The Joy of Servant Leadership

 In Business, Communication, Leadership, Spirituality

Servant Leadership (SL) was first formally introduced by Robert Greenleaf in his influential 1970 essay “The Servant As Leader“.  However, SL has been practiced for centuries, beginning with Jesus.  He was the first recorded SL, with his famous washing of feet. He also taught his disciples to be SLs. John 13:1–17 recounts Jesus‘ performance of this act. In verses 13:14–17, He instructs His disciples: If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.  So, he was leading by example, like a good Servant Leader (more to follow).

From the field of Positive Psychology, Wong emphasizes that meaning is all we need and relationships are all we have to create a positive workplace.   “Positive leadership involves experiencing, modeling, and purposefully enhancing positive emotions. A positive leader is interested in his or her employees’ development as well as the bottom line. High self-awareness, optimism, and personal integrity “(Avolio & Gardner, 2005).

However, SL is more than positive management.  It is:

    1. A desire to serve
    2. Humble and ethical use of power
    3. Being open to feedback.
    4. Teaching the need for regular self-improvement activities
    5. Servant Leaders are free to use any positive aspects of any leadership style besides command and control.

Besides these differences, the main characteristics of a servant leader are:

    1. A Desire to serve (mind-set).  This is not the mind-set of a slave.  It’s a mind set that says I want to help people, I want to show love and caring to my team.  One easy example might be when a person entertains their friends and family members – you serve them, but you aren’t their slave.  You desire to serve them. It’s a choice you’ve made from the mind set of loving those invited. Using this example, your team are your friends and family. How does one feel when the guests are leaving and you know you’ve given those you care about a nice time?  It’s a perceptual shift that brings peace, satisfaction and joy to the one who can make it.  
    2. Concerned with “getting to ‘we’ from ‘us vs. them’”. Early in my career, I was taught to use “We” instead of “I” as a way to be inclusive and show that the manager is just a part of the team; a part of “we” just like everyone else.  Nothing special. Each team member is unique and valuable exactly as they are.
    3. Show people you care.  There are lots of ways to do this, including remembering birthdays and anniversaries.  You can get birthdays from the HR department if you don’t know them. I put a recurring reminder on my calendar about a week before each birthday to give me some time to get a card or whatever I’m planning to do.  Stop and check on your team members who you may know are having issues with health, etc. Make notes if you have to remind yourself to see how things are with them and if there’s anything you can do to help.
    4. Heart of a servant (ego out of the way).  Some say this is empathy.  Empathy is crucial to SLs. You’ll be called upon to show you understand what your team members might be going through.  Empathy is “walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins”, as they say. Listening is the best way to get to empathy. SLs must hone their listening skills.  Active listening is a skill that can be learned.


  • Like to be with people. SLs enjoy being around people.  SLs should be celebrating, laughing with and enjoying their team.


  1. Has impeccable integrity.   You’ve got to walk your talk.  Strive to honor the commitment you’ve made to SL in everything you say and do.  Be impeccable with your word.  Do not say you will do something without following through.  Integrity builds trust and a high level of trust is needed within an SL team.  Complete honesty and transparency are also parts of integrity that are important to a SL.
  2. Fair-minded.  No VIPs.  Everyone is equally valuable.  Watch how you treat different team members.  If there’s someone you have a special feeling for, watch especially your treatment of them – that you are not playing favorites.  Life is not always fair, but we can strive to make it as fair as possible. People look to leaders for fairness.

So, how does a regular human being become a SL?  They work on their self-development, which SLs are always doing and encouraging their team to do as well.  Sharing helpful resources with your team is one way to influence them to participate in self-improvement, which is part of SL.  Some other guidelines and tips are:

    1. Create a total mindset change from command and control leadership styles to collaboration, inclusion and mutual respect.  Enjoy your team and you will be a happier, more fulfilled person. Caring for your people and really knowing them to the point where you can recognize their work in a personal way, instead of a generic “Thank you”.

One servant leader I know would buy small personal gifts for each staff member to bring back to them from business trips.  It signaled to the employees that she cared about them as individuals (personalized gifts), appreciated the uniqueness they bring to the team and appreciated what they did to keep things going while she was away.

    1. Be fair – no VIPs in SL teams.1
    2. Spend time connecting with employees to the point that you know them personally and can clearly see the unique gifts they bring to the team.
    3. Hold one-on-ones with staff one/week.  Really listen.
    4. Find unique value in every person
    5. Be on time to meetings (shows respect) 
    6. Lead by example, hence:
      1. Keep your commitments (show integrity in everything you do)
      2. Model the core values on a daily basis.
      3. Make eye contact when speaking with team members
      4. Show gratitude (say thank you) in concrete, specific ways and on a regular basis
      5. Avoid gossip and stop it when you can
    7. Approach every moment asking how you can add value (say it out loud – add this idea to the culture/make it part of how the team thinks.  Move away from “how can I get what I want/how can I win” to “how can I add value”?
    8. Use every opportunity to explain the larger purpose of what you’re doing
    9. Spend time to communicate tasks clearly and take time to delegate properly.  As a reminder, to properly delegate:1
      1. Explain what you want done, when you want it done and the desired result.
      2. Explain why you want the job done and what obstacles they may encounter.
      3. Define a “home run” for this job.
      4. Give the authority to the delegee to get the job done (communicate this to team).
      5. Provide support and resources.
      6. Get their commitment and reiterate expectations.
    10. Develop Standards of Behavior with your team that everyone can agree to.
    11. Add JOY to the day using silliness, sense of humor, etc.  SMILE!!

The main benefits of SL are reduced turnover, increased employee engagement, and flexibility in leadership method, anything except command and control.  When the practices of servant leadership were implemented through leadership training in businesses, performance improved 15-20% and workgroup productivity improved by 20-50% – Dennis Romig (2001)  Fortune’s Magazine annual rankings of the best 100 companies to work for show that companies that practice SL consistently rank in the top 10 (e.g. Southwest Airlines, Container Stores, Synovus Financial Corporation, TD Industries).

Servant Leadership is the management methodology for the future.  It not only brings joy to the workplace, but increases productivity many-fold, increases employee engagement, creates a climate of love, not fear, and is arguably the best leadership methodology out there.

There is powerful data to back up the advantages of servant leadership. The University of Illinois at Chicago Business School conducted a recent study at national food chain Jason’s Deli. Among those restaurants, the stores with servant leaders showed a: 6

  1. 6 percent higher job performance
  2. 8 percent increase in positive customer service ratings
  3. 50 percent higher staff retention rate

Which of my readers don’t want that?  Anyone can start being a SL by following these guidelines.  There is no time like the present to get started towards a happier, more engaged, more productive and successful team!

Written by Elizabeth Bartlett


 1 Malinski, C. and Swift, R. (2019), “10 Things you can Do to Begin as a Servant Leader Pt. 2”, Servant Leadership Institute Podcast, Servant Leadership Institute.

2 Ruiz, Don Miguel (1997), “The Four Agreements”, Peter Pauper Press, 10.

3 Barter, A. and Tard, L. (2019), “Finding Significance in Servant Leadership”, Servant Leadership Institute Podcast, Servant Leadership Institute

4  Janssen, D. (2019), “Upside Down Leadership”, Servant Leadership Institute Podcast, Servant Leadership Institute

5 Wong, Paul T.P. and Davey, M.A. (2007),“Best Practices in Servant Leadership”, Servant Leadership Research Rountable – July 2007, School of Leadership and Entrepreneurship

6 Romig, D.A.  (2001). Side by Side Leadership. Marietta, GA: Bard Press

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