Just because you’re in a leadership role doesn’t mean you’ve got people bending over backwards to follow you. It takes a lot more than a job title to earn people’s loyalty and build a strong team. Great leaders inspire and influence. They have such a positive effect on others that their business and their team members can’t help but grow and prosper. Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it?
But here’s the part that may blow your mind: The greatest leaders are always servant leaders.
Whoa, don’t freak out. We’re not saying they’re weak, compliant leaders (aka people who bow to their teams and let them call the shots). Servant leaders are still hardwired to slay business giants and change lives through their work. Servant leadership simply means serving your team by leading them well.
Let’s unpack this leadership style more with a clear servant leadership definition, and then we’ll look at the traits of servant leaders and how you can practice this leadership style.
- This is the servant leadership definition: to prioritize empowering and growing your team. Servant leaders focus on what they can do for others instead of what others can do for them.
- Leaders who use a traditional leadership style push their teams forward by using fear, anger and micromanagement. Servant leaders pull their team members toward an inspiring mission and model what it looks like to give your best and care for others.
- The 10 key servant leadership traits are: listen, empathize, heal, be self-aware, persuade, cast vision, think ahead, steward, commit to growing people, and build community.
- To practice servant leadership, you have to invest in team development, seek out feedback, leverage each team member’s strengths, delegate responsibilities, and remove distractions from conversations.
- The benefits of servant leadership are extraordinary team performance, lower turnover and a rock-solid culture.
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What Is Servant Leadership?
To be super clear: When you choose to be a servant leader, you don’t give up your passion or crush your drive to succeed. But you do choose to think of others first and make decisions (often freaking hard ones) that best serve everyone and make your organization stronger. The servant leadership definition is: to prioritize empowering and growing your team. You focus on what you can do for others instead of what they can do for you.
Where did the term servant leadership come from? Robert K. Greenleaf came up with it in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” He 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.”
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Servant Leadership vs. Traditional Leadership
Picture a typical organizational chart. You know, the one with the leader at the top in the executive suite and the lowly employees at the bottom. Servant leaders avoid ivory towers like that at all costs. They eat lunch with their team in the company lunchroom, get their own coffee sometimes, and lead weekly staff meetings to cast vision. They’re intentional about being the voice and face of their organizations—not because they’re self-important, but because they value staying connected with their team.
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As you consider what kind of leader you want to be, keep in mind that traditional leaders push employees—using fear, anger and micromanagement to cattle prod their team forward. (And everyone likes being treated like a cow, right?) Whereas servant leaders pull team members toward a crazy-amazing mission and live out what it looks like to work with excellence and care for others. As you lead, think about how you can show your team you’re all in this together but still be clear you’re leading the charge.
Related article: What Is Transformational Leadership?
10 Servant Leadership Traits
You don’t need a fancy degree or decades on the job to nail down the servant leadership style. But you do need to walk the walk and talk the talk. To get started, here are 10 actions all servant leaders do:1
- Listen: We’re talking put-your-phone-away, laser-focused listening so your team and customers really feel heard. As you ask good questions and pay attention, you build trust and relationships.
- Empathize: Everything starts and ends with your team. Value their input and opinions, show them compassion, and work hard to understand their viewpoint—even if you disagree. Try to feel what they feel.
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- Heal: Remember people are people—not machines. They bring their hurts with them to work. You can establish a culture that helps rebuild and restore others while setting healthy boundaries.
- Be self-aware: When you regularly and honestly look at yourself (your strengths, weaknesses, warts and all), you make room to grow. And as you grow, you relate better to the needs and behaviors of others. We’re talking empathy and healing at a whole new level.
- Persuade: To build a strong, unified team, leverage the power of persuasion. It’s been said, If you want employees, then boss them around. If you want team members, explain why you do what you do and get them fired up to join you!
- Cast vision: Servant leaders are all about helping others and changing the world, not just lining their pockets with cash. Cast a vision your team can rally around and set big, hairy, audacious goals for you to conquer together.
Related article: Vision Casting: 7 Reasons Why It Matters
- Think ahead: It’s important to predict what’s needed. If you want to make good decisions about the future, take some time to study (and learn from) the past. Nobody can predict the future, but you can use the tools, advice and data you have to make a smart call.
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- Steward: When you’re faithful in the little things—like leading a handful of team members or managing a modest revenue stream—you prove your readiness to do more. That’s good stewardship. But how do you keep a strong stewardship attitude in check? You view your money, opportunities and the people in your care as things meant to make a positive difference for others.
- Commit to growing people: Maybe you’ve picked up on a word we’ve used a lot: others. That’s the heartbeat of servant leadership. Treat others the way you want to be treated, or you won’t win—not for long anyway. Remind yourself often that people have value beyond their work and what they can do for you and help them grow into their potential.
- Build community: Thanks to technology, we can do a lot with the tap of a button—order groceries, take a class, or even watch cat videos if that’s your thing. Convenient? Very. Good for building relationships? Not at all. Here’s the point: Servant leaders use their influence to encourage genuine connection and provide much-needed community. The culture you build, team members you develop, and mission you serve could (and should) be a relationship-building gold mine.
