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July 18, 2021

Organizational leaders in all types and sizes of businesses often think carefully about the principles that guide their work. One framework for leadership that appeals to some professionals is called servant leadership, a term first coined by business professional and consultant Robert K. Greenleaf. This leadership philosophy can help inform your own development and performance as a leader in the workplace. In this article, we define servant leadership and explain Greenleaf's 10 principles of servant leadership, as first discussed in his 1970 essay "The Servant as a Leader."

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a framework for leadership that emphasizes what a leader can offer their organization and their community. The phrase was first used by a successful businessperson, researcher and consultant named Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, when he wrote an essay titled "The Servant as a Leader." This article features 10 ideas that can help leaders focus on providing support and attending to their teams' needs, which is a key tenet of the servant leadership philosophy.

Some researchers have connected servant leadership attitudes with higher employee retention, strong working relationships and innovation. These outcomes can be associated with a company's structure as well, and servant leadership is usually more successful in more democratic organizations.

Principles of servant leadership

Servant leadership usually works well in organizations that are more democratic or decentralized. Since servant leaders focus on their team members first, they are also usually most effective in situations in which team members set goals and help make important decisions. If this seems like a leadership framework that might work for you, consider seeking out Greenleaf's article for more information. To get you started, here are some more details about each principle to help support your learning and growth:


According to Greenleaf, good leaders practice active listening by asking questions and seeking to understand their team members first. This can help equip you with the information you need to help support their success, which in turn often becomes the company's success. For example, you might use responsive body language and ask clarifying questions to show a team member that you wish to understand what they are communicating.


Understanding how people feel and why they feel that way is an important aspect of servant leadership. This can help leaders better understand their teams and serve them more effectively. This remains true even when you are implementing corrective measures, according to Greenleaf, when you might disapprove or reject their behavior while still respecting their humanity. Consider showing empathy by responding appropriately to team members' communications and contributions.


A functioning team must be "whole" on an individual and collective level, according to Greenleaf, if they are going to perform effectively. Servant leaders foster environments that support the physical, mental and emotional well-being of each person they lead. Try emphasizing healing and wholeness in your team building exercises, for example, and in your conversations with individuals.


Strong servant leaders can reflect on their own thought processes and behaviors, according to Greenleaf, and make sense of the way those things can impact other people. This can support organizational effectiveness by enhancing leaders' ability to motivate and inspire their teams. Try periodically pausing to reflect on your actions and decisions by journaling or having a conversation with a trusted colleague or mentor.


Servant leaders rarely operate hierarchically, or provide strict directives to their collaborators. Instead, they use persuasion to convince others to agree with their decisions and take action accordingly. Try using rhetorical devices such as appeals to credibility, emotion and logic when presenting ideas to your team.


In servant leadership, thinking about broad-based organizational challenges and creating solutions is often referred to as conceptualization. Leaders who can conceptualize benefit their organizations by guiding their teams in accordance with their company's mission and values. They are often also key players in the development of those mission and values statements, evaluating them as appropriate and revising when necessary. Try using brainstorming techniques to think about the scope of each project.


Making meanings from previous experience and applying that meaning to new situations is sometimes referred to as foresight. Servant leadership values foresight because it can empower teams to address unique and evolving challenges. Foresight also sometimes relies on intuition, according to Greenleaf, and it can be useful to notice that sense as well. Consider using mindfulness techniques or note taking strategies to think critically about past experiences and refer to them in new circumstances.


According to Greenleaf, each member of an organization carries some responsibility for the stewardship of the organization. This means that every type and level of member can contribute to the group's overall mission. Stewardship also means determining the relationship between individual and collective values, and applying those to the benefit of all involved. Consider implementing formal leadership feedback processes, for example, or organization-wide brainstorming sessions to help reiterate the importance of each person involved.

Commitment to the growth of people

Servant leadership emphasizes the intrinsic value of each team member. As such, servant leaders usually find it important to support their people's growth and development. Effective servant leaders often do this by paying attention to each individual's learning needs and either providing or supporting appropriate professional development opportunities. Try offering in-person or online training opportunities, either on topics selected by leadership or by team members themselves. If possible, consider measures like subsidizing tuition for opportunities like college courses as well.

Building community

Providing team members with the opportunity to develop camaraderie and community is another key tenet of servant leadership. Building community honors team members' intrinsic value and can support their performance by helping them feel valued. Try hosting team-building activities regularly to support a sense of community on your team. Functions such as retreats, barbecues and group outings can also foster a sense of community. Providing ample room for productive collaboration can be a good way to support community in your organization as well.

Source: Indeed
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