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Servant Leadership 101: How to Be a Compassionate Leader

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Serving your employees’ greater good might be a leader’s best tactic. Research shows that servant leadership boosts profits and employee morale. This ethically-driven management style prioritizes employee support so you can build influence, authority, and collaboration.

If you want to create a positive work environment that allows your people to thrive to their fullest potential, here is everything you need to know about becoming a servant leader. 

What is Servant Leadership? (Servant Leadership Definition)

Servant leadership is a management philosophy that focuses on the growth and well-being of employees as a means to create a thriving organization. Rather than accumulating power, dominating a conversation, or leading with force, a servant leader aims to propel the team forward with their stewardship and community-building. Think of the servant leader as both a coach and a cheerleader for a team:

  • They make the plays (set strategic direction)
  • They design the training regimen (provide the necessary tools)
  • They entrust each player with the responsibilities for their position (allow task ownership)
  • They inspire and empower their team to take action

Servant leadership has roots that span back to ancient times. However, retired AT&T executive Robert Greenleaf first coined the term “servant leader” in his seminal 1970 essay The Servant as Leader. After decades in corporate leadership, Greenleaf realized that organizations thrived when leaders acted like supportive coaches who served the needs of employees and the organization. The concept of servant leadership is briefly defined in his assertion that “the organization exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organization.”

Who are Servant Leaders? Servant Leadership Examples

From Abraham Lincoln to Gandhi to Nelson Mandela, servant leaders have empowered entire nations and movements by leading with a “community first” mentality. Instead of hogging the spotlight or using domineering tactics, these humble leaders were known to put their people first and empower them to push objectives forward. 

Legacies can be complicated and nuanced, but based on historical observation, here are some of the most notable historical servant leaders:

  • Mahatma Gandhi: Honored as India’s greatest spiritual and political leader, Gandhi led millions of impoverished people to peacefully and nonviolently win India’s independence from Great Britain. 
  • Abraham Lincoln: The famed 16th President of the U.S. used servant leadership to lead the country through the Civil War, preserve the Union, and end slavery.
  • Nelson Mandela: As the leader of the South African anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela lived by his words: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: As one of the most renowned social justice leaders of the 20th century, MLK Jr. led the Civil Rights Movement with a non-violent, servant approach. He never desired to be remembered by prizes or accolades and instead cared more about helping his people achieve justice. 

You might be wondering how the servant leadership tactics of these religious and political leaders can be applied to your company. While they are incredibly inspirational, many examples can seem out of reach to a modern small business owner or manager. 

Again, it’s hard to know exactly what goes on in the day-to-day of an organization, but these modern-day executives are known for using service-based tactics to lead their teams to success: 

  • Jack Welch, Former CEO of General Electric, famously wrote, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” 
  • Herb Kheller, Founder of Southwest Airlines, said, “Your people come first, and if you treat them right, they’ll treat the customers right.” 
  • Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and author of Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others said, “The leader must have both – the courage to take the people to a daring destination and the humility to selflessly serve others on the journey.”
  • Joel Manby, Former SeaWorld, and Herschend Enterprises CEO said, “Servant leadership brings out the best in people.” 
  • Art Bator, CEO of Datron World Communications, Inc. and Founder of Servant Leadership Institute wrote the book Equip to Serve: 100 Ways to Help the Ones You Lead.

Servant Leadership Characteristics: Top 10 Attributes of a Servant Leader

From international political movements to coaching a small team toward a business goal, the principles of servant leadership can be applied to any setting where a group of people needs to accomplish a shared goal. Here are the ten principles of servant leaders defined by Larry Spears and Robert K. Greenleaf Center for servant leadership:

