What are the pros and cons of servant leadership?

October 29, 2021 - 29 min read


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What is servant leadership?

How does servant leadership work?

Servant leadership vs. traditional leadership

10 principles of servant leadership

7 benefits of servant leadership

7 characteristics of servant leadership

Servant leader examples

Pros and cons of servant leadership

How you can become effective at servant leadership

Employ servant leadership at any level

Great leaders have a vision — a strong sense of what their organization seeks to achieve. Great leaders also know what their team will need so they can realize that vision.

Of course, leaders are also people. This means each leader has different ways of interacting with their team members to put this vision into practice.

These different leadership and management styles aim to:

But this intention isn’t always met.

Becoming a great leader is a lifelong journey. It involves embracing and absorbing new skills and methodologies at every turn. One such methodology is the concept of servant leadership.

But what is servant leadership?

Let’s define servant leadership and discuss the concept’s pros and cons, benefits, and characteristics. We’ll also dive into some examples of how servant leadership can be used effectively to motivate and inspire your team.

With a servant leader, your team can more effectively meet organizational objectives and team goals.


What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership seeks to achieve a vision by providing strong support to employees. In turn, this allows employees to learn and grow while bringing their own expertise and vision to the table. This hinges on building influence and authority rather than using control and toxic leadership tactics.

Employees in a servant leadership environment are more likely to feel that their voices are heard. This makes them 4.6 times more likely to work to the best of their abilities.

This style represents the opposite of the traditional leadership model. In such a model, the team sees the leader as the central point of a team. Employees support them to meet company goals.

Instead, servant leadership puts the employees and their needs at the forefront. Under this leadership philosophy, the more you invest in serving as a "scaffold" for your team, the more productive your team becomes.


Where did servant leadership come from?

Servant leadership isn’t some new-age, modern idea.

Far from it.

The term “servant leader” was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 in the essay “The Servant as Leader.” Other leadership experts have tried to define and modernize the concept in the context of today’s organizations.

There’s a resurgence of attention towards servant leadership. This is because leaders are starting to focus intently on building:

Rapid change, unpredictability, and the need for agility have further highlighted the need for leaders to support and empower an innovative, adaptable workforce.


How does servant leadership work?

Servant leadership works at two levels. It’s an artful balance of top-down direction and bottom-up empowerment.

Even though the servant leader is focused on the needs of their employees, they still lead in critical ways.

The aspect of top-down direction involves setting the strategic vision for the company. Next, it involves communicating that down to the team level. This is done by providing priorities, expectations, and limitations. Leaders also provide clarity on overall direction and company values.

The servant leader provides a framework within which their team can flourish. This is in contrast to prescribing them specific directions on each of their duties.

Within the frame set by those leadership decisions, the servant leader places themselves in service to their people. They put a focus on setting the employees up to succeed at achieving the vision.

This is where the bottom-up empowerment aspect comes into play.

Bottom-up empowerment involves building up their teams’:

The leader motivates and inspires by encouraging ownership and extending supported trust. They’ll also make sure that the team has the required resources, budget, skills, and attention to make an impact.

In servant leadership, employees are empowered. But the leader doesn’t just disappear.

Rather, the servant leader understands how much and what type of support to give when facilitating growth. They know when to get involved and when to let their team steer the ship.

More importantly, they know when to let their employees fail if there is a powerful lesson they could learn.


Servant leadership vs. traditional leadership

Servant leadership and traditional leadership have some points in common. But they’re fundamentally different from each other. Here are four ways in which they differ.

1. Inclusivity

A servant leader must foster an inclusive culture in their team. Inclusive teams allow every person to build a sense of belonging. This gives them a chance to thrive.

A traditionally-led team can be inclusive, too. But traditional leadership can also produce non-inclusive teams since the focus isn’t on the well-being of the people within.

2. Personal needs

The personal needs of others on the team must be met under servant leadership. A traditional leader may take their colleague’s personal needs into account, but there’s no obligation to do so.

3. Customer focus

Traditional leadership often focuses on the customer. But servant leaders instead focus on their team.

This doesn’t mean that customers don’t benefit. Servant leaders focus on the growth and well-being of the team. As such, they can create high-performing professionals who can serve customers better.

