Servant leadership: How to lead by serving your team

Afbeelding bijdrager Team AsanaTeam Asana
3 februari 2024
10 min. leestijd
Zie sjabloon


Finding the right leadership style is no easy feat. It has to feel natural to you, be accepted within your organization, and effective with your team members. To discover the best way to lead your team, try learning the ins and outs of different leadership styles to become the best leader for your team.

Kurt Lewin (authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire), Daniel Goleman (emotional leadership theory), and Bernard M. Bass (transformational leadership) are all well-known leadership researchers. Perhaps a lesser known but nonetheless interesting approach to leadership was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970s: servant leadership.

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership approach that puts serving others above all other priorities. Rather than managing for results, a servant leader focuses on creating an environment in which their team can thrive and get their highest-impact work done.

[inline illustration] What is servant leadership (infographic)

Robert K. Greenleaf distinguished between two different types of leaders: servant-first and leader-first.

  • A leader-first leader will be more likely to focus on being direct and achieving personal and professional goals. Their main focus will be to grow their own career through their team’s performance and output.

  • A servant-first leader surrenders most of their authority and puts their team first. It’s a selfless type of leadership that focuses on the well-being and long-term growth of team members.

Although the words “leader” and “servant” may seem paradoxical, leaders who serve their team by encouraging growth, offering a sense of purpose, and presenting a clear vision create an environment in which team members feel welcomed and supported.

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Servant leadership vs. traditional leadership

So how does servant leadership compare to more traditional leadership styles?

[inline illustration] Servant leaders vs. traditional leaders (infographic)

The biggest difference between traditional and servant leaders is where their motivation lies. While traditional leaders care mostly about their own advancement, servant leaders want to see their whole team grow and succeed. 

A traditional leader will measure success through results and prioritize shareholders over their customers and teammates. A servant leader puts their team first, customers second, and shareholders last. While this may not be the fastest way to success, it can be more sustainable. 

Finally, a traditional leader will use their authoritative rank to stand above others, which reflects in their communication style as well. Servant leaders view leadership as an opportunity to serve others, so they’ll focus on listening and understanding their teammates versus speaking to and commanding things from them.

Regardless of what communication style you use, your team can benefit from clear communication and dedicated 1:1 time. Make sure you’re giving team members a space to build trust and be heard, no matter which leadership style you practice. 

Origin of servant leadership

The idea of servant leadership came to Robert K. Greenleaf, a retired AT&T executive, after reading Hermann Hesse’s novel Journey to the East. The storyline is simple: A group of men head out on a mythical journey accompanied by their servant Leo who sustains the group with his song and spirit. After Leo disappears, the group falls apart and the journey is abandoned. Years later, the narrator of the story finds out that Leo was in fact the head of the order that had sponsored the journey. He wasn’t just a servant—he was the guiding spirit, their great leader.

[inline illustration] Robert Greenleaf quote (infographic)

As romantic as this may sound, Greenleaf saw parallels to the corporate world.

In 1970, he used the inspiration of Hesse’s story to write an essay that coined a new style of leadership: “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf believed: “The servant-leader is servant first [...] Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” 

In 1964, he founded the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership to advance the awareness, understanding, and practice of this leadership style by organizations and individuals.

Characteristics of servant leadership

Former president and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, Larry C. Spears, defined the 10 characteristics of effective, caring leaders. They’re based on Greenleaf’s essays and writings and can help you better understand how to be a servant-first leader.

[inline illustration] characteristics of a servant leader (infographic)

[inline illustration] The first P: Product (infographic)According to Spears, you can learn and develop these 10 characteristics with practice and patience. Here’s how to get started.

1. Listening

Servant leaders prioritize active listening. Communication and decision-making skills are important aspects for all good leaders to practice, but a key characteristic of servant leadership is to listen to their team and gain a deep understanding of what they’re saying.

Robert K. Greenleaf accredited a leader’s listening skills as crucial to an innovative work environment.

Example: When a team member comes to you with a problem, listen to them and make them feel heard. This way, they’ll always feel comfortable reaching out to you.

2. Empathy

Empathy is another skill Spears deemed important to become a servant leader. He writes: “The servant-leader strives to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits.”

Example: Always assume that your team members are doing their work with the best intentions. Keep an open mind to foster creativity and courage in the workplace. 

