Business Leadership Today

What Is a Servant Leader?


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

The term “servant leader” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the modern servant leadership movement and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Greenleaf’s interpretation of what a leader could (and should) be was vastly different from the traditional leadership styles of the past. 

Some traditional leadership styles emphasize control and seeking power, often at the expense of others. Often they rely on centralized decision-making that is focused on short-term results and ignores the potentially harmful long-term effects. 

According to Greenleaf, “The servant-leader is servant first, it begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first, as opposed to, wanting power, influence, fame, or wealth.”

In Greenleaf’s view, leaders must first become servants to lead effectively. This approach to leadership, though less results-focused than other leadership styles, has the benefit of achieving the desired results in ways that are not detrimental to the well-being and psychological safety of others. 

Servant leadership shifts the focus of leadership and presents an approach that prioritizes serving the greater good over personal gain and the pursuit of power. Servant leaders lead in ways that are sustainable for employees and all an organization’s resources. 

A servant leader is a servant first. Servant leaders are committed to the growth of others, build influence through authentic, trust-based relationships, and achieve goals without jeopardizing the future or harming well-being. Greenleaf outlined 10 principles that help servant leaders lead effectively. 

This article will explore how servant leaders follow these principles to lead their teams to sustainable success. 

What Is Servant Leadership?

While the ideas that servant leadership encompasses have been around for a long time, Greenleaf is credited as the first person to articulate them as part of the modern servant leadership movement in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”

Servant leadership is a non-traditional style of leadership that incorporates elements of the participative leadership and transformational leadership styles. 

Leaders build influence by persuading people to follow them because they want to, not because they have to. The servant leader seeks not just to lead, but to serve those they lead by continually building positive influence (not positional authority) with team members and investing in their success. 

Greenleaf outlined 10 main principles of servant leadership that help leaders both lead well and serve well: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. 

Next, we’ll look at the ways servant leaders apply these principles to help others grow, achieve goals sustainably (and without harming well-being), and build positive influence.

A Servant Leader Helps Others Grow

Servant leaders are focused on the greater good, serving others—whether it’s their employees, customers, or other stakeholders—and helping others grow. Servant leaders do this by committing to the growth of people and building community. 

Commitment to the Growth of People

Servant leaders are committed to the growth of all their team members and interact with them in ways that facilitate and encourage growth. 

They are able to see the intrinsic value their employees bring to the table, which goes beyond their more tangible contributions or the monetary success they can help the organization achieve. 

Servant leaders nurture the personal and professional growth of employees by providing opportunities for professional development through learning, training, and leadership development. 

Building Community

Servant leaders recognize the importance of building community and forging connections that help their teams commit to the growth of others and extend this commitment to their communities. 

This principle is tied strongly to the core philosophy of servant leadership: that leaders serve and inspire their followers to also serve others. 

Whether it is helping coworkers connect or helping the organization connect with the community it serves, it doesn’t have to be an ambitious undertaking; small actions by many have a profound impact. This is the key to building community. 

A Servant Leader Achieves Goals Without Jeopardizing the Future or Harming Well-Being

Servant leaders take care of the resources they have been entrusted with and always consider the impacts their actions and decisions can have on their teams and the long-term success of the organization. 

Servant leaders are guided in their decision-making by the principles of conceptualization, foresight, and good stewardship.


Servant leaders are, by principle and practice, visionaries. One of the most fascinating aspects of servant leadership, and the one that truly represents the servant leader’s capacity to help their teams achieve great things, is its emphasis on the conceptual perspective. 

While many managers often become so focused on achieving short-term operational goals that they miss the big-picture view, servant leaders play the long game. They conceptualize problems that do not currently exist and conceive solutions to those problems. 


Foresight refers to the ability to foresee possible outcomes of situations and approaches to addressing those situations. It is closely linked to conceptualization and helps servant leaders identify the best approaches and the ones that are most closely aligned with the organization’s mission and achieving its vision. 

Servant leaders use foresight in a number of ways. While no leader can predict the future, especially in the business world where constant change is the only given, servant leaders engage in decision-making that is informed by both the current reality and a consideration of the potential long-term impacts of the decision.   


Stewardship is all about working toward the greater good and is a demonstration of commitment to serving and meeting the needs of others. Stewardship is the ultimate guiding force of the servant leader as they tend to the growth and success of their teams.

Stewardship is an essential part of servant leadership. Servant leaders, like good stewards, are more focused on care than control, value the resources and people with which they have been entrusted, and ensure that they leave a strong legacy behind that inspires others. 

A Servant Leader Builds Influence Through Authentic Trust-Based Relationships

Servant leaders build influence with those they lead by building authentic, trust-based relationships with them that are conducive to collaborative, inclusive work environments where employees feel valued. 

Servant leaders are guided by a set of principles that require a high level of emotional intelligence: listening, persuasion, empathy, healing, and awareness. 


Good communication is an essential skill for any leader who wants to lead well. Unfortunately, many managers fail to realize that listening is the most important part of the communication process. 

This is why servant leaders listen without judgment and are always open and receptive to feedback from their teams. Unbiased listening leads naturally to understanding, which is so important for building trust-based relationships.


Servant leadership relies on persuasion, rather than positional authority, to help drive decision-making. 

Servant leaders want to convince, not coerce, and work to build consensus on their teams. It’s not about getting employees to comply; it’s about getting them to understand the decision-making process and to be active participants in it.


In “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf said, “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.” 

Servant leaders recognize that leadership provides them with the opportunity to improve people’s lives and help them overcome past hurts. 


Servant leadership relies on persuasion, rather than positional authority, to help drive decision-making. 

Servant leaders want to convince, not coerce, and work to build consensus on their teams. It’s not about getting employees to comply; it’s about getting them to understand the decision-making process and to be active participants in it.


A strong awareness of ethics and values, combined with a strong sense of self-awareness, is indispensable to servant leaders and guides them in all their actions and behaviors. 

Greenleaf said that when we lack awareness, “we miss leadership opportunities.” When we are aware of ourselves and where our team members are coming from, we are better leaders of our teams. 


Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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