A Servant Leader Brings Out the Best in Others

Mike Pelfini — 05 July 2023

A servant leader enables others with good listening and questions, focusing on development, and sharing power.


Servant leaders tip conventional management ideas upside down.  Instead of a top-down, command-and-control system, the employees are at the top and the leader works to serve them.  The servant leader seeks to align the employees’ sense of purpose with the organization’s mission – and to empower them to do their best work.

Some may say that’s just a feel-good fantasy, but it’s been applied with great success in the real world.  

Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, is cited as a model of the servant leader.  His vision created a highly motivated workforce – and led the company to 35 consecutive years of profitability in the volatile airline industry. 

Other examples of servant leadership can be found among the leaders of companies as diverse as Apple, Ford Motor Co., Starbucks, Unilever, and YouTube.  Google is another company famous for taking great care of its employees.  

Real world successes like these show that servant leadership is more than a pipe dream.  Let’s take a closer look at what it is and how it works.

The Origins and Principles of the Servant Leader

The concept of the servant leader has roots in antiquity, as in the opening quotation.  The modern practice, though, can be traced back to Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 essay, The Servant As Leader

According to Greenleaf: “The servant leader is a 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.” 

The servant leader looks after the well-being and development of the people in the organization: “The servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Servant Leadership in Action

Servant leadership replaces the “hard power” of command-and-control models with the “soft power” of empathy and persuasion.  

The qualities of the servant leader have been described in many ways, but here are three simple practices that can bring servant leadership into your organization.

  1.   Ask Questions and Listen Closely. The best way to begin serving others is to learn what their needs and concerns are.  Asking questions and actively listening to people’s concerns is a simple way to find out.  

When listening, focus on understanding the speaker’s perspective without objecting.  Ask follow-up questions to get to the heart of the matter. Building open communication builds trust.  

Another benefit is learning what motivates each person.  People generally give their best efforts in the areas they’re most passionate about.  Yet many leaders never find out where that passion lies.  Asking questions and listening is the first step.

  1.   Focus on Development. A second core tenet of servant leadership is to maintain focus on growth and development.  Professional growth benefits the individual while helping the organization reach higher goals.  

Investing in growth also promotes engagement and retention. People who feel valued are more likely to give their best efforts, and to see a future in an organization that invests in them.

The servant leader approaches individual development from a perspective of empathy as well.  If a person is having a difficult time, the servant leader will take the time to find out why.  The effort contributes to an environment of acceptance and trust.  

Mistakes are tolerated as a part of the learning process.  When the servant leader works with an employee to correct a mistake, it’s with respect rather than with reprimand.  The servant leader trusts the employee to make the needed adjustments.

  1.   Share Power. Sharing power with employees is the reverse of the command-and-control model.  It may be the most difficult to accept.  While leaders may feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, they resist trusting others to share the burden.  But a team can do much more than any individual.

The servant leader’s main job is to enable others to do their best work.  If the first two steps above have been taken, this third step can follow naturally.

By listening and asking questions, the servant leader has learned what people need – and built an environment of trust.  By focusing on development, the servant leader has prepared the team for bigger tasks.  

By strategically sharing power, and sharing the load, the servant leader completes the cycle.  With newly freed resources, the servant leader can begin the cycle again. 

Servant leadership isn’t just a fantasy.  It has real applications among some of the most successful organizations in the world.  If you would like to learn more about servant leadership and how it can help your organization, feel free to reach out. 

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.

When his work is done, the people say:

“Amazing: we did it all by ourselves!” 

  Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching


ForeMeta is a place where business leaders learn about self-leadership and about leading their teams and organizations.  We offer both individualized coaching or group coaching to help you, your teams, and your organization achieve greater success and fulfillment.  Please contact Mike@ForeMeta.com

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