4. Ethical implications

Servant leadership has ethical implications that aren’t as prominent in traditional leadership. It’s important that servant leaders behave ethically.

Leaders who behave in an unethical way may cause issues within their team, such as decreased motivation and growth.

10 principles of servant leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf established 10 principles of servant leadership. The former president of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, Larry C. Spears, breaks down these 10 principles as follows.

  1. Listening: it’s important to fully listen to the members of your team without interrupting.
  2. Empathy: it’s important to get to know your team so that you can use empathetic leadership to help them grow.
  3. Healing: members of your team may have trauma from previous toxic work experiences. Help others to create a healthy work-life balance to give them the space to heal.
  4. Self-awareness: a servant leader must also recognize their own strengths and weaknesses. This is to understand how they fit within the overall team.
  5. Persuasion: servant leaders can use persuasion and influence instead of just power to get team members to be on the same page.
  6. Conceptualization: servant leaders need to be able to use big-picture thinking. With this, they can conceptualize plans for their team and their organization.
  7. Foresight: it’s important to use what you and your team learn to improve in the future.
  8. Stewardship: lead by example so that your team can do what you do, not just do what you say.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people: you need to allocate time and resources to help people and teams grow. Tools like organizational training,  development programs, and growth and transformation coaching can help.
  10. Building community: servant leadership requires building relationships between colleagues. As a result, team members learn to trust each other and become more productive.


7 benefits of servant leadership

The servant leadership style offers several compelling benefits and advantages for organizations.

1. Better collaboration, stronger teams

Seeing their leader as a role model, employees often embrace the value of service to teammates.

As a result, they drop unproductive behaviors motivated by politics or jockeying for attention. Instead, they can work together more harmoniously.

2. Positive work environment

Workplace interactions tend to be more constructive when a leader is supportive and builds others toward a shared goal. It’s more constructive than pitting them against each other for the leader’s benefit.


3. Employee commitment, trust, and loyalty

Empowering employees under the servant leadership model promotes alignment between their own sense of purpose and the company's core values and overarching mission.

Employees feel that they can better realize their own potential and creativity when the leader values diverse, individual strengths. This leads to improved employee engagement.

A culture of employee engagement has a huge impact on operating margins. Companies boasting high sustainable engagement levels have up to three times higher margins than competitors without a culture of employee engagement.

4. Greater organizational agility

Servant leaders support employees and teams at lower levels. They support them in making decisions, having more responsibility, and having both the skills and tools to do their jobs. This means they can quickly respond and adapt when conditions or needs change.

5. Supports a culture of belonging

Employees feel appreciated, recognized, and valued when a leader sees them as individuals. This is also true when a leader emphasizes the importance of their contribution to the work. Creating a sense of belonging is crucial.

6. Accelerated learning and development

Employees learn more effectively and have greater opportunities to develop their strengths when the leader makes it a priority to develop and empower the team.

7. Fosters leadership everywhere

Empowering employees to have ownership and responsibility accelerates individuals’ leadership capabilities. The accessibility of the leader makes it easier for individuals to model their behavior.


7 characteristics of servant leadership

Let’s break down seven characteristics of servant leadership.

1. Teamwork

The team needs to come first.

The leader’s number one priority is to help their team execute their goals and decisions and achieve their potential.

2. Employee satisfaction

Employee satisfaction and cooperation turn the wheel. The real value comes over time as capable, empowered employees drive better performance.

3. Adaptability

Servant leadership can work in many different settings. It varies from revenue-focused sales environments to non-profit organizations set out to promote social good.

This methodology’s values are transferable across domains. They can even be applied to personal situations. One such example is parenting.

4. Motivation

Servant leaders provide high levels of support to employees. This fuels motivation and engagement.

The idea is not to be a cheerleader but to recognize opportunities for genuine praise and giving team members free rein to execute their ideas.

5. Transparent communication

The team trusts a leader who can provide clarity, even in complex, changing situations.

6. Authenticity

Servant leaders need to genuinely care about individual and team development. Leadership much embrace authenticity. This creates a safe space to grow. It also promotes employees to develop their own authenticity.

