Summarising Servant Leadership – the Why, What and How of Greenleafs theory.

Want to know the secret to creating an autonomous, engaged, motivated, creative and high performing Organisation? Well, it turns out, it’s not so secretive. In fact, Greenleafs essay is currently rated as 4.6 stars out of 5 on Amazon and what’s even more impressive? This book has held its own since it was first published in 1970. In this article, we explore why we would want to use this effective leadership style, what it looks like in practice and how to use it to help our Followers and business grow.

This is the first of 3 articles in the series on Servant Leadership, the following 2 articles will explore the successes of this leadership style in more detail and also the short comings of this much loved and utilised tool. Just before we jump into why you may want to become a Servant Leader, let’s quickly explore what the term means.

The term Servant Leadership was coined by Robert Greenleaf to describe the type of Leader that is first and foremost – a natural servant. This person views it as their responsibility and calling in life to serve others and help them achieve their purpose or goal. The book that inspired Greenleafs popular essay “The Servant As Leader” was called “The journey to the East” and is built on a simple principle – do what is right for your Followers. Simple in principle, not so simple in action. Let’s get stuck in.


“Leaders are learning that this kind of empowerment, which is what servant-leadership represents, is one of the key principles that, based on practice, not talk, will be the deciding point between an organization’s enduring success or its eventual extinction.” – Dr Stephen Covey on Servant Leadership

Greenleaf believed that by using Servant Leadership, our Followers will grow, become healthier, wiser, more autonomous and more likely to want to serve others – simply put, you will be creating a culture of leaders.

What Leader worth their salt wouldn’t want their Followers to be:

  • Autonomous
  • Resourceful
  • Resilient
  • Engaged
  • Motivated
  • Creative
  • High Performing

Well, maybe a power hungry, egotistical manager but if that was you, I doubt you’d be reading this article, you’d already know better!

Servant Leadership is difficult to manufacture, Greenleaf believed that natural born servants made for better leaders. It’s important that we dont let this put us off if that isn’t us straight away as everyone has the capability (and responsibility) to grow and learn, the difficult parts of life are typically where we learn and grow the most. Take a few moments to consider times in your life where you have served others and put their needs above your own.

  • What was the situation?
  • What did you do?
  • How did this make you feel?
  • What was the outcome for them?
  • Did their behaviours or skills improve?
  • Were they more engaged?
  • Did they reciprocate?

Humans tend to feel the need to ‘pass it on’ or reciprocate actions. The likelihood is, if you have served someone – they will have in turn served someone else or returned the favour to you. By the simple act of service, you are helping to create a Servant Leader.

When researching this model, we came across one common misconception – the What and the How of Servant Leadership. It’s important we get to grips with what it actually means to be a Servant Leader in practice as there are many articles out there that have misinterpreted Greenleafs intentions. That being said, the next part of this article goes into the What and How of this model to help us be effective when utilising it.

The ‘What’ of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership is simply putting others before yourself. Serving the needs of your people and the operation above your own development, ego and acknowledgement. Tough to do sometimes but what’s more important – the success of an operation or people cheering your name?

The ‘what’ – Balance

The Servant Leader is balanced. This isn’t about being walked over or letting people off the hook. Servant Leaders will always accept the person and their situation but never accept poor results. It’s important here then, to be empathetic and understanding without being a walk over – the success of the operation and team comes above the individual but where you can achieve all three – great!

The ‘How’ – Balance

Always consider the wider implications when reviewing poor results and what failing to challenge the results will mean for the person, team and customer.

Take some time to consider what the impacts are of us failing to approach a team member who is not performing. When you are ready, continue on below.

Did you get the below?

  • Continued poor performance
  • Further conduct and performance issues
  • Friction with other, well performing team members
  • Your loss of credibility
  • The operation suffering, your customers suffering and the potential loss of jobs as a result of this.
  • The person feeling unvalued – let’s face it, if you care about someone, you want them to do well!

Serving doesn’t mean being walked over, it’s your job to look after and protect the organisation and your followers, how does a failing business accomplish this?


I had an issue with a person in one of my teams, they were clearly not performing – whilst being able to. They were also creating tensions within the team based on their behaviours. I invited them to a meeting where we discussed their situation and how we can support them. We also set clear expectations for performance and behaviour. Whilst these conversations can be difficult to approach – by accepting my team member and their situation, we built rapport, they felt valued and they understood that I cared about them. By challenging performance and behaviours through this medium, they did not feel attacked, they felt valued and motivated to achieve for the team. Consider these questions or statements to aid your conversation:

  • “It sounds like a difficult time and I want to help you get back on track in work. How can we support you to do this?”
  • “I can see that ‘x’ has been impacting you at work. I need to make it clear though that this behaviour is not acceptable. What can we do about it?”
  • “Your performance doesn’t reflect the  value you can bring to the team. How can change that?”
  • “That behaviour was unacceptable and I know you are capable of better. What needs to change for you to get there?”

