Servant leadership: How to lead by serving your team

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Finding the right leadership style is no easy task. It has to align with your own values, be accepted within your organization, and be effective with your team members. To discover the best way to serve 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. 

In this article, we cover the origins, benefits, and characteristics of the servant leadership style and offer real-life examples of how you can lead by serving others.

What is servant leadership?

[inline illustration] What is servant leadership (infographic)

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.

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 directive and achieving personal goals. 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 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.

Learning how Greenleaf developed this leadership style will help you understand what inspired him to think of a leader as a servant first. 

Read: Situational leadership: 4 styles and qualities

Origin of servant leadership

[inline illustration] Origin of servant leadership (infographic)

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.

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 leadership style: “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.

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Characteristics of servant leadership

The former president and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, Larry C. Spears, founded his own Center for Leadership in 2008. Since then, he’s published countless articles on the topic, including “Character and Servant Leadership” 

In his article, Spears defines 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] The 10 characteristics of servant leadership (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 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. Only when team members feel heard will they share their ideas freely.

Read: Listening to understand: How to practice active listening (with examples)

2. Empathy

Next to listening, 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.”

Leading with empathy means to always assume that your team members are doing their work with the best intentions. Keeping an open mind allows servant leaders to foster creativity and courage in the workplace. 

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3. Healing

Servant leaders recognize the negative experiences and habits their team members have developed to cope with unpleasant situations. With that knowledge, you can 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.

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.

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.

To increase your self-awareness, implement an honest and frequent feedback routine 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. For 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. 

It can be helpful to share these dreams and aspirations with your team. Short-term goals are important, but with one eye on the horizon, servant leaders can continue to inspire their team members even on difficult days.  

Läs: 7 steg för att skriva en effektiv visionsbeskrivning

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. 

Foresight is more than a feeling though. Using tools like a SWOT analysis can help you better understand past events, manage upcoming projects, and predict future outcomes. 

Läs: Teamstruktur – tio effektiva sätt att organisera teamet

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.

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. You can show this through concrete actions such as:

  • Making funds available to your team

  • Encouraging your team’s decisions

  • Assisting and supporting your team members beyond their work performance (or even employment)

Whether it’s the personal or professional growth of their team members, servant leaders will do anything in their power to support them.

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10. Building community

A servant leader will bring their team together and foster an environment that feels like a community. This is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s world where teams are located across multiple locations or even work fully remote. 

In a virtual team, you can 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.

Bringing a team together 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.

Read: How to continue building inclusive communities when you’re remote

How to become a servant leader

Now that you’ve learned the 10 characteristics of servant leaders, try these six actionable tips to lead as a servant first. 

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

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.

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Anna Binder, Head of People, Asana

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.

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.

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.

Read: 45 team building games to improve communication and camaraderie

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.

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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
Dustin Moskovitz, Co-founder and CEO, Asana

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.

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 feedback 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?”

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Pros and cons of servant leadership

As with any leadership style, there are advantages and disadvantages of being a servant leader. Servant leaders give ownership to their employees to increase their motivation, courage, and creativity. This can foster a strong team culture.

However, this leadership style also 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. 

Before adopting servant leadership as your leadership style, take a look at a few other pros and cons of being a servant-first leader:

Pro: 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. 

Con: Diminished authority

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. 

The servant-first leadership style also doesn’t align with most corporate performance management or incentive systems that focus 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.

Pro: Boosts morale across teams

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.

Con: 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. 

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 needs and motivators of their team members and support them in a way that allows them to thrive. 

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