What Is Servant Leadership? Definition And How To Apply It

By Kyla Mintz

You've heard of laissez-faire leadership, you've heard of autocratic leadership, but have you ever heard of servant leadership? It's time you did!

Leading a team is rewarding, but — let's be honest — it's not always a walk in the park. There are plenty of things that you need to do if you want to be an effective leader, and one of the most important is to figure out the right leadership style for your team.

Servant leadership is one of the lesser-known management styles, but wow, does it offer some big perks. From building trust and improving company culture to positively impacting performance, servant leadership can be a big blessing to your organization.

So, let's dive into what servant leadership is, what it looks like in the office (whether virtual or traditional), and how you can make it work for your team.

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a management style that proposes that great leaders put their team and organization before their objectives, thus serving the greater good of the company.

The idea of a leader who serves isn't a new one, of course. Countless groups throughout history adopted a similar philosophy, but the idea really entered the world of business with help from Robert K. Greenleaf's essay "The Servant as Leader."

It stands as a testament to the effectiveness of servant leadership that not only has this style survived the test of time, but it's also made a resurgence since Greenleaf's essay defining servant leadership was published in 1970.


Key principles of servant leadership

According to Greenleaf, servant leaders operate under ten key principles.


Servant-leaders should actively listen to their team members without interrupting, becoming distracted, or checking out of the conversation. True listening occurs when you aren't just waiting for your turn to speak but rather are actively processing and understanding what the other person is saying.


Effective leaders try to get to know their team members. This helps build team morale, allows you to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and facilitates trust, which makes you a stronger leader and allows everyone to work better together. Let your team know that you're all equals, working to solve a problem together.


Toxic productivity and other negative work cultures can make work more difficult for employees. As a servant leader, you should actively look for ways to help your team maintain a healthy work-life balance and maximize workplace wellness so that employees can heal, grow, and enjoy their lives and jobs. This applies to you as well. It's important for leaders to also look inward and acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses. Healing and growth will make you an asset to your team and a better leader in the long run.


You must understand what is happening around you to lead your team effectively. Are all those extra meetings actually helping your team? Do certain team members need an extra boost or some additional encouragement? Is anyone getting burned out? Make it your job to know the answers to these questions. Pay attention to what's going on throughout the work week — not just with your project and team but with yourself, your own goals, future risks, and more.


Forcing team members to follow your path isn't always the right way to go. Sometimes gentle persuasion and guidance are enough to influence team members and ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goal.



As a leader, you need to be able to see the big picture rather than get caught up in the details. Your team is relying on you to see how everything fits together and make the best plans that will allow you to achieve your objectives.


Successful servant-leaders learn from the past and apply their new knowledge to future endeavors. Effective servant leaders can create and communicate a timeline and roadmap that will make projects more manageable and keep goals within reach. Foresight is strengthened when you utilize intuition, past experiences, relevant data, and other team members' knowledge. Collaborating with your team can help you avoid roadblocks, find solutions to problems, and develop better products and services.


Effective leaders won't just lead their team toward achievement; they will actively work to empower each member of the team by providing excellent tools, guidance, and examples. With stewardship, team members are now able to move towards the group goals — and help others do the same — even when the leader isn't personally overseeing or assisting their work.

Commitment to people's growth

Reaching goals and milestones are important, but to a true servant leader, helping teammates grow and develop is equally essential. Provide an example of a great leader, then start teaching others how to become something similar.

Building community

Servant leaders can and should do more than just build a positive environment for their team. By empowering individuals and teams, great leaders can also extend their reach to whole companies, organizations, and even communities. This principle focuses on a commitment to expanding your reach and creating connections to empower people to build meaningful relationships with one another.


Servant leadership vs. alternative leadership styles

Like leaders themselves, management types vary wildly. From my-way-or-the-highway autocratic leaders to highly supportive coaching leaders, everyone seems to have their own leadership style. Six of the most common management styles are:

1. Transformational leadership

This leadership method focuses on creating a unified group, facilitating transformation, and looking toward the future. Transformational leaders are often very inspiring, passionate, excited about new opportunities, and dedicated to helping their team develop their skills and strengths.

2. Laissez-faire (delegative) leadership

A delegative leader gives team members much more freedom — in fact, it's basically hands-off leadership. Maybe you'll throw in a quick meeting now and then, but this style is as far away from micromanaging as it gets. This can be very good if you've got a team that you trust to get work done, but more often than not, teams need you to be a little more involved. This is especially true if you are onboarding new employees or introducing changes to your team.

3. Authoritative leadership

These leaders resemble mentors. They have a vision for a future, a plan in place, and the charisma and power to encourage others to follow them toward their goals. Authoritative leaders can be inspiring and motivating, especially if they take the time to understand each team member's unique strengths, weaknesses, and skills. These leaders must be careful to guide team members rather than micromanage them.