  1. Listening: While all leaders are valued for their communication skills, the servant leader is particularly committed to intently listening to others. They ensure their team feels comfortable coming to them with problems or concerns. They are receptive to feedback and seek to understand their people without defensiveness or assumptions. They are always improving their listening skills and couple this attentiveness with periods of reflection about how to act on what they’ve heard.
  2. Empathy: A servant leader is highly emotionally intelligent and attuned to the feelings and perceptions of others. They strive to empathize with their staff or followers and demonstrate concern for their well-being. They are supportive during challenges and ensure that people feel truly accepted as team members. 
  3. Healing: The servant leader is aware of the broken spirits and emotional hurt of people from all walks of life. They approach management through the lens of kindness and community. They help people feel accepted and safe in a social or work environment. It is also essential that a servant leader has healed their wounds and triggers. 
  4. Awareness: Self-awareness is crucial for a servant leader to recognize their shortcomings and take action to improve objectively. The servant leader is also acutely aware of the climate in which their business operates and the role of their team within a larger vision. They look at business through a holistic lens (for example, investing in employee training and morale for long-term success) rather than a reductionist or narrow-minded approach (for example, profits first even if it means employee burnout or losing team members).
  5. Persuasion: Rather than using their authority and power to force people to comply, a servant leader uses their persuasive skills to convince others to take action. They are not interested in coercion or authoritarianism. Instead, they convince their team to join together for goals that meet the needs of the greater good. They build consensus and compromise within groups. 
  6. Conceptualization: Servant leaders have the unique capability to dream big. They can conceptualize goals and visions that may seem impossible to their followers. Yet their ability to think beyond day-to-day realities helps to inspire and motivate people forward. They are visionaries who can balance logical, daily decisions with long-term conceptual thinking. 
  7. Foresight: Great leaders can foresee a situation’s likely outcomes by understanding past lessons and making educated predictions. Servant leaders have strong intuition and build trust with their followers by utilizing foresight to instill confidence and take strategic steps forward. 
  8. Stewardship: Stewardship is the ability to hold something in trust for others. A servant leader stewards the greater good of their team, community, and society. They commit to serving the needs of others rather than controlling them. 
  9. Commitment to the Growth of People: Servant leaders firmly believe that people have intrinsic value far deeper than their contributions as workers in an organization. They don’t look at their staff as “cogs in a machine.” Instead, they are committed to nurturing their employees’ and colleagues’ personal and professional growth. This can include professional development, taking an interest in people’s suggestions, or helping laid-off employees find new jobs. Servant leaders show genuine care for people’s well-being.
  10. Building Community: Lastly, a servant leader uses their influence to create a sense of community within an organization. They want to bring people together so that they feel part of a greater cause. This can occur within the business (for example, through staff sports teams or meetups) and outside the workplace (for example, leading a company volunteer day at a local homeless shelter). 

In this TED Talk, professor of servant leadership Thomas Thibodeau dives deeper into how these concepts can be applied in contemporary organizations.

Pros and Cons of Servant Leadership

Like all management styles, servant leadership is only suited to specific personality types and situations. This leadership model may not work for everyone in every situation. The key pros and cons of servant leadership include:  

Advantages of Servant LeadershipDisadvantages of Servant Leadership 
Servant leaders earn more employee respectPeople accustomed to other leadership styles may find it difficult to transition to this philosophy
Staff stand behind a company mission that customers also buy intoA shift in management may require a cultural change with the staff
It boosts employee motivation and team moraleA period of transition may take time
People feel more valued and loyal to the companyStaff may not have the confidence or skill sets to drive the business forward 
Employees feel trusted and proud of their roles, which passes to better treatment of customersA mixture of leadership styles among hierarchical management may be confusing for employees 
People feel like their opinions matter when they are involved in decision-making processes Decision-making takes longer because the staff is more directly involved 
Leaders show more empathy Management costs may be higher 
Staff can develop their skills and grow more quickly because of the environment that supports professional developmentSome employees may be confused or overwhelmed by the shift
Employees believe management is looking out for their best interestsTrust takes time to develop, and employees who felt taken advantage of in the past may not instantly subscribe to the changes

How to Implement Servant Leadership: 5 Tips to Become a Servant Leader

Servant leadership theory may sound nice on paper, but how does it look in real life? This unique leadership style can require a significant mindset shift from the leader-first mentality. These simple tips can help you transition to a servant leadership style daily. 