7. Accountability

Ownership activates commitment and purpose. Work feels more meaningful. Employees work toward goals they’ve set for themselves. They don’t strictly follow goals dictated by a manager.


Servant leader examples

Successful servant leaders have a genuine desire to serve employees in a democratic way. They’re also effective, charismatic decision-makers and clear when they set expectations. 

Here are six strategies specific to this leadership style.

1. Preach by example — humility, authenticity, and trust

Humility must be the foundation of your leadership. If you speak out of superiority and power, your subordinates will do what you say out of fear.

Instead, make your actions and words a credible and genuine model to follow.

An authentic message creates a trust bond and inspires a pure and genuine interest in the company and its work.

2. Show why their work is essential — awareness and purpose

In the mechanism of a clock, each part is crucial.

The same goes for any team. Each employee is essential to the team’s operation.

Making sure this message reaches them can increase their motivation. It can also enhance their performance.

One way to do this is by talking explicitly about the downstream impact of their work. You can show them the impact both inside the company and out.

Talk less about numbers and metrics and more about the person or people who’ll use and build on what they’ve done. Always link their specific achievements to wider organizational goals. This fosters a deeper connection to the company’s mission.

Most importantly, recognize the good work they are doing. 37% of your workers consider recognition of their achievements to be the most important aspect of a role.


3. Encouraging collaboration — community-building and commitment

As a servant leader, you’re the engine that generates a sense of community and teamwork.

Increase collaboration by encouraging employee commitment to each other. You can also encourage them to delegate responsibility. Finally, you can involve team members in decision-making processes.

For example, ask them what they’d like to do on that new project or how they think they can add value to their work.

4. Supporting the team's growth and development — foresight and resourcefulness

Identifying and anticipating the needs of employees is a major aspect of the servant leader’s role.

For example, when assigning project duties to each team member, make sure you provide the resources or the ability to procure them.

5. To care for the members of the team — empathy and compassion

Similarly, the servant leader will cultivate a friendly environment. In this environment, employees should feel comfortable. They shouldn’t feel threatened by expressing specific complaints or asking questions.

In this context, it seems especially important to favor empathy and understanding.

That is, the servant leader tries to get in the other's shoes.

This can provide you with valuable information that will help you, as a leader, to improve the quality of your performance.

Compassion can be your best ally. In good times and bad, validate the difficulties your employees encounter. Serve as a support for them to overcome those challenges and grow. 

6. Asking for feedback — listening skills

Promote a sufficient level of relationship with the employee that favors active and close listening.

Avoid technology distractions like checking your phone while a team member is talking. A servant leader asks open-ended and follow-up questions as a matter of course, not just when something’s wrong.

This methodology activates deeper thinking on the part of the employee. It also inspires them to reach their own conclusions rather than seeking answers from the leader.

Pros and cons of servant leadership

The servant leadership style can amp up an employee’s motivation and courage to be more creative and innovative. This is because leaders give ownership and some control to employees. Doing this can:

On the other hand, getting it right takes time, energy, and skill.

Getting to really know people, their motivations, and areas of growth takes time. It takes time to translate a vision into clear objectives and priorities. It also takes time to communicate this vision clearly to the team. The results don’t happen overnight. It’s not easy.

Let’s examine the main pros and cons of this leadership style.

Pros of servant leadership

    1. The characteristics of success are well-defined
    2. Builds deeper, trust-based relationships
    3. Encourages greater ownership and responsibility
    4. Encourages innovation, curiosity, and creativity
    5. Develops a people-focused culture
    6. Delivers a significant positive impact on company performance
    7. A strong method for ensuring decisions are made in the best interests of the company
    8. By serving the employees of a company, you are serving the customer
    9. A high level of internal staff growth
    10. Develops future leaders
    11. Boosts morale across teams
    12. Leaders earn respect from team members
    13. Employees feel more valued and appreciated in the workplace
    14. Improves pride in work


