leader giving presentation in front of group in office

What Is Servant Leadership Style?

Servant leadership style is a philosophy where leaders put their team members’ needs, growth, and well-being first. This allows for the voices of individual contributors in an organization to be heard and empowers them to be their best selves.

Servant leadership adopts a “serve-first” or “people-first” mentality. It takes a vastly different approach compared to leadership styles that are autocratic or bureaucratic—both of which prioritize hierarchy, structure, and a give-take perspective.

The idea was born from Robert K. Greenleaf’s 1970 essay titled “The Servant as Leader” in which Greenleaf wrote, “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant—first to make sure that other people’s highest-priority needs are being served. The best test is: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

What Are Examples of a Servant Leadership Style?

Here are two examples of servant leaders:

Leader A (caring for team members):

Leader A looks for opportunities to show that she knows and cares for her team. She remembers details about their families and is aware of what is happening in their personal lives. She knows their differing preferences in work style, who would rather talk it out and reach a conclusion now versus who would like to have the options outlined in an email to reflect and then meet to discuss later. On days when Leader A is working remotely, she is proactively engaged with her team. She is quick to answer team members’ chat messages and takes the time throughout the day to check in with individuals.

Leader B (focusing on career growth of team members):

Leader B frequently conducts 1:1 sessions with each team member to assess what they need to keep them fulfilled in their roles. They are aware of their team member’s career goals and passionate about utilizing company resources to provide short- and long-term benefits for team members. Leader B regularly meets with other department staff to identify possible opportunities their team members can leverage and use toward their career objectives, even if that individual’s progress means outgrowing the current team.

Both examples above illustrate the people-first and community-focused approach the servant leadership style uses. Rather than relying on a strictly traditional business style—where business and personal relationships are siloed—servant leaders find value in balancing the two in the workplace.

What Are the 3 Main Characteristics of Servant Leadership?

Servant Leadership embodies these three main characteristics:

1. Commitment to the Needs of Others

Selflessness and humility are at the heart of servant leadership. With both, these leaders are committed to the needs of their team members. Doing this provides space to help team members reach their full potential.

In addition, servant leaders are always willing to do the same work they ask their staff to do. The traditional hierarchical structure is flipped upside down. If the team is falling behind due to absences, a servant leader joins team members to help execute the work and to serve the team in a way that helps them reach their goals.

2. Emotional Intelligence

Being emotionally intelligent helps you successfully coach team members, manage stress, and deliver constructive feedback. This is why emotional intelligence, not technical skills or knowledge, accounts for nearly 90% of what sets high performers apart from their peers.

A servant leader excels at emotional intelligence, since it gives them the drive and natural capability to steer individuals. They are experts at both managing their own emotions and recognizing the emotions of others.

Emotional intelligence entails five key elements:

  • Self-awareness: Understanding how your behavior impacts others
  • Empathy: Connecting with the emotional experience of another to communicate they are not alone
  • Social skills: Being skilled at interacting with others
  • Self-regulation: Managing your own emotions (positive or negative) to achieve a positive result
  • Internal motivation: Knowing the intention behind your goals, knowing the goals of your team members, and taking the right action to achieve them

3. Community Focused

A servant leader:

Volunteers for a cause they care about (and encourages their team members to do the same for causes they care about)
Encourages team activities to help staff members get to know one another better and build closer relationships in the workplace
Takes the time to learn everyone’s likes and dislikes or strengths and weaknesses to provide a personalized work experience for them

two coworkers reviewing notebook

How Do You Apply a Servant Leadership Style in the Workplace?

There are three practical ways to apply the servant leadership style in the workplace:

1. Be a Good Listener

Do not simply “talk at” your people—listen to what your people have to say. A servant leader provides the safety and the platform for team members to voice their ideas, thoughts, and concerns. This is what helps build trust and community among individuals.


  • Taking time to pause during meetings/presentations to answer questions and have individuals express their thoughts and concerns
  • Documenting team members’ feedback to further reflect on them during your own time and take the necessary action
  • Learning from past mistakes and successes to productively evaluate present decisions
  • Discussing specific issues/initiatives with the team before making key business decisions
  • Empathizing people’s perspectives without allowing your own emotions/thoughts to cloud your judgment

2. Illustrate Why Each Person’s Role Is Integral

When 70% of individuals define their purpose through work, addressing and discovering the “why” plays a crucial role in their happiness. Servant leaders help individuals achieve this.

Take the time to explain why each person’s job is integral to the entire team and organization:

  • How do their responsibilities impact colleagues, customers, stakeholders, or other departments?
  • How do the results of their project impact the team and bottom-line results of the business?

You can consider taking this a step further by discussing how their role may impact their personal life:

  • Does the individual’s role align with their personal values and goals?
  • Does the person’s role bring fulfillment to their personal life?

Document these in writing and have one-on-one sessions with your team members to discuss these points further.

3. Identify Opportunities for the Team to Grow and Develop

Servant leaders not only help themselves become great leaders but are also interested in helping team members become great leaders themselves.

Begin by identifying each person’s strengths and weaknesses via surveys and one-on-one discussions. Use these areas to map out a customized development plan that aligns with their values and career objectives.

Collaborate with team members to regularly check their development plan and listen to their feedback to make the necessary changes.

Empower Your Leadership with CMOE

Adopting a Servant Leadership style takes strategy, practice, and commitment. However, when you empower each individual to be their best self, the impact on that individual, on their community and on your organization as a whole is immeasurable.

For more guiding tips on applying leadership styles right and well at your organization, employ the help of CMOE’s Leadership Development Workshops.

The various workshops we offer ensure you incorporate strategies well-suited for your team. Every team is unique, and your workshop will reflect that.