  1. Praise your team before praising yourself

It’s no secret that praising people for their hard work makes them feel appreciated and motivates them to perform better. Studies show that praising employees can improve success and personalized appreciation boosts productivity. Even a simple compliment can make a big difference. But many managers feel uncomfortable or anxious about giving compliments. Moreover, hierarchical leadership styles often praise managers for their team’s accomplishments, while lower-ranking employees go unrecognized.

In other words, hard-working people crave recognition, but they often feel like their efforts go unnoticed because their boss feels awkward about complimenting them. Much of the praise is channeled toward the management level. 

How does servant leadership remedy this paradox? It leads with a “praise my people first” mentality. Servant leaders are humble and don’t hog the spotlight. For example, when Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize, his acceptance speech had nothing to do with praising himself. Instead, he highlighted the suffering and efforts of African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement and ensured they received the honor:

“I accept this prize on behalf of all men who love peace and brotherhood. I say I come as a trustee, for in the depths of my heart, I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally. Every time I take a flight, I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible – the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.”

-Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

The response of MLK Jr. to an award as grand as the Nobel Peace Prize is a great reminder of how servant leaders use the spotlight to elevate their cause, not their ego. Instead of putting yourself on a pedestal for your team’s accomplishments at work, you can: 

  • Consistently compliment your team with personalized and timely praise.
  • When you are praised, turn the spotlight onto your staff sometimes.
  • If you get a raise or a promotion, take your team for a celebration lunch to thank them for their efforts. 
  • Report positive feedback about your team to higher-level management. 

Servant leadership is about the “we,” not the “me!”

  1. Shift your mindset

Much of the servant leadership philosophy starts with a mindset shift. Many modern leaders have been engrained with a cutthroat business mentality—they operate from a place of rugged individualism, authoritarian decision-making, and a “profits first” mentality. While this may work for some organizations, it is incompatible with the servant leadership style. 

If you want to shift to a more “people first” mentality as a leader, simple changes to your thought patterns can help transform your interactions with your team: 

Instead of thinking this…A servant leader might think this…
“I am the leader/manager of this team, and I know what is best for the organization.” “I am a coach and supporter who wants to bring out the best in my people.” 
“I tell people what to do.”“I ask powerful questions, deeply listen, and offer constructive feedback that propels people to get things done efficiently and effectively.” 
“I have the final say in decisions.” “I take into account my team’s informed opinions and ideas and ask them for their counsel to help make decisions together.” 
“My employees are here to get a job done.”“My team is working hard to get their job done, so I will work hard to support them. I nurture their interests and career goals by helping them learn new skills and try new things.” 
“I can deal with company culture once we meet our objectives and match our bottom line.”“Company culture is our number one priority, and when we find the right fit, it will lead to greater profits and customer loyalty.” 
“All employees are replaceable. I can always hire new people.” “The people are the soul of this company, and I need to pour into them so that they feel excited to do their best work for this business.” 
  1. Empower people by sharing responsibilities

A servant leader is the polar opposite of a micromanager. They are willing to let go of certain responsibilities and give their team ownership of their tasks. Rather than monitoring and controlling every little detail of people’s work, a servant leader trusts that their team can operate independently. Still, the leader is always there to coach and steer them in the right direction. 

Autonomy of tasks empowers people to approach their job with confidence and pride. It motivates employees to feel committed to their work. They can get their work done with the excitement that their name will be stamped on the final product. To allow more task ownership and independence, try:

  • Offering more flexible employee schedules so they can use their time management strategy.
  • Create a balance between micromanaging and being too “hands-off”. Offer project outlines, open door questioning policy, and periodic check-ins. 
  • Allow employees to create their own workload by assigning a few tasks at once and letting them execute how they see fit. 

Remember, micromanagement is the enemy of servant leadership! If you have struggled with micromanagement, you can ease your shift to servant leadership. Henry Steward, CEO of workplace consulting company Happy, believes that micromanagement is the number one frustration employees experience. His key suggestion? 

Give more explicit, clear guidelines, and then offer your team the freedom to execute. 

