What Is Servant Leadership? Servant Leadership In A Nutshell

The term servant leadership was first coined by researcher Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay titled The Servant As Leader. Servant leadership is a leadership style and philosophy that puts the needs, growth, and wellbeing of subordinates first.

Concept OverviewServant Leadership is a leadership philosophy that places the leader’s primary focus on serving and empowering others, including team members, employees, and the community. The core principle of this approach is that leaders should prioritize the needs, well-being, and personal growth of those they lead. Servant leaders act as facilitators and enablers, working to nurture a culture of collaboration, empathy, and ethical decision-making within their organizations. This leadership style emphasizes humility, selflessness, and a commitment to making a positive impact on the lives of others. Servant leadership can be applied in various settings where building strong relationships and fostering a sense of community are important.
Key Elements– Servant Leadership comprises several key elements: – Service Orientation: Leaders prioritize the needs and growth of others above their own. – Empathy: They seek to understand and empathize with the perspectives and feelings of their team members. – Empowerment: Servant leaders empower individuals by providing opportunities for growth and development. – Humility: They demonstrate humility by acknowledging their limitations and valuing the contributions of others. – Ethical Decision-Making: Ethical principles guide their decision-making and actions. – Community Building: Servant leaders foster a sense of community and collaboration within their organizations.
Applications– Servant Leadership can be applied in various settings, including: – Corporate and Business: Leaders in the corporate world adopt servant leadership to create a more engaged and motivated workforce, which can lead to improved business performance. – Nonprofits and NGOs: Servant leadership principles are often central to nonprofit organizations’ missions of social impact and community service. – Education: Educational leaders use this approach to create a nurturing and supportive learning environment for students and educators. – Religious and Spiritual: In religious or spiritual contexts, servant leadership aligns with principles of selflessness and service to others. – Healthcare: Healthcare leaders apply servant leadership to provide patient-centered care and support for healthcare professionals.
Benefits– Embracing Servant Leadership offers several benefits: – Enhanced Employee Engagement: Servant leaders often have more engaged and motivated teams. – Stronger Relationships: Focusing on empathy and community-building fosters stronger relationships within organizations. – Empowerment: Individuals feel empowered to take initiative and contribute to their fullest potential. – Ethical Culture: Ethical decision-making is promoted, leading to a culture of integrity and trust. – Positive Impact: Servant leaders can make a positive impact on the well-being and personal growth of their team members. – Organizational Resilience: Organizations with servant leaders may exhibit greater resilience in times of change or crisis.
Challenges– Challenges associated with Servant Leadership may include: – Perceived Weakness: Some may perceive servant leaders as weak or indecisive due to their emphasis on humility and others’ needs. – Balancing Needs: Balancing the needs of individuals with organizational goals and performance can be challenging. – Resistance to Change: Team members may resist changes associated with a shift to servant leadership if they are accustomed to a different leadership style. – Overcommitment: Servant leaders may risk overcommitting themselves to serving others, potentially leading to burnout. – Misinterpretation: The principles of servant leadership can be misinterpreted if not communicated effectively. – Patience: Practicing servant leadership may require patience as it may take time to see the full impact.
Prevention and Mitigation– To address challenges associated with Servant Leadership, leaders can: – Communication: Communicate the principles and benefits of servant leadership to team members to avoid misinterpretation. – Balancing Act: Seek to strike a balance between serving the needs of others and achieving organizational goals. – Empowerment: Empower team members to take initiative and contribute to decision-making. – Self-Care: Servant leaders should prioritize self-care to prevent burnout and overcommitment. – Change Management: Provide support and guidance when transitioning to a servant leadership style to address resistance to change. – Feedback and Reflection: Regularly seek feedback and engage in self-reflection to continuously improve servant leadership practices.

Understanding servant leadership

Greenleaf believed the primary goal of a servant leader was to ensure subordinates became healthier, wiser, and more autonomous to a point where the subordinates themselves embodied servant leadership qualities. 

He also noted that servant leadership began:

with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, and serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an usual power drive or to acquire material possessions.

Indeed, servant leadership seeks to move management away from traditional authoritarian leadership styles which focus on structure, power, hierarchy, and rigid give-take relationships.

Servant leaders believe that when their team members feel personally and professionally fulfilled, they produce higher quality work more productively and efficiently. 

The ten qualities of servant leadership

There are ten generally accepted qualities, or principles, of servant leadership:


Servant leaders don’t just speak but also actively listen to what their subordinates have to say.

Ample opportunity is given to every individual to ensure their concerns, observations, or growth opportunities are considered.


Or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.

Servant leaders are empathic leaders and care about their followers on a personal level.


Servant leaders also recognize the importance of solving problems before moving on to new projects.

Dealing with setbacks and challenges as they occur helps the team settle differences and move forward.