4. Autocratic (authoritarian) leadership

Autocratic leaders are very much a "my-way-or-the-highway" setup. In this style, the leader makes all the decisions without waiting to collect input from the rest of the team. While this style can be useful in situations that need tight control and focus, it's not the most effective long-term solution, as authoritarian leaders are more likely to be seen as micromanaging, intimidating, and unapproachable.

5. Managerial (transactional) leadership

Highly structured and very leader-first, the managerial structure revolves around the idea that team members will need outside motivation to reach a goal. As such, many managerial leaders introduce some kind of reward or punishment system to help motivate their team. Managerial leadership styles often rely heavily on tried-and-tested procedures, roles, and routines and may offer less flexible working conditions than you would find under other management styles.

6. Democratic (participative) leadership

Participative leadership involves listening to input and discussion from team members rather than allowing the leader to make all the significant choices in every situation. By involving everyone in decision-making processes, the team is more likely to identify issues and develop useful solutions. Allowing team members greater authority can also positively impact creativity, trust, commitment, collaboration, and communication. This strategy lends itself well to remote and hybrid teams.


The benefits of a servant leadership approach

Each leadership style offers unique pros and cons, and servant leadership is no different. What is different is that this method of leading emphasizes the importance of investing in your team rather than focusing on the leader's desires and needs. As a result, servant leadership offers enticing benefits such as: 

  • A welcoming and inclusive culture where teams find it easier to grow together, maintain morale, and collaborate.
  • More motivated employees and a reduced risk of turnover.
  • Increased client and customer satisfaction as teams become happier, more efficient, and more effective.
  • A stronger company culture that appeals to employees.
  • Deeper, more trusting, and more meaningful relationships between leaders, team members, and clients.
  • An increased sense of ownership, leading to increased commitment and work ethic.
  • Increased company performance and the knowledge that decisions are being made in the best interest of the company and its employees.
  • The opportunity to help team members grow and develop into effective future leaders.

When is servant leadership most effective?

Certain situations often call for one distinct type of leadership style, and servant leadership is no different. This style will benefit leaders who are looking to make an impact in their organization or community and who are willing to work hard to create an environment that makes all employees feel welcome.
This style is especially popular among non-profit organizations, though you can adopt a servant leadership style in any position in any industry.


How to apply a servant leadership style

Ready to enjoy the benefits of servant leadership? If so, you're not alone. All around the world, thousands of managers, leaders, and organizations have adopted this approach in person and online — so how can you join their ranks?

Adopt a service-oriented mindset

As a servant-leader, you must let go of the idea that you are in charge and that your team members are merely there to follow your directions. This traditional mindset places leaders at the top of the power hierarchy — but that hierarchy has no place in servant leadership. Instead, cultivate the mindset that you are there to serve, empower, and uplift your team members by giving them the help, tools, and guidance that they need to succeed now and in the future.

Lead by example

A servant-leader won't ask team members to do anything that they wouldn't be willing to do themselves. You should always be willing to get out on the sales floor and work shoulder-to-shoulder with your employees. Additionally, a great servant-leader will also embody the organization's values and provide an example of the types of positive behaviors that the team needs to embrace.

Develop empathy

To better understand and serve your employees, you need to put yourself in their shoes. Empathy is an intrinsic element in servant leadership because it allows you to see, understand, and meet your team members' needs. Some ways you can develop empathy include practicing active listening, helping others, sharing your feelings, creating space for genuine conversations, and withholding judgment.


Hone your active listening skills

One of the most important elements of effective communication is learning how to listen. Servant leadership emphasizes listening to your team and acknowledging their unique input, opinions, and points of view. Active listening — the act of seeking to understand and reply appropriately to conversations — is a necessary skill for servant-leaders.
What does active listening look like? Some of the core components include listening without interrupting, restating or paraphrasing points, employing open-ended questions, maintaining eye contact, etc. Whether you employ these skills during team meetings or on a virtual coffee break, the outcome is the same.

Encourage collaboration and growth

One of your jobs as a servant-leader is to help your employees learn, grow, and become leaders in their own right. Make sure your team members feel like they matter. Provide opportunities for employees to collaborate, make decisions, share their insights, and take the initiative. To do this, you may need to step back a bit and let your employees make mistakes, learn from them, and become stronger and more able workers and leaders.

Prioritize your team's wellbeing

Your team should know that you're there for them, and not just when it comes to meeting project goals and deadlines. Yes, it's important to pursue your organizational goals, but not at the expense of your team. As a servant-leader, you should be concerned with building team morale, keeping a healthy work-life balance, and ensuring inclusivity as well as meeting sales quotas or project deadlines.

