners.
4. Building trust through empathy is also necessary.
5. They need to care for their followers.

Q2. What Is The Best Principle Of Servant Leadership?

The best characteristic of this leadership is to feel careful of the employees. Such leaders set examples by putting others before them. Servant leaders are more concerned about others and are empathetic.

Q3. Why Servant Style Leadership The Best?

This type of leadership makes the leaders empathetic and concerned about others. Under such leaders, people feel energized, they feel purposeful, valued, and motivated. Such leadership is nobler and inspires employees to contribute to an organization to the best of their potential.

Is Servant Leadership Effective?

Although a five-decade-old style of leading an organization, the servant leadership style is still effective. Even it is becoming more prominent among new startup entrepreneurs who want to build a healthy work culture. Yes, there are some disadvantages, but based on your entrepreneurial goals, they are deniable. 

A servant style leadership is most effective and has the capability of disrupting an industry. I hope all the information given in this article was helpful. If you need any further clarification regarding this topic, you can ask questions in the comment. We will surely get back to you.

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Mashum Mollah

Mashum Mollah is a tech entrepreneur by profession and passionate blogger by heart. He is on a mission to help small businesses grow online. He shares his journey, insights, and experiences in this blog. If you are an entrepreneur, digital marketing professional, or simply an info-holic, then this blog is for you.

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