Tips for a balanced approach

  • Approach poor results at first sight
  • Do so with a curious mindset
  • Make sure your Followers wellbeing is in a good place
  • Understand the reason for the poor results
  • Set expectations, display empathy and work together towards improvement

The ‘What’ – Seeker

The Servant leader is known as a seeker, someone that is always keeping one ear to the ground for the next best thing or thinking of innovative ways to positively impact their team or business.

The ‘How’ – Seeker

Pat yourself on the back, you’re seeking right now. We’ve created a quick 5 tips on how to become an effective seeker based on our experience, how many of these do you already do?

  1. LISTEN – Consider that there is something you can learn from everyone. Be curious, not assumptive.
  2. READ – grab post it notes or highlight via your device, make notes and links to other knowledge areas.
  3. SMEs – Even rival companies can be willing to share best practice, it’s irresistible to the ego.
  4. VISION – Use foresight, estimate risks and opportunities.
  5. FACILITATE – If you want to learn; teach, train and facilitate to others.
Example – Being a seeker – innovation

I encourage my team to scroll through eventbrite, meet-up and Linkedin – looking for workshops and coffee mornings that they believe will help themselves, the team or business grow. I do the same – Find a useful event, share it with people that will benefit from it, attend it (or ask someone to attend on your behalf) – join in and act on the takeaways. Let’s keep our brains sharp and always look for a better way to win.

Don’t just rely on the external events though – I was fortunate enough to win the 2020 Innovation Champion award for Wescot. Part of the reason for this was the creation of ‘The Hub’. A place where people could both share and browse information in order to share knowledge and grow together – similar to an online library. There were also options to review how useful the content was and enabled people to comment on what could make the content better – lets put our ego aside people, we can all grow! ‘The Hub’ grew significantly and included: Book suggestions, podcast suggestions, YouTube videos, Ted talks, articles, tools, performance trackers, HR tips etc. I knew we had a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the Leadership team, all I did was build a central place where we could share best practice. 


Reflective question: How can you innovate?

Reflective question: How can you become a seeker? 

Example – Being a Seeker with people

I was in the L&D function of a well known Financial Services firm and I was at the start of one of our inductions. One of the group had been consistently late to training (both start time and on their return from breaks) and seemed disengaged with the content. Had this happened just a few years earlier, I would have been fuming at them for wasting the teams time as well as my own. I’d learnt a thing or two since then though, so I asked another member of the L&D team to do a ‘re-cap’ session and asked the new starter to catch up with me in another room. When they sat down, their arms were folded in a defensive posture – lovely. “How are you doing?” was my starting question. At first I was greeted with 1 word answers but as they understood I cared, they opened up more. There was a lot going on at home and it ended up impacting their time at work. Together, we set expectations surrounding time-keeping and being engaged whilst in the training room. Their behaviour turned around in that moment. If I hadn’t spent time highlighting Leadership and Communication strategies, that conversation may not have turned out the same. If I hadn’t intended to seek out this persons barrier and instead led a conduct investigation – they may not have kept their job, our relationship would be damaged and I wouldn’t have done the right thing for them or the business. Be a seeker.

The ‘What’ – Ego

On the face of it, putting others first seems easy enough but Greenleaf noted that the natural Servant Leaders are born as servants first. It is harder for a Leader to become a Servant Leader by their own choosing. Greenleaf believed the best Leaders were born as servants.

Whether or not you were born with a servant mentality, it is still possible to be an amazing Servant Leader. One of the first and most important parts of Servant Leadership is the ability to manage your own ego.

The ‘How’ – Ego

To be successful here, we need to put our own development, promotion and goals behind that of others. Do we still need to develop, feel self worth and work towards our goals? Absolutely, but the team and organisation need to come first. Without this key element, we can never become Servant Leaders.

Quick Tips to manage our ego:

  • Understand our worth – we do not need anyone elses acknowledgement. If we do not seek approval or recognition, our ego will be in a healthier place.

The best leaders pass on praise to others and take ownership of team shortfalls.

  • Take the view that everyone is trying their best with the tools they’ve got.

What does that even mean? Don’t take things personally, believe that the people you are dealing with are trying their best. Here is a quick example:

During mediation between two parties, the personal attacks from one senior leader of ‘you’re too lazy to think!’ Were actually unhelpful ways of saying ‘think outside of the box, the process is a guide – don’t stifle your creativity.’ 

