Servant Leadership Examples

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What Exactly is Servant Leadership?

This is a concept that I first heard of in grad school but didn’t give much thought to until I was taking a class called, “The Psychology and Practice of Leadership.” We were exploring theories on what makes a good leader, and we had been talking about different styles and constructs of leadership. The term “servant leadership” was brought up, but I don’t think we talked much about what that meant and how it could be applied practically.

My professor at the time really opened my eyes to this topic, and now after taking graduate courses in organizational behavior and reading a lot of research on the subject since then, I am so deeply convinced that this is a philosophy and concept that should be used by everyone in leadership positions, regardless of how big or small the organization is.

The Gist of It:

In short, servant leadership means putting your followers’ needs ahead of your own wants. The focus isn’t about pursuing power or mastery, but rather equipping and empowering those around you. Servant leaders are, first and foremost, servants who seek to empower the people around them. Great leaders are often self-serving in some way or another at times–it’s just human nature. However, servant leadership is about being more selfless than selfish with your power of influence.

What are the Benefits? Why Should I Care?

Servant leadership is an approach that can improve your interactions with others and strengthen the bonds among people in organizations.

When you lead like a servant, it helps to:

Empower followers Strengthen and improve relationships Build trust and better teamwork Improve creativity Increase loyalty and job satisfaction Create a more compassionate, safe work environment Promote long-term thinking and perspective

When you lead like a servant, it also helps you:  Gain more insight into yourself and others.  Practice important skills such as active listening, effective conflict resolution, and empathy. Develop better problem-solving abilities.   Learn how to better serve those around you and work with others who have different values and life backgrounds.

As a leader, you can be successful in many ways.  But if you want to truly make an impact at work—if you want to build an organization that lasts for decades, not years—you need to connect with people on a deeper level.  And that’s what servant leadership will help you do.

Servant Leadership Examples:

John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jesus of Nazareth…

Great leaders and managers do more than just take care of themselves–they put others’ needs above their own.  For example, you might read a book on servant leadership and think to yourself that it sounds like a great idea to try out, but you’re already overworked and exercise little to no power over your employees and team members.  Servant leadership isn’t about demanding or expecting people to treat you a certain way, but rather encouraging and modeling the behavior that will inspire them to do better for themselves and others.  It’s a way of thinking, a philosophy that you live out every single day.

Companies that practice servant leadership encourage their employees to learn and grow with them as a team.  For example, some companies offer tuition reimbursement or education packages for those who want to further their skills and knowledge by getting an MBA or other degree while working full-time at the company.  It is extremely common for large companies to offer these types of benefits (especially for their white-collar workers), but it’s not as common among smaller businesses where servant leadership would be most valuable.

Servant leadership isn’t about bosses or managers.  Leadership positions are all about others–it’s about bringing the best out in people and empowering them to do great things.  Servant leadership is a philosophy that you can apply everyday at work, in your personal lives…in nearly every area of your life–not just management or business situations.

Who Was the Original Example of This Kind of Leadership, Anyway?

Food for thought: If you think about it, Jesus is the original example of servant leadership.  What did he do?  He served and helped those around him.

I know…it sounds like a super cheesy answer! But whether you agree or not (or believe him to be the Son of God), this is still an important question.  It’s worth spending some time thinking about why Jesus is considered the original example of servant leadership. Think about it in terms of what he did, how he lived…or didn’t live, actually–Jesus wasn’t exactly living the high life during his Earthly ministry.


Servant Leadership Theory:  Who came up with it?

Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay ” The Servant as Leader,” published in 1970, is generally regarded as the first public expression of servant leadership.  In this article, Greenleaf presented the idea that leaders should focus on serving those they lead and cultivating an environment where everyone can become a leader. He also introduced the idea that leadership is about giving power away rather than taking it.  Greenleaf’s essay was the first modern presentation of ideas that had been developing for decades, even centuries.

A few years after writing his influential essay, Greenleaf founded the Center for Applied Ethics in 1970 to further research and promote his philosophy of servant leadership. He served as its CEO until his death in 1990.  In the years since, the Center for Applied Ethics has been renamed as The Robert K. Greenleaf Center and remains a resource to leaders throughout the world who want to incorporate these ideas into their own leadership practices.

Robert K. Greenleaf is also considered by many to be the Father of Servant Leadership.  Check out his short bio here:

While Greenleaf’s work remains highly influential in the fields of management and leadership, and servant leadership is practiced and promoted by many leaders throughout the world today, it has yet to become a widely known or accepted approach.  You might be thinking that you’ve never heard of this type of leadership or that you don’t know anyone who thinks of themselves as practicing it.

That’s OK!!  It doesn’t mean it’s not good, or effective…just that it’s taken time for the idea to catch on outside of academic circles.