How to Practice Servant Leadership
Reading about servant leadership is good, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t do something with what you’ve learned. You have to develop your leadership skills. And becoming a stronger servant leader is as easy as one, two, three (okay, plus four, five and six). Check it out:
- Invest in team development. Most business owners agree that team development is important—but it falls through the cracks way too often. Help your team grow by setting aside time and money to teach them valuable, practical skills. You could take them to a conference, do some in-house training, or pay for them to earn a certification.
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- Seek out feedback. When you ask for input and feedback from your team, you automatically get to practice empathy and listening. Invite others to share their honest thoughts about a new project, how the business could improve, or what would make them feel more fulfilled in their role.
- Leverage each team member’s strengths. There’s nothing sweet about expecting your team members to fill cookie-cutter job descriptions. Boring. What if you tailored their role’s responsibilities to their strengths and passions? Yes, the job needs to get done, but people don’t have to be mindless cogs in a wheel. Research shows strengths-based team development can increase profits by up to 29%.2
- Delegate tasks. Help your team members grow into servant leaders too! Delegate responsibilities and empower them to make decisions. This can get tricky because you don’t want people to bite off more than they can chew. But as you consistently teach, coach and give feedback, you can work yourself out of some jobs you’re probably not that great at anyway and give others opportunities to grow.
Related article: How to Delegate to Your Team
- Remove distractions during conversations. This goes hand in hand with becoming a great listener. Be all in when you’re having a team or one-on-one meeting. Listen actively by asking for clarification and repeating key points back to others. To serve others, you have to be aware of their needs—and that takes a lot of listening. So close the laptop, put your phone away, and make some eye contact for goodness’ sake!
- Have the hard conversations. Your job as a leader isn’t just about making team members happy. It’s about earning respect and building trust so when you need to share a hard truth (and you will), your team will be open to hearing it and will use it to grow. Servant leaders have hard conversations with people because they care.
Benefits of Servant Leadership
What do companies like Chick-fil-A and Southwest Airlines have in common? They actively practice servant leadership—even when they go through tough times. And based on their success and endurance, their approach pays off big.
The benefits of servant leadership go well beyond higher profits. Here are the top three:
- Extraordinary performance: An empowered team is a happy team, and happy people are more productive. They’re also more innovative and creative. That’s what we call a win-win-win!
- Lower turnover: Servant leadership creates team members who are more engaged, purpose driven, and—maybe you guessed it—less likely to leave their organization for another opportunity. Not only does lower turnover help build unity and momentum, but it also saves you time, money and peace of mind.
- A rock-solid culture: Great servant leaders trust that when they put others first, every part of their organization thrives. An others-centered culture creates a positive buzz that spreads throughout your team and reaches your customers and community. So everyone wins!
Servant Leadership Quotes
Since Robert K. Greenleaf fleshed out the idea of servant leadership decades ago, it’s taken its place as a respected, powerful leadership style. But leaders throughout history, whether they knew the term servant leadership or not, have had a lot to say about the value of leading by serving. Here are some servant leadership quotes to motivate and inspire you.
- “If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful! But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s the new definition of greatness.” -- Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader
- “The best place for a leader isn't always the top position. It isn't the most prominent or powerful place. It's the place where he or she can serve the best and add the most value to other people.” -- John Maxwell, leadership expert
- “Servant leadership means you serve first. You lead second. You give 110% every day. And if you make decisions based from your heart and your head and some plain old common sense, 99.9% of the time . . . you’re going to be okay.” -- Colleen Barrett, president emeritus of Southwest Airlines
- “When leaders manifest traits like trustworthiness, fair-mindedness, humility, servanthood, and endurance over a long period of time, and when they prove themselves to be unwavering in crisis, that’s when leaders are at their best.” -- Bill Hybels, founder of the Global Leadership Summit
- “Once I understood that I am serving my team by leading them, just like I am serving my children by parenting them, I relaxed. I might serve a team member by reprimanding him or even by allowing him to work somewhere else . . . I am serving them by teaching and mentoring them. I am serving them to their good and the good of the organization.” -- Dave Ramsey, founder and CEO of Ramsey Solutions
- “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” -- John Wooden, former NCAA basketball coach
- “Leaders are not called to work; they are not called to fill a position, make money, or use their authority to manage people. Leaders are called to serve.” -- Dee Ann Turner, former vice president of talent and former vice president of sustainability for Chick-fil-A
What’s Next: Be the Ultimate Service Deliverer
Imagine the change in your business if you thought of yourself as the ultimate service deliverer—to your team members and to your customers. Everyone reaps the rewards of an others-centered leadership style. Practicing servant leadership is one of the most important moves you can make to help others become better versions of themselves and build a business with enduring impact. To learn more about how to become a greater leader by serving others first, check out The EntreLeadership Podcast. You’ll get real-life leadership insight from successful servant leader and small-business expert Dave Ramsey.