This might sound like:

  • “Here are the guidelines for this upcoming project. The main goal is to X, and the deadline is Y. I believe in your capability to execute it on your own, but please come to me if you need clarification or have any questions. We can check in about your progress in our next meeting.”
  • “I made this detailed list of expectations for your new role. All of your training up to this point has prepared you for this, but don’t feel like you’re going at it alone. I am giving you the reins, and please feel free to let me know what I can do to support you through the transition.” 
  • “The primary goals of this assignment are X, Y, and Z. I am excited to see what direction you decide to take. As long as you ensure X objective is met, please use your creativity and expertise to make it happen.”
  1. Practice active listening

Research shows that good listening correlates with better leadership. One could argue that a servant leader cannot exist without superb listening skills. Servant leaders are highly receptive to others’ opinions and feedback. Instead of turning their nose up to subordinates who try to voice their ideas, servant leaders humbly quiet their voices so they can listen to people and make them feel important.

This can look like:

  • Offering ample opportunities for their staff to lead meetings, engage in dialogue, and participate in decision-making processes.
  • Accepting constructive criticism from their workers and regularly asking for reviews on their performance. 
  • Maintaining an “open door” policy regarding any issues in the workplace.
  • Being in tune with the body language, tone, and unsaid words of any employee interaction.

To be a better listener, you can also incorporate these charismatic listening cues into your daily interactions: 

  • Make eye contact while people are talking to let them know that you are present.
  • Use verbal feedback like “mhm,” “aha,” or “wow.”
  • Lean in to show you are interested. 
  • Protect yourself from wandering thoughts by staying focused with your torso, feet, and eyes facing toward the speaker. 
  • Be an emotional highlighter by using your facial expressions to show that you are sad, excited, surprised, or empathetic with what they are communicating. 
  1. Provide resources to help your staff grow 

Above all else, servant leaders are called to help develop people. They invest in their team so that people feel valued and committed to the organization. Think about it: When someone has invested in you, did you feel more loyal and invested in them? Investments in personal or professional development could reap massive returns for your company in the form of better employee retention, higher profits, and greater productivity. 

To help your staff grow, consider providing these development resources: 

  • Pay for employees to attend relevant conferences or seminars.
  • Ask about peoples’ career goals and find ways to elevate them toward that trajectory. For example, offer them bigger projects or help them connect with higher-level executives that could aid them in the future. 
  • Host retreats or training that add soft skills to your employees’ toolbox. Vanessa Van Edwards, founder of leads communication-based corporate training to refresh and energize teams.
  • If someone shares a struggle they are having (that you can’t fix), follow up with a thoughtful email, including a TED Talk, an inspirational quote, or an article that might help them resolve it. 
  • Bring in expert speakers to teach your team about specific topics they care about. Bonus points if you survey them to see what they want to learn! These could be fun skills like cooking, mindfulness or serious skill training like coding and negotiation.
  • Gift your staff books on professional and personal development (perhaps one of these 18 Best Business Books for Entrepreneurs or the 43 Best Books for Self-Improvement to Boost Your Confidence).

Key Takeaways: Practice Servant Leadership with Daily Shifts to Support Your Team 

No one becomes a servant leader overnight, but anyone can apply the principles of this compassionate leadership style. If you want to empower your team by beginning the shift toward servant leadership, remember to:

  • Praise your team before praising yourself: Offer regular positive feedback and avoid hogging the spotlight when recognition happens. 
  • Shift your thoughts to a “people first” mentality: Notice how traditional leadership styles can engrain certain thought patterns into your daily management activities. Work to shift towards more compassionate and team-oriented ways of thinking.
  • Allow ownership of tasks: Give your employees the trust and empowerment to execute tasks and projects independently. Rather than micromanaging, act as a coach supporting them when needed. 
  • Practice active listening: Use body language and charismatic cues to show that you care about what your team has to say. Allow them to participate in decision-making processes and maintain an open door for feedback. 
  • Invest in employee growth: Build a loyal following by showing that you care about your team’s well-being. Invest in their personal and professional development by helping them learn and advance. 

Finding the right leadership style for you can take time and experimentation, but there is no doubt that you want to bring out the best in your team. If you want be a more captivating leader that people want to follow, learn more about developing your Executive Presence: 10 Ways to Become a Charismatic Leader.

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