We normally think of a leader as being someone a subordinate should strive to impress, but servant leadership turns that concept on its head by having the leader strive to meet the needs of her subordinates. The theory of servant leadership says that by doing this, the employees can focus on their work and the client and become more productive.


In order to practice servant leadership, you will need to master the seven key principles of the theory: self-awareness, listening, changing the pyramid, developing your colleagues, coaching not controlling, foresight and unleashing the energy and intelligence of others.

Servant Leadership Definition

As the name implies, the servant leader leads by serving his employees by focusing on their growth and well being. Whereas most leaders focus on the accumulation and exercise of their own power, servant leaders share their power with their employees. They believe they can help their team succeed by helping their employees develop and perform to the best of their abilities.

Although some leaders have been practicing this behavior throughout time, the servant leadership definition was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term in an essay published in 1970.

Servant Leadership Principles

Servant leaders pay attention to their employees and help them develop so they can best perform their duties. There are seven key servant leadership principles these leaders practice to achieve these goals, and aspiring servant leaders need to master these skills. The seven principles that make up the cornerstone of the servant leadership theory and practice are self-awareness, listening, changing the pyramid, developing your colleagues, coaching not controlling, foresight and unleashing the energy and intelligence of others.

Self-awareness is required in order for a servant leader to understand who she is and how her behaviors affect others. It requires her to look inside and recognize how she acts as well as her strengths and weaknesses, biases, skills and experience.

In order to serve others, you must be a good listener. Servant leaders strive to listen to their employees and their customers as much as possible because you must understand someone's needs in order to meet them. They watch what others are doing, conduct interviews, hold group discussions and perform studies. Focus groups, market research and suggestion boxes are all useful tools to help you better listen to your customers and employees.

A traditional organizational hierarchy involves a leadership pyramid with the leader at the top and his subordinates at the bottom. In order to practice servant leadership, you must change the pyramid so your employees no longer look up to you as the person at the top. You instead need to redirect their focus to the needs of the customers. By turning the pyramid on its side, everyone is on equal footing.

According to servant leadership theory, work should provide employees with opportunities to learn and further grow in order to fulfill their potential. When employees improve, so does the company employing them. In order to develop your colleagues, you need to commit to on the job training, formal education, new assignments and internal promotions.

Some bosses focus on controlling every aspect of their subordinate's work day. A servant leader should focus on coaching rather than controlling. The idea is to bring out the best in your employees by engaging, inspiring and mentoring them.

A good servant leader needs to practice foresight. Greenleaf even says that foresight is the central ethic of leadership and what makes a leader truly be able to lead. If you aren't in front of the pack, he argues, you won't be able to lead but only to react. When you're forced to react rather than lead, you're more likely to make bad decisions.

By effectively developing and coaching your team, you help prepare them to make their own decisions. Because sometimes situations arise where employees need to make their own decisions without a leader, servant leadership helps prepare them for this situation. It also helps them contribute to group decisions within the company and to be effective leaders if they wish to become managers themselves later on. This is known as unleashing the employee's energy and intelligence.

Strengths of Servant Leadership

Like anything else, servant leadership has its strengths and weaknesses. One of the biggest advantages is that by having the leader act as a servant, both ego and ambition are stripped from the leader. This means that, as the name implies, the leader stops focusing on herself and starts focusing on her employees and clients.

Proponents argue that by having the manager focus on his employees, the power structure of the leader and servant are switched, making subordinates happier with their manager. Additionally, by having a leader help employees ensure their needs are met, employees are freed up to focus on their jobs and on their customers, making them more effective at their jobs.

When employees are given the tools, trust and confidence to make low-level decisions on their own, it can also streamline certain processes, making the workplace more efficient. Employees are also more likely to feel pride in a completed project when they feel their decisions helped shape the outcome. Similarly, by training employees and helping them grow, a company's workforce and morale improves dramatically, which helps the business as a whole.

Weaknesses of Servant Leadership

While servant leadership has many advantages, there are still some disadvantages. The first disadvantage is that because the practice requires a change in attitude, it can take a long time to properly establish, particularly in large or well-established groups. When people are used to being led in an authoritative manner, it can be difficult for them to adjust to a style of work that requires more self-discipline. Additionally, it can be difficult for large businesses to enact servant leadership company-wide. Many leaders resist and even undermine such changes, as they feel it undermines their authority.

A lack of definitive authority is a major problem that can occur when practicing servant leadership. Because all members of the group share some level of responsibility, this can dilute the leader's authority, causing some employees to lose respect for their manager. It can also result in problems if the leadership style needs to change later on, and the employees no longer see the manager as someone of authority. This can present a major problem when the manager needs to discipline or fire employees because a true servant can never fire or discipline those he serves.

Some argue that servant leadership can actually demotivate employees who begin to feel like they are the child of the leader since she cares so much about their well being. This demotivation is a natural, rebellious reaction to a parent-child relationship.

A person practicing servant leadership may also end up confused about who he is attempting to serve. Is he there to serve the goals of the business or the goals of his employees? In many cases, a manager cannot do both.

Servant Leadership Examples

While servant leadership is still practiced with much less frequency than other forms of leadership, there are some major companies that use the principle to benefit their employees and customers. A few companies known for practicing servant leadership include Chick-fil-A, Marriot International, The Container Store, UPS, Ritz Carlton, Whole Foods and Southwest Airlines.

Starbucks is one particularly notable example of a company that practices servant leadership. CEO Howard Schultz has said that he believes a great company can only be created by linking shareholder value to value provided to employees. That's why the company offers employees many nonstandard benefits, like free college tuition.

Another company known for exercising servant leadership is Nordstrom, which puts their sales and floor staff above the company's executives and directors in order of importance. That's because the Nordstrom brothers started working in a stock room long ago and worked their way up from there.