Servant Leadership Style and Theory

Servant Leadership - Toolshero

Servant Leadership style: this article describes the basics of Servant Leadership style theory, developed by Robert Greenleaf in a practical way. The article begins with a general definition of servant leadership and what this type of leadership looks like in practice. You will also find an overview of 10 characteristics (plus tips) that you can use yourself if you have a managerial position. Enjoy reading!

What is Servant Leadership?

In his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader, it was Robert Greenleaf who first coined the term and definition “servant leadership”.

In Servant Leadership, the team is most important, followed by the manager himself. The servant leader focuses on the needs of his team and put his own needs second. This is an empathic way to approach one’s staff.

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From their perspective, the servant leader provides his employees with support, which they not only need to properly conduct their tasks, but also to achieve personal goals. This leads to higher levels of commitment from employees in making decisions, creating stronger relationships and improving mutual trust.

Servant leadership is improving performance

The purpose of Servant Leadership is to fully understand employee needs, to respond to this and thus act more effectively as a manager. Employees who perform less well receive the attention they deserve. Mutually, employee can come to an understanding of how to improve themselves.

Servant Leadership also motives employee and makes them be open to renewal and innovation and have no fear in failing or making mistakes. The manager supports both his individual employees and the entire team. It is his task to help them develop themselves further and improve their skills.

Through Servant Leadership, the manager gains the ability to view a situation from the perspective of another. Every decision he makes is in the best interest of the team. In doing so, the manager obviously should posses and share his means and knowledge, which are necessary to achieve (departmental) targets.

Servant Leadership Approach : 10 characteristics

Filling the role of servant leader by the manager is possible by means of ten characteristics. Only when the manager prioritises his employees’ instead of himself, he will be able to work on different skills. Below is a list of the ten characteristics.

1. Listening

With proper listening a manager can better come to an understanding of others. It will be easer for him to understand what an employee says.

By giving them complete attention, considering their non-verbal communication and not obstructing them, a manager can properly understand his employees and respond appropriately.

2. Empathy

The ability to empathize with someone else’s situation is the basis for empathy. This allows a manager to understand the intention of his employees. Every situation is different. It is therefore a positive to put aside one’s personal vision and be open to the opinions and views of others.

3. Health

This characteristic is related to the emotional health of employees. By supporting them both mentally and physically, employees will remain healthy. A manager can achieve this by firstly ensuring that employees have sufficient knowledge, support and resources in order to carry out their work effectively and efficiently. In addition, a healthy workplace and varied tasks are important. In discussions with employees, the manager can figure out what the needs are in this specific area.

4. Self-awareness

A manager must have the ability to critically assess himself and realise how his behaviour affects his employees.

What are his values and how does he express them? By being aware of these aspects, a manager is able to learn about his strengths and weaknesses. By properly understanding and controlling his own emotions, a manager can positively influence the behaviour of both himself and others.

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5. Conviction

Rather than strict authority, persuasion is a much more effective way to stimulate employees. By properly communicating, they can ensure that t heir team understands why certain decisions were made. This leads to openness and increased support from employees.

6. Vision and Focus via servant leadership

Every manager, regardless of his level, has the task of translating the mission and strategy of the company into department objectives. By openly discussing these matters with employees and involving them in the division of roles that reflect the department objectives, they will become more motivated and collaborate more closely. All employee must understand the bigger picture and why certain decisions were made.

7. Foresight

Nobody knows what the future holds, but as a manager it is always a good thing to be prepared. To be accurately prepared, it is wise to examine internal strengths and weaknesses and external challenges and threats (SWOT Analysis). A manager may rely on his intuition, but it is advisable to also discuss matters with the team and listen to their opinion on the company’s overall vision.

8. Figurehead

Every manager is responsible for the work of his team. By setting the right example and to demonstrate the values of the organisation, employees will come to understand what is expected of them. A manager must build trust, so that employees will see him as the figurehead of the organisation and be willing to adapt their behaviour.

9. Growth of employees

A manager must be committed to his employees and stimulate their personal and professional development. By carefully figuring out each employee’s training and development needs, a manager can act accordingly.

With improved skills, employees will be able to perform their work more effectively and take on more responsibility.

10. Team spirit through servant leadership

Only a well-functioning team can make a positive contribution to the organisation. It is the task of the manager to come up with approaches that make the team come into contact with each other in different ways.

For example, these may include social events such as team lunches or pleasant work environments in which staff can approach each other informally. By encouraging employees, managers can also make a contribution in further improving team spirit.

Disadvantages of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership is a concept that particularly pays off in the long term and positively affects the organisation. Managers who respect their employees generally receive better performances in return.

However, one must keep in mind that the team must be fairly independent as is and that employees should be self-reliant. Servant Leadership doesn’t work with teams that consist of (extremely) inexperienced employees. This because they are not yet able to take their own responsibility.

Servant Leadership is also less effective in organisations that are dependent on rules and requirements, such as a bureaucracy. In such organisations, one may not deviate from the standard procedures too much and decisions are all made by senior management or the board. Consequently, this makes it impossible for employees to have a voice.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Is Servant Leadership applicable in today’s modern management environment? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more additions? What are your success factors regarding Servant Leadership?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Greenleaf, R. K., & Spears, L. C. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Paulist Press.
  2. Gregory Stone, A., Russell, R. F., & Patterson, K. (2004). Transformational versus servant leadership: A difference in leader focus. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 25(4), 349-361.
  3. Karve, S. (2023). Leadership Masterclass – Insights, Models and Application. Retrieved 07/02/2024 from Udemy.
  4. Spears, L. C. (1998). Insights on leadership: Service, stewardship, spirit, and servant-leadership. John Wiley & Sons.

How to cite this article:
Mulder, P. (2017). Servant Leadership Theory. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 03/16/2017 | Last update: 02/09/2024

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Patty Mulder
Article by:

Patty Mulder

Patty Mulder is an Dutch expert on Management Skills, Personal Effectiveness and Business Communication. She is also a Content writer, Business Coach and Company Trainer and lives in the Netherlands (Europe).
Note: all her articles are written in Dutch and we translated her articles to English!


2 responses to “Servant Leadership Style and Theory”

  1. Oscar Sitimela says:

    Very true analysis, thanks for sharing and I still believe servant leadership can still work if management pays attention.

  2. Merlin Lockey says:

    More interested to know if the servant leader philosophy can be learnt rather than appearing through an innate disposition.

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