3. Healing

Servant leaders recognize the negative experiences and habits their team members have developed to cope with unpleasant situations.

Greenleaf talked about “understanding the search for wholeness” as something servant leaders and led teams have in common. By prioritizing a healthy work environment and guiding teammates through their healing process, you can create a culture that strives toward this wholeness.

Example: Create an environment that serves your team by providing resources and support such as weekly 1:1 meetings, a mentorship program, or access to mental health care.

4. Awareness

A servant leader’s awareness includes self-awareness and general awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their team. It allows servant leaders to understand ethics and values from a more integrated and holistic perspective.

Example: To increase your self-awareness, implement an honest and frequent feedback loop where your team can let you know what works for them and what doesn’t. Keep track of your personal goals and plans. You can also take psychometric tests to gain new perspectives on your personality and reflect on how others see you.

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5. Persuasion

Servant leaders persuade others instead of using their authority to make decisions. Convincing their teammates of something rather than coercing compliance is one of the clearest distinctions between the servant leadership style and the authoritarian approach.

Using persuasion also helps in building consensus and a level of trust within a team.

Example: Next time your team is making a decision, try using the word “we” instead of “you” when presenting your strategy to make everyone feel more like it’s a team decision and not just you calling the shots. 

6. Conceptualization

Thinking beyond day-to-day realities requires discipline and practice. However, the ability to look at a project, team, or organization from a conceptualization perspective allows servant leaders to keep dreaming of great things. 

Example: Share dreams and aspirations with your team. Short-term goals are important, but with one eye on the horizon, you can continue to inspire your team members even on difficult days.  

7. Foresight

A servant leader is able to anticipate future events and the impact they’ll have on their team. This characteristic isn’t as magical as it may sound but rather a skill that’s developed over time through experience and intuition. 

Example: Use tools like a SWOT analysis to help you better understand past events, manage upcoming projects, and predict future outcomes. 

8. Stewardship or accountability

Stewardship is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” In his book on stewardship, Peter Block urges his readers to “act in service of the long run” and in service “to those with little power.”

Inspired by Block’s words, Spears included stewardship as one of the 10 characteristics of servant leadership. It helps servant leaders acknowledge the importance of their responsibilities.

As a servant leader, the stewardship characteristic can help you uphold the trust and confidence given to you by your organization.

Example: If you make a mistake, share the story with your team. Prove that you’re holding yourself accountable, and show your team the steps you took to resolve the issue.

9. Commitment to the growth of people

When you prioritize serving others, your team receives the support and resources they need to succeed. Servant leaders are deeply committed to the growth of their team members. Whether it’s the personal or professional growth of their team members, servant leaders will do anything in their power to support them.

Example: You can show this through concrete actions like allocating funds for professional development, encouraging your team’s decisions, or assisting and supporting your team members beyond their work performance (or even employment).

10. Building community

A servant leader will bring their team together and foster an environment that feels like a community. Connecting your team members with one another will create a level of trust and companionship that will not only help teammates grow on an individual level but also shine through in their performance.

Bringing teams together in a remote world but nonetheless important and possible.

Example: In a virtual team, you can still build a strong community by regularly checking in with your teammates. Whether that’s through weekly 1:1s, virtual coffee chats, or online team-building exercises, it’s important to connect with your team members, regardless of how far away they are.

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How to become a servant leader

There are six actionable tips so you can learn to lead as a servant first. 

[inline illustration] how to become a servant leader (infographic)

1. Lead by example

A servant leader will always walk alongside their team members and lead by example. Teams of servant leaders notice that their managers are willing to put the same time and effort into projects as they do and appreciate it. This will encourage teams to work hard and with integrity.

However, leading by example goes beyond working hard together. Servant leaders can also encourage their team members to take time off and recharge by doing it themselves. Teams are more likely to benefit from paid time off or mental health days when their leaders do the same.

Example: As a servant leader you may offer to lend a hand with a task that’s not necessarily part of your job description to support a teammate. This will allow your team members to focus on more important initiatives without worrying that their work isn’t getting done.

2. Show your team why their job matters

Team members tend to care more about their work when they understand how it impacts the larger company goals. Helping a teammate understand that their work matters is a crucial part of being a servant leader.

A servant leader can do this by acknowledging smaller milestones but also by consistently reminding their team of the bigger picture they’re all contributing to.