Be the kind of leader your mom would be proud of

To sum it all up, if you want to be a great servant leader, do your best to make your mother proud. A truly successful servant-leader: 

  • Leads with compassion.
  • Stays humble.
  • Puts others first.
  • Makes work more enjoyable.
  • Embodies positive values and behaviors.
  • Is ethical, honest, and trustworthy.
  • Remains enthusiastic.
  • Does their best to leave communities and individuals better off than they were before.  

And if that's not a worthy goal to write home about, then we don't know what is!


Success stories: servant leadership in action

Okay, now that we've talked your ear off about servant leadership, you're probably wondering what it looks like out there in the real world. Here are a few real-life examples of organizations and people that exemplify servant leadership.

1. The Container Store

Love organization? So does The Container Store — but boxes and baskets aren't all that this business does well. It also took a unique approach to leadership that resulted in one of the most enjoyable work environments big box stores will ever know.
A 2014 Forbes interview with then-CEO Kip Tindell revealed that the business purposefully implemented an employee-first culture with a focus on finding great employees and then helping them develop successful careers. Not only that, but The Container Store also recognized the need to balance work with fun and ensured that their stores didn't resort to inflexible policies. Instead, they adopted servant leadership-oriented practices such as a focus on communication, a growth mindset, and an air of enthusiasm regarding their work.

2. Balfour Beatty

Balfour Beatty has been providing military, multifamily, and student housing services to clients for decades. But that's not the only thing that makes them special. This company has a fantastic approach to building team culture and leadership that contributes to its continued success in the real estate industry.
This organization understands that exceptional employees contribute to exceptional results. To that end, Balfour Beatty has developed a strong company culture with:

  • Emphasis on continuous learning and growth.
  • A people-first approach that guides all their actions.
  • An emphasis on honesty, integrity, communication, and constructive feedback.
  • Opportunities to collaborate and make a difference.
  • Leaders who empathize, listen, and value their team.
  • A commitment to stand up and make a difference.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for his powerful words, commendable goals, and influential actions. But did you know that he is also one of the most compelling examples of servant leadership as well? Dr. King embodied the servant leadership style through his listening and communication styles, persuasion efforts, and desire to heal people and communities in a bid for a better future for everyone.

4. Mother Theresa

Mother Theresa devoted herself to the service of others at a very young age. As a charity worker in India, she dedicated her time and life to serving the ill, sick, dying, orphaned, and poor around her, doing everything in her power to make lives better. Not only did she change the lives of those that she helped, but her actions have since inspired thousands to follow in her footsteps. She is an exemplary model of listening, empathy, stewardship, and building community.


How to transition to a servant leadership style

Becoming an effective servant-leader doesn't happen overnight. If you want to transform your leadership style, there are a few steps you'll have to take to do so successfully.

Assess your current leadership approach

How do you work with your team right now? Do you sit back and let people do what they need to do but help when things get rough? Have you completely stepped back from leading to do your own thing? Some leadership styles are only a small step away from the servant leadership approach, while others have fewer similarities.

Adopt key servant leadership behaviors

Once you discover what your current leadership style is, take notes on any crossover it has to a servant leadership approach. Then determine which behaviors you will need to spend more time working on. Remember that the ten key principles of servant leadership include: 

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to people's growth
  10. Building community 

Don't try to adopt all ten behaviors at once — no one's perfect, after all! Instead, choose the principles that will benefit your team the most and adopt them. As you continue to exercise your servant leadership capabilities, you'll find that the principles gradually become second nature.

Commit to continuous improvement

There may be times when you fall back on old leadership habits or ineffective leadership styles — and that's okay! Practice makes perfect. As long as you're focusing on your team and organization, you're going to make a great leader. When you make a mistake, reflect on it, learn from it, and then use it to become better in the future.


Lead your team (to great online spaces)

One of the key components of servant leadership is facilitating open and honest communication between your team. When you do this, you'll also be increasing productivity, efficiency, creativity, happiness, and much more.

Choosing the best communication methods can take time — that's why we're here to help you kickstart your journey.

Kumospace is a virtual office platform that makes it easier than ever to connect with your team, even if you're a fully remote or hybrid team. With our platform, your team can enjoy everything they need to succeed. From whiteboard and document sharing to private spaces for 1-on-1 meetings to virtual games and party ideas for team bonding, Kumospace has it all!

Sound like something your team can use? Don't wait to create your space! Check out our free trials, or get in touch with us today for help getting started.

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Headshot for Kyla Mintz
Kyla Mintz

Kyla is part of the Marketing team at Kumospace, where she helps run the social media accounts and creates content. Kyla has many different passions outside of work, including volleyball, traveling, and restaurant dining.

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