Get expert advice on every topic you need as a small business owner, from the ideation stage to your eventual exit. Our articles, quick tips, infographics and how-to guides can offer entrepreneurs the most up-to-date information they need to flourish.

Subscribe to our blog

What is servant leadership?

Posted by Neha De

November 2, 2020

When studying leadership approaches, you may have seen the term “servant leadership,” which can be confusing to some entrepreneurs, since it’s not fully commonplace yet. To get a handle on what this leadership style entails, it’s a good idea to go back in time a bit to understand its origins.

The term “servant leadership” was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as a Leader.” In his essay, Greenleaf wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…"

So what’s the difference between a servant leader and what we traditionally think of as a typical leader? A servant leader’s top priority is to ensure “that other people’s highest priority needs are being served,” Greenleaf said.

However, servant leadership is an approach that predates Greenleaf. According to Chapter 66 of ancient Chinese text “Tao Te Ching,” great leaders are not those who are seen, but those who help other people achieve great things. A passage in the text translates to: “Taking a cue from nature, sages know that if they want to be in a higher position of authority, they must assume the lower position of the rivers and oceans. Similarly, if they want to be in a leading position in front of everyone, they must dedicate themselves to a supporting role in the background.”

In essence, a servant leader focuses on the needs of other people, especially team members, before considering their own requirements. They share power, acknowledge others’ perspectives, give them the support they need to meet their personal and professional goals, involve them in decisions when necessary and build a sense of community within their teams. This leads to more trust, higher engagement and stronger relationships with employees and other stakeholders. It can also lead to increased innovation.

What makes one a servant leader?

Based on Greenleaf's writings, all servant leaders share a set of 10 common core characteristics:

1. Listening: Traditionally, a leader is one who makes the decisions, and a servant is one who follows the decisions made by the leader. However, a servant leader is one who seeks to identify the will of a group and/or the individual and helps to clarify that will. Not only do they hear what is being said, they also pay attention to what is not being said.

2. Empathy

: A servant leader tries to understand and empathize with others (employees, customers and other stakeholders). Believing there is good in everyone goes a long way toward instilling loyalty and trust in them. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been quite vocal about the role of empathy in effective leadership. In his book Hit Refresh, he writes that empathy “will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before.”

3. Healing

: In his essay, Greenleaf wrote, “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.” Hence, servant leaders understand that they have the responsibility to help make those whole with whom they come in contact.

4. Awareness

: Apart from being self-aware, servant leaders have a strong awareness of people and situations as well as feelings, strengths and weaknesses of those around them. They care passionately about others’ well-being.

Recently, Tesla's Elon Musk demonstrated such passion and awareness by getting personally involved in the production line at one of his manufacturing units. He pledged to perform tasks that had resulted in some of his workers being injured.

5. Persuasion

: The very nature of servant leadership helps the servant leader “persuade” others to achieve their true potential. Servant leaders seek to convince others, without coercing them to do what they want done. And since they are committed to the welfare of others, they use this ability only to influence others positively and open their eyes to possibilities they had not considered before.

Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was widely regarded as a master of persuasion. According to Loizos Heracleous and Laura Klaering, of Warwick Business School, Jobs was highly skilled in the art of effective and persuasive speaking. He employed several strategies to adapt to differing scenarios and situations, while still delivering a constant message.

6. Conceptualization

: Servant leaders think beyond day-to-day realities and don’t get overly distracted by short-term goals. They empower their employees to handle everyday matters, freeing themselves to plan a better future for their companies.

Talk to us about how our back-office services can help alleviate the stress put on the C-suite team of your startup.

7. Foresight

: Foresight is a characteristic that allows servant leaders to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present and the likely consequences of decisions for the future.

8. Stewardship: Greenleaf believed that that CEOs, staff and trustees all play important roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good of society. Stewardship, like servant leadership, assumes the commitment to serving other people’s needs. It also highlights the use of persuasion and openness, rather than control.

9. Commitment to the growth of people

: Servant leaders believe in the intrinsic value of people and care deeply about the personal and professional growth of each member of their team. Therefore, they are deeply committed to the growth of each employee within their company.

10. Building community

: According to Greenleaf, the shift from local communities to large institutions was the primary shaper of human lives, one that diminished the sense of community that people once had. Therefore, a servant leader brings people together for a common purpose, and creates a sense of belonging to something bigger than each individual.

Pros and Cons of Servant Leadership

Check out a few of the pros and cons of being a servant leader:

First, the Pros:

  • All decisions are made keeping in mind the best interests of everyone working for the company, including the leadership team and all employees.
  • Servant leadership encourages empathy, which allows servant leaders to refuse requests if they don’t benefit everyone in the organization for some reason.
  • A servant leadership environment encourages everyone to work together for their mutual benefit. This creates diversity within the workplace and helps everyone look at different perspectives.
  • Servant leadership serves the customer by prioritizing the organization over the leader’s own needs.

Now, the Cons:

  • Decisions take longer to be made. Taking everyone’s perspective into consideration slows down the implementation process and may even cost revenue losses.
  • Servant leadership is not the typical learned way of management for most executives. A company that wants to implement this type of culture/environment will most likely need to spend time and money retraining their personnel in how to think and behave this way.
  • A servant leader is required to do what the staff asks of them, especially if it is for the benefit of the business. This can cause the leader to spend more time in a supporting role instead of a leadership one.

Brands embodying servant leadership

Adam Grant, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business, wrote in his book Give and Take that, according to research, servant leaders are more productive and more highly regarded by employees. Here are some examples of servant leadership in business:


: Founded in 1971 by Fred Smith, the U.S. delivery company FedEx developed a servant leadership culture, allowing the business to thrive and grow accordingly. The firm’s philosophy of “People-Service-Profit” works because it has been embedded into every decision that the company has made. CEO Fred Smith believes, “When people are placed first, they will provide the highest possible service, and profits will follow.”

The Container Store

: A specialty retailer of storage and organizational products in the U.S., The Container Store nurtures an employee-first culture built around its Foundation Principles. These principles were formalized in 1988 by Chairman Kip Tindell together with all Houston store staff members.


: As exemplified by founder Howard Schultz, the overall culture of social responsibility that drives Starbucks is deeply rooted in the concept of servant leadership. After setting up the company, Schultz wanted its culture to reflect the ideology of “Employee First” — he believed that it’s the employees, not the products, which make Starbucks what it is.


: Truett Cathy founded Chick-fil-A on the principles of servant leadership even before the concept was formally identified — the servant leadership model continues to be the foundation for management to this day.

Chick-fil-A abides by three guiding principles for sustaining its culture. First, the company recruits talent based on character, competency and chemistry. Second, it nurtures staff members by always telling the truth. Third, it shares the culture with its partners and guests.

Want more?

 Since 2006, Escalon has helped thousands of startups lead with confidence with our back-office solutions for accounting, HR, payroll, insurance, and recruiting and taxes — and we can help yours too. Talk to an expert today.  


Neha De
Neha De

Neha De is a writer and editor with more than 13 years of experience. She has worked on a variety of genres and platforms, including books, magazine articles, blog posts and website copy. She is passionate about producing clear and concise content that is engaging and informative. In her spare time, Neha enjoys dancing, running and spending time with her family.

We provide you with essential business services so you can focus on growth.