Example: You can share success stories or ways in which a product or service has positively impacted customers to motivate your team and show them that their work is seen. At Asana, we connect our goals and the work to support them in one place so teams can keep track of their work and see the progress at the same time.

3. Encourage teamwork

Servant leaders know that teams are stronger when they’re putting in a combined effort. They will encourage collaboration by giving each team member space to grow, a place to shine, and a group they can rely on. Creating this sense of community will benefit the individuals and the organization.

Example: You can promote teamwork by frequently scheduling team building activities. Whether that’s through a virtual call or an in-person event, spending fun time together will strengthen your team’s relationships.

4. Help your team members grow and develop

One of the 10 characteristics of servant leadership is the commitment to help your teammates grow professionally and personally. By giving their team members plenty of opportunities to take on leadership roles during group projects, participate in education or development programs, and expand their skills, servant leaders actively contribute to their team’s professional growth.

Example: As a servant leader you can help your team grow and develop by asking for their goals. You can then create learning opportunities and milestones to support your team reaching these goals.

5. Care personally for your team

Besides supporting their team members professionally, servant leaders also take a genuine personal interest in them. The knowledge of what’s going on in their team’s personal lives helps servant leaders lead with empathy.

A teammate that’s going through a rough time personally will appreciate extra support at work and likely return with a sense of gratitude that can boost morale and benefit the team and the project down the road. Servant leaders focus on long-term goals—to care personally for the people on their team helps them create a team with a strong work ethic.

quotation mark
I believe someone who is empathetic, passionate, and has good social skills is more likely to be a great leader.”

Example: Ask about your team’s personal lives and share stories of your own to create a genuine relationship. This transparency creates a level of trust that will allow team members to share when they’re in need of extra support at work.

6. Always ask for feedback

Only a leader who is open to feedback and encourages it will be able to stay self-aware (another one of the 10 characteristics of servant leaders). Receiving criticism from their team and others in the organization allows servant leaders to constantly improve their leadership skills.

Teammates who feel empowered to provide honest feedback are also more likely to speak up about issues or roadblocks they encounter with projects, which can help to create an innovative and flexible work environment.

Example: You can end meetings or emails with a few simple questions to gather honest feedback: “Do you have any feedback for me? Are there any things that I can improve on? What’s working well for you?”

Pros and cons of servant leadership

As with any leadership style, there are advantages and disadvantages of being a servant leader. Before adopting servant leadership as your leadership style, take a look at a few other pros and cons of being a servant-first leader:


  • Fosters strong team culture: Servant leaders give ownership to their team  members to increase their motivation, courage, and creativity.

  • Creates people-focused culture: Servant leaders establish a people-focused culture by fostering deep, trusting relationships with and between their teammates. This level of trust and connection allows teams to make decisions in the best interest of the organization and everyone involved. 

  • Boosts team morale: A team that feels seen and valued by their leader tends to have stronger integrity and show a higher level of pride in their work. Servant leaders can boost team morale across teams and help develop future leaders by giving them opportunities to shine.


  • Formal authority may be lost: Because servant leaders get down on such a personal level with their teams, their formal authority is easily lost. This can become difficult when individuals take advantage of their leader’s transparency. It can also cause confusion when other leaders in the organization take a different approach.

  • Time intensive leadership style: Servant leadership requires a lot of time, energy, and experience. Servant leaders have to know their team members on a professional and personal level so they can support them to the fullest. 

  • Team members may struggle with decision making: By giving their team members opportunities to prove themselves, servant leaders also risk overestimating and overburdening their teammates. Individuals that don’t have the courage or confidence for data-driven decision making on their own yet may feel discouraged and lost in a work environment that provides them with this much executive power. 

Finally, keep in mind that the servant leadership style may not align with your corporate performance management or incentive systems, which are often focused on short-term goals. However, you can still implement the servant leadership approach by leading with authenticity, providing direction for your teammates, giving them opportunities to grow and develop their skills, and building a strong community within your team.

Serve your team by being the best leader for them

Whether you choose the servant, transformational, or laissez-faire leadership style as the right approach for yourself (or something entirely different) is ultimately up to you.

We believe that the best leaders are capable of adjusting their leadership style depending on the situation, their teammates, and the needs of particular projects. The best thing a leader can do is to identify the motivators and needs of their team to support them in a way that allows them to thrive.

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