It takes time to develop theories like this and make them “catchy” enough so they will be passed on and learned.  But the popularity of servant leadership has grown over the years, especially in academic circles.

There are even online tests you can take to see if you are a good fit for servant leadership! Try these out to see how it might work for you:

Today there are many leaders who have read about servant leadership and are applying it to their own leadership styles.  And, even if you don’t consider yourself a practitioner of servant leadership, I bet there’s something here that can help you be a better leader or help your organization improve!

What is (and isn’t) Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership theory is sometimes mistaken for a form of democratic leadership.  This misunderstanding stems from the idea that a servant leader and their followers share power and influence.

While Greenleaf did encourage leaders to follow his philosophy, he also believed that the theory was applicable to all people in all walks of life. He didn’t want servant-leadership to be limited to business settings or just to leaders of followers–he wanted it to be available to everyone.

Servant leadership can also be confused with being a “people pleaser.”  That’s not the same thing either!

But, if you are managing people or teams, or even if you are just leading your family, servant leadership could teach you important skills for improving communication, trust, and teamwork.

What are the Principles?

There are many principles that can be viewed as foundational to servant leadership theory.  Some of these include: Trust Leadership is about creating an environment where others can become leaders Empathy Knowing what others need Integrity Openness Having faith in people’s ability to change People development “Using power for the good of people”

10 principles of servant leadership were suggested by Greenleaf: listening; empathy; healing; awareness; persuasion; conceptization; foresight; stewardship; commitment to the growth of people; enabling others to act.

How does a Servant Leader Act?

Servant leaders focus on helping their followers in order to help everyone succeed in an organization.  They create a vision for what success can look like and help people be successful by giving them the tools they need to do the job.

A servant leader may take on tasks that other leaders might not or delegate those tasks to others who are more suited to accomplish them.

Servant leaders focus first on understanding their followers’ needs and then helping them grow and develop as individuals.  They believe in people’s abilities and foster creative thinking among their followers by encouraging risk-taking.

Servant leaders also focus first on organizational success rather than personal glory.  That doesn’t mean they don’t strive for their own success, but it does mean that they show others how to be successful too.  Servant leaders are often great mentors who help others learn new skills before they move on to other opportunities in the company.

How Can You Practice Servant Leadership?

Greenleaf suggests that there are several ways you can practice servant leadership today! Here are some suggestions:

1. Listen more than you speak.

2. Get to know your followers on a personal level–learn what they care about, where their interests lie, and how they would like to grow in their careers.

3. Share your knowledge with others.  Give credit when appropriate and take responsibility for mistakes you make.

5. Encourage risk-taking and creative thinking among your followers.

6. Put the needs of your followers and organization before your own.

7. Mentor others and share your wisdom with them!  Help them grow as individuals and succeed in their roles at work.

8. Always strive to learn more about yourself, those you lead, and how you can strengthen teams around you by practicing servant leadership.

9. Ask your followers what you can do to best support them and how you can help them grow personally and professionally.  Don’t assume that you know what they need–ask them!

10. Be open, honest, and humble in all of this work!

What are the Benefits? Why Should I Care

What Is the Role of a Servant Leader?

servant leader’s role is to be the steward of a group’s resources and to teach other leaders to serve others while still achieving the goals set forth by the business. Who Is a Good Example of a Servant Leader? Dr. Martin Luther King assumed a leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement and chose to champion a non-violent approach to civil disobedience. He was very successful in motivating millions of people across the United States to join his cause.

What About Negative Examples of Servant Leadership (like Steve Jobs)?  Is it Really Possible to Be a Good or Great Leader Without Being Self-Serving at All Times?

I haven’t read too many biographies on the topic of servant leadership, but I think that Steve Jobs’ biography written by Walter Isaacson would be a great example to take a look at.  Jobs wasn’t a perfect leader, and there were times when he probably made decisions based more on ego than service, but overall his leadership style was one of servant leadership, and he remained committed to it despite his many personal flaws.  Overall, not only would I recommend Jobs’ biography, but also this book (you can read my review on Goodreads ).

Who Is a Bad Example of a Servant Leader?

Donald Trump is an example of someone who has found success as a leader, but not through serving others.  He earned his fame and fortune by taking advantage of people and making decisions solely to benefit himself.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Practice Servant Leadership?  Is it Really Appropriate in Every Situation?    When is it Necessary or Appropriate?

I think it would be helpful to look at the research and studies on servant leadership, but this topic could probably fuel an entire blog post in itself.  That said, in my opinion, if everyone in a company (big or small) tried their best to practice servant leadership for a week, the business would be a more productive and happier place.  I realize that’s a bold statement, but I think it’s true!

In short, servant leadership is a philosophy everyone should strive to employ–whether you’re a manager or not.  What does your company or organization do to practice servant leadership?    And if you’re a servant leader, how has it made an impact on your life?


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