Effective leadership also depends on self-awareness, a highly important but sometimes overlooked ability.

Servant leaders need to be aware of the particular strengths and weaknesses in themselves and others.


Servant leaders motivate staff by explaining why a course of action is the most preferred.

This approach contrasts with autocratic leaders who instruct subordinates with little explanation or reasoning.


Or an ability to think beyond small tasks and communicate the importance of larger goals to subordinates.


Servant leaders understand the importance of learning from their mistakes and help their followers do the same.


Servant leadership is also characterized by responsibility and dependability.

Subordinates tend to have a higher degree of trust in servant leaders and feel comfortable confiding in them where necessary.

Servant leaders are also reliable stewards of company assets and mission.

Commitment to growth

As noted earlier, commitment to growth is a fundamental quality of servant leadership.

These individuals lead by example but also encourage subordinates to do the same, thereby enhancing personal and professional growth.

Community focus

Lastly, servant leaders seek to identify ways social and task-orientated communities can be built amongst those employed in the organization.

This approach addresses the feeling of loss many are experiencing as the world shifts away from local communities toward larger, faceless institutions.

Key takeaways

  • Servant leadership is a leadership style and philosophy that puts the needs, growth, and wellbeing of subordinates first. The approach was first mentioned by researcher Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970.
  • Fundamental to servant leadership is the ability for a leader to prioritize the needs and personal growth of their followers above their own. Somewhat paradoxically, servant leaders have a desire to serve first and lead second.
  • Servant leadership can be defined by ten principles: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth, and community focus.

Key Highlights

  • Definition and Origin: Servant leadership is a leadership style and philosophy introduced by researcher Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay titled “The Servant As Leader.” It focuses on prioritizing the needs, growth, and well-being of subordinates over the leader’s own interests.
  • Core Principles of Servant Leadership:
    • Prioritizing Subordinates: Servant leaders aim to help their team members become healthier, wiser, and more autonomous. Their primary goal is to serve the needs of their followers.
    • Natural Desire to Serve: Greenleaf suggests that a servant leader’s journey begins with a genuine desire to serve others before aspiring to lead, distinguishing them from those motivated by power or material gains.
    • Contrast with Authoritarian Leadership: Servant leadership stands in contrast to traditional authoritarian leadership, which focuses on hierarchy, power, and rigid relationships. Instead, servant leaders emphasize empathy, empowerment, and personal fulfillment.
  • Ten Qualities of Servant Leadership:
    • Listening: Servant leaders actively listen to their team members, providing ample opportunities for input and addressing concerns.
    • Empathy: They demonstrate an ability to understand and share their followers’ feelings, fostering a personal connection.
    • Healing: Servant leaders address problems and setbacks before moving on to new projects, promoting team cohesion.
    • Awareness: Self-awareness is crucial for effective leadership, understanding strengths and weaknesses in themselves and others.
    • Persuasion: Servant leaders motivate through explanation and reasoning, rather than autocratic instruction.
    • Conceptualization: They communicate larger goals beyond small tasks, inspiring their team with a broader vision.
    • Foresight: Servant leaders learn from mistakes and help their followers do the same, guiding future actions.
    • Stewardship: They demonstrate responsibility, trustworthiness, and dependability, earning the trust of their team.
    • Commitment to Growth: Servant leaders lead by example and encourage personal and professional growth in their followers.
    • Community Focus: They build social and task-oriented communities within the organization, countering the trend towards impersonal institutions.
  • Impact on Leadership: Servant leadership emphasizes nurturing a supportive and empowering environment where team members are motivated to excel. This approach fosters collaboration, growth, and a strong sense of purpose.
  • Key Takeaways:
    • Servant leadership prioritizes the needs, growth, and well-being of followers, as introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970.
    • It involves a leader’s commitment to serve first and lead second, contrasting with power-driven leadership styles.
    • The ten key qualities of servant leadership include listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth, and community focus.

Types of Organizational Structures

Organizational Structures

Siloed Organizational Structures


In a functional organizational structure, groups and teams are organized based on function. Therefore, this organization follows a top-down structure, where most decision flows from top management to bottom. Thus, the bottom of the organization mostly follows the strategy detailed by the top of the organization.



Open Organizational Structures




In a flat organizational structure, there is little to no middle management between employees and executives. Therefore it reduces the space between employees and executives to enable an effective communication flow within the organization, thus being faster and leaner.

Connected Business Frameworks

Portfolio Management

Project portfolio management (PPM) is a systematic approach to selecting and managing a collection of projects aligned with organizational objectives. That is a business process of managing multiple projects which can be identified, prioritized, and managed within the organization. PPM helps organizations optimize their investments by allocating resources efficiently across all initiatives.

Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model

Harvard Business School professor Dr. John Kotter has been a thought-leader on organizational change, and he developed Kotter’s 8-step change model, which helps business managers deal with organizational change. Kotter created the 8-step model to drive organizational transformation.