Cons of servant leadership

  1. The concept can be difficult to communicate
  2. Can be more time-consuming for leaders
  3. Can be difficult to attain — it’s a constant journey rather than an end goal
  4. Requires a high level of authenticity that can be difficult to achieve
  5. Retraining existing leaders as servant leaders can be tough and time-consuming
  6. Some may perceive servant leaders as weak or ineffective
  7. The formal authority of the leader may be diminished
  8. Team members are expected to make a decision, but they might not have a strong understanding of the big picture
  9. Different leadership styles across teams can cause confusion
  10. Employees may not have the necessary confidence to take charge and drive the business forward
  11. The initial speed of decision-making is slower due to high team involvement
  12. Potential for misalignment among team
  13. It may be out of sync with corporate performance management and incentive systems
  14. Decreased motivation and resourcefulness when the leader intervenes to fix issues for the team

How to become effective at servant leadership

Servant leadership is a transformational leadership style. But it takes some practice. Here’s where you can focus your efforts to embody servant leadership characteristics.

1. Build strong communication skills

Servant leadership theory is built around getting the most out of your team. To do that, you’re going to need to be able to communicate organizational objectives and missions clearly. This is so that they are properly equipped to make wise decisions.

Working on communication skills such as concision, body language, and clarity will help you achieve this.


2. Improve your listening skills

Communication isn’t all about what you say, though.

This management style is all about hearing your team members’ points of view. Practice your active listening skills to really understand their decision-making process.

3. Develop empathy

Empathy is crucial in a leadership role. It’s especially important for servant leadership.

Empathy means being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes. It allows you to see things from their perspective.

This is a vital skill to practice if you’re looking to become a transformational leader.

4. Work on your self-awareness

Charismatic leaders may be charming and great at communicating their ideas. But it’s important that they are also strongly aware of their own limitations.

Developing your self-awareness means noticing how you act and what you say and the impact it has on those around you. Part of this is also recognizing where your actions don’t align with your ideal vision of yourself and determining a clear path to rectify this.

5. Grow your persuasive skills

Persuasion is a part of being a good leader. It means being able to convince others that your thinking is the right path.

This skill might be seen as a slightly different leadership style from servant leadership. But there’s a place for persuasion as a servant leader.

Here’s an example. If your team is divided on an issue, you may need to bring your skills of persuasion and influence into play to land on a unanimous decision.

6. Work on your selflessness

An autocratic leader is one who looks out for themselves primarily. That’s the opposite of the servant leadership model.

To be an effective leader, it’s important to develop your selflessness. This means you look out for the goals and well-being of others before you think about your own goals.

Of course, there’s a line to respect. You still need to look after your own well-being. But the point is to deprioritize your own agenda.

Doing so will improve employee engagement, which is a factor known to increase employee performance by as much as 73%.

7. Keep the organization’s goals in mind

The servant leadership approach still centers around achieving organizational goals. This is true even while prioritizing team engagement.

As such, it’s important to keep these goals in mind. Don’t let the interests of any individual move the needle to a point where you are no longer following these objectives.

Your job as the leader is to guide the team toward a decision that makes sense with the company’s vision in mind.

8. Learn how to develop others holistically

Other leadership styles have different approaches to developing employees. Usually, the goal is to improve employee efficiency and productivity. This is true for democratic leadership or autocratic leadership.

Efficiency and productivity are still important under the servant leadership model. But it’s just as crucial to foster the development of each team member’s:

  • Decision-making skills
  • Communication skills
  • Big-picture thinking

Developing your direct reports more holistically will improve team capabilities. It can also increase employee engagement.

Engagement is great, not only from their perspective (as they feel more fulfilled by their work) but also from the viewpoint of the company. Businesses simply measuring employee engagement have been shown to increase profits by as much as 24%.


Employ servant leadership at any level

It’s not necessary to have a highly influential role in your company to start practicing the servant leadership style. But it’s a practice that has a huge impact on employee well-being and engagement.

Lead projects by supporting the rest of your colleagues, addressing their needs, and providing resources and support. This can create positive results at any level.

Practice your communication skills, develop empathy, work on your self-awareness, and be sure to focus on developing your employees more holistically. Do this, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a capable and effective servant leader.

Need someone to speak with about your servant leadership development journey? Request a custom demo to speak with a coach.

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Published October 29, 2021

Aída Lopez Gomez

BetterUp Care Coach, MSc Clinical Psychology and Researcher

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