Management Tips··5 min read

Explained: The Servant Leadership Model

Servant Leadership Model


With the servant leadership model, certain attitudes fair better than others when leading a team. If that’s true, it’s no wonder there are so many opinions on how to do so effectively. But who’s to say which is best? Only the individual running the ship. Below is an explanation of just one of a handful of leadership models available, and a unique one at that.

What is the Servant Leadership Model?

Servant leadership became mainstream when Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, wrote The Servant as Leader, a 1970s essay. The main components of the servant leadership model are best described on the Greenleaf Center’s official website: “the servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

The servant leadership model is expressed through an attitude that focuses on the growth of character and stewardship solely. The overall outcome generates a lower retention rate and fosters higher productivity by making an impact on the lives of the humans behind the machine.


A majority of servant leadership characteristics encircle the idea of humility, that you are not the most vital cog in the machine. It is both an inherent skill and developed trait that often goes unappreciated, especially in highly capitalistic societies. Other vital characteristics include empathy, listening, commitment, self-awareness, conceptualization, and integrity.


The servant leadership theory revolves around what it believes true leadership should be defined as. A power leader, or traditional leader, is simply the leader by title and not by any demonstrating traits or leadership skills. As a result, there isn’t a need to connect with employees on a personal level or any value placed on the idea of mentorship.

Servant leadership challenges the idea that people who are treated well perform well, applying the phrase “you reap what you sow” to employees who, no matter what industry you’re in, determine output and thus the entire company’s level of value and, on some level, existence.

Jobs That Work Best With Servant Leadership

In theory, high positions in all fields of work can function under the servant leadership model - with understandably varying results - but some are more receptive than others. With servant leadership, the following career fields are most complimentary:

Politics: political figures are known as servants of the people. In an ideal government, constituents are able to share their grievances with their local leaders, who will then advocate on their behalf. It is an inherently humble role that relies on the public for what they know they need for their community, rather than enacting harmful policies.

Non-profits: NPOs are in the best positions to create leaders. Those who are working in a non-profit often share the company’s goals anyway, which is a strong incentive to work together as a team and not a hierarchy. Non-profit organizations also dole out some form of leadership training when organizing team leaders for community service efforts.

Ministry: In many religions, including Christianity, selfless acts are put on a pedestal for good reason. It is often taught in church to mimic scripture because the community is what’s most important. In the case of preachers and ministers, the servant leadership model blends well with a profession that fosters community wellbeing and spiritual growth.

Health care: health professionals are often faced with the difficult task of managing a wide variety of patients. Empathy is a big characteristic that allows for better communication between doctors and their patients and families.

Education: teachers who focus on the growth of the child are often praised as the best. They work closely with children and in a way that they can understand, without the necessity of an authoritative approach to learning. It also teaches students to be leaders through working in small teams, at which point teachers can identify and build on leadership skills while they’re young.

Examples of Servant Leadership

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has named Southwest Airlines as one of the most well-known servant leadership examples. According to SHRM, Southwest was able to drive up profitability year after year for thirty-five years under the CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher.

On an event stage, he stated publicly that “if you focus on your people, your mission statement is eternal.” Among other things, he chooses positive attitudes, leadership, and customer service over skill when hiring and flexibility for workers to make decisions.

Being a servant leader doesn’t have to apply to just CEOs. Several figures are notable for their community service and philosophy on civil and political rights and not necessarily their business ventures. This includes Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela. Still, there is a lot to consider when it comes to servant leadership pros and cons.

Pros of Servant Leadership

The servant leadership model is known for its good-faith strategies meant to invest in employees to maximize profits organically. Overall, it believes that the fish rots from the head down, so to speak, and aims to reverse those effects with a more democratic point of view. This model takes what many businesses recognize as valuable anyway and enforces it in positive ways.

Succinctly, servant leadership efforts boil down to the points below:

  • Gained respect of subordinates
  • Team-oriented perspective on tasks
  • More open communication
  • Better workplace atmosphere

Cons of Servant Leadership

Of course, with anything that sounds good, there are downsides. When you take a step back and let employees have a say, there is fear that the generosity would backfire. For instance, would such liberties be abused in favor of what the employee wants? The insinuation here for many is the likelihood that workers will run down the clock and throw away workday tasks.

The worry is that the company’s goals may take a backseat. This model has the tendency to seem more like leisure in a professional work environment than anything else, some would say.

Servant leaders are likely to implement benefits that may seem costly and frivolous for the sake of the workplace environment. But who’s to say that those things are necessary and will blend well with every establishment? Of course, every business’ ethics is different.

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