Nadler-Tushman Congruence Model

The Nadler-Tushman Congruence Model was created by David Nadler and Michael Tushman at Columbia University. The Nadler-Tushman Congruence Model is a diagnostic tool that identifies problem areas within a company. In the context of business, congruence occurs when the goals of different people or interest groups coincide.

McKinsey’s Seven Degrees of Freedom

McKinsey’s Seven Degrees of Freedom for Growth is a strategy tool. Developed by partners at McKinsey and Company, the tool helps businesses understand which opportunities will contribute to expansion, and therefore it helps to prioritize those initiatives.

Mintzberg’s 5Ps

Mintzberg’s 5Ps of Strategy is a strategy development model that examines five different perspectives (plan, ploy, pattern, position, perspective) to develop a successful business strategy. A sixth perspective has been developed over the years, called Practice, which was created to help businesses execute their strategies.

COSO Framework

The COSO framework is a means of designing, implementing, and evaluating control within an organization. The COSO framework’s five components are control environment, risk assessment, control activities, information and communication, and monitoring activities. As a fraud risk management tool, businesses can design, implement, and evaluate internal control procedures.

TOWS Matrix

The TOWS Matrix is an acronym for Threats, Opportunities, Weaknesses, and Strengths. The matrix is a variation on the SWOT Analysis, and it seeks to address criticisms of the SWOT Analysis regarding its inability to show relationships between the various categories.

Lewin’s Change Management

Lewin’s change management model helps businesses manage the uncertainty and resistance associated with change. Kurt Lewin, one of the first academics to focus his research on group dynamics, developed a three-stage model. He proposed that the behavior of individuals happened as a function of group behavior.

Organizational Structure Case Studies

Airbnb Organizational Structure

Airbnb follows a holacracy model, or a sort of flat organizational structure, where teams are organized for projects, to move quickly and iterate fast, thus keeping a lean and flexible approach. Airbnb also moved to a hybrid model where employees can work from anywhere and meet on a quarterly basis to plan ahead, and connect to each other.

eBay Organizational Structure

eBay was until recently a multi-divisional (M-form) organization with semi-autonomous units grouped according to the services they provided. Today, eBay has a single division called Marketplace, which includes eBay and its international iterations.

IBM Organizational Structure

IBM has an organizational structure characterized by product-based divisions, enabling its strategy to develop innovative and competitive products in multiple markets. IBM is also characterized by function-based segments that support product development and innovation for each product-based division, which include Global Markets, Integrated Supply Chain, Research, Development, and Intellectual Property.

Sony Organizational Structure

Sony has a matrix organizational structure primarily based on function-based groups and product/business divisions. The structure also incorporates geographical divisions. In 2021, Sony announced the overhauling of its organizational structure, changing its name from Sony Corporation to Sony Group Corporation to better identify itself as the headquarters of the Sony group of companies skewing the company toward product divisions.

Facebook Organizational Structure

Facebook is characterized by a multi-faceted matrix organizational structure. The company utilizes a flat organizational structure in combination with corporate function-based teams and product-based or geographic divisions. The flat organization structure is organized around the leadership of Mark Zuckerberg, and the key executives around him. On the other hand, the function-based teams based on the main corporate functions (like HR, product management, investor relations, and so on).

Google Organizational Structure

Google (Alphabet) has a cross-functional (team-based) organizational structure known as a matrix structure with some degree of flatness. Over the years, as the company scaled and it became a tech giant, its organizational structure is morphing more into a centralized organization.

Tesla Organizational Structure

Tesla is characterized by a functional organizational structure with aspects of a hierarchical structure. Tesla does employ functional centers that cover all business activities, including finance, sales, marketing, technology, engineering, design, and the offices of the CEO and chairperson. Tesla’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, decide the strategic direction of the company, with international operations given little autonomy.

McDonald’s Organizational Structure

McDonald’s has a divisional organizational structure where each division – based on geographical location – is assigned operational responsibilities and strategic objectives. The main geographical divisions are the US, internationally operated markets, and international developmental licensed markets. And on the other hand, the hierarchical leadership structure is organized around regional and functional divisions.

Walmart Organizational Structure

Walmart has a hybrid hierarchical-functional organizational structure, otherwise referred to as a matrix structure that combines multiple approaches. On the one hand, Walmart follows a hierarchical structure, where the current CEO Doug McMillon is the only employee without a direct superior, and directives are sent from top-level management. On the other hand, the function-based structure of Walmart is used to categorize employees according to their particular skills and experience.

Microsoft Organizational Structure

Microsoft has a product-type divisional organizational structure based on functions and engineering groups. As the company scaled over time it also became more hierarchical, however still keeping its hybrid approach between functions, engineering groups, and management.

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