There was much more to this exchange but put simply, the parties involved had good intentions but lacked the ability to communicate it effectively! The senior leader just wanted them to have more autonomy. After letting them speak, I worked to align their purpose (they both wanted the right thing for the customer) and we worked on their way forward together, setting great foundations for a healthier working relationship! Had we not been able to reinterpret what they were saying to each other, their egos would have taken control and the results would have been less favourable!

  • Take the view that you can learn something from everyone.

Life is a great teacher and no two lives are the same, it might not be the best choice to live in an echo chamber. Understand that you do not know everything or even what is best in any given situation. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is ‘no one knows what they’re doing, so dont be afraid to speak up.’ – whilst technically not true, the idea is that no matter what your position is, your opinion is valid, as is everyone elses.

  • Be comfortable with saying ‘I dont know, how do we find out?’

Curiosity is an amazing skill to develop. Not only will you find out more, people will respect your honesty and drive to grow.

  • Be prepared to help with the fundamentals

Leadership consultant Jocko Willink has spoken about his superior officer sweeping up, something most would view as beneath them. This act not only contributed to a great reputation with the team but also inspired the rest of the team to clean up as they didnt want their superior officer to have to do it! Talk about putting your ego to the side…Anyone got a spare broom?

The ‘What’ – Big Picture

Moving on from your ego to that of others, the Servant Leader needs to ensure that others understand that every decision is made for the team and the operation. It can be easy to think Seving means just giving people what they need or want but this isnt the case.

The ‘How’ – Big Picture

Let’s say one of your team wants every Friday off, you can accommodate it so agree to this. You have nine others in your team – can you offer this to all of them?

If not – how will they feel? Probably:

  • Disengaged
  • Frustrated
  • Jealous
  • Like you’re playing favourites

If some how you can accommodate your whole team, what about everyone else in the organisation?

Your team need to be aware that saying ‘no’ isnt personal but instead is done to safeguard the future of the team and organisation. Do this by being transparent with your decisions and helping people understand what factors you considered. People may still get upset but you will have a reputation of being fair and consistent. Worried about the impact of saying “no”? Here’s a great phrase for you: “How are we supposed to do that?” or “What have the team said about this?” – Both of these questions require the other person to consider the bigger picture and who knows…they may even give you an answer that highlights what an amazing idea they have!

So how do you serve others needs? Now is a great time to consider Maslows Heirarchy!

The ‘What’ – Develop People

Just like above where we had to say ‘no’ to people, being a servant here doesnt mean that you do everything. Your role is to build skills in others, if you simply take work off of people, they arent learning and you are on the path to becoming a walk over! Consider the quote:

“Give a man a fish and it will feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he will be fed for a life time.”

The ‘How’ – Develop People

  • Perform a SWOT analysis
  • Understand your people and what they want
  • Get curious – “And why do you want this?” – “And why else?” – “And how will that change things for you?” – locate the driver.
  • Consider if what they need to do is within their capability
  • Consider how you can support their development

The need isn’t necessarily that you take the work on yourself (although sometimes this is the right move), but that you guide, stretch and mentor the people around you to improve. If you get stuck completing all of your teams tasks, you wont be able to see the bigger picture or follow your vision. Want to get the best out of your people? Consider a facilitation approach. We discuss this more in our article on Participating leadership here.

The ‘What’ – Vision

Leaders lead. Greenleaf said:

‘But the leader needs more than inspiration. He ventures to say, “I will go; come with me!” He initiates, provides the ideas and the structure, and takes the risk of failure along with the chance of success.’

Getting caught up in the details could lead you to forget to see the bigger picture and the long term vision. The teams vision as an inspirational driver is just as important as the knowledge that your leader will support you. Imagine helping others along a journey without having any sight of where it was going or why you were going there! Tie your values and the organisational values into your journey for credibility. As Greenleaf said:

‘A leader does not elicit trust unless one has confidence in his values and his competence (including judgment) and unless he has a sustaining spirit (entheos) that will support the tenacious pursuit of a goal.’

The ‘How‘ – Vision

Part of this long term vision is the use of foresight, to predict threats and opportunities before they arise. This will enable you to effectively manage these factors and keep you from being a reactionary leader. Communicate with your team and engage them in a conversation – what are the upcoming risks? What are the upcoming opportunities? 

Linking into foresight and venturing into the unknown is being a seeker. Greenleaf believed that a Servant Leader was always searching for ways to help people and the operation, always looking for new ways to improve. Whilst this doesn’t mean you need to constantly reinvent the wheel it does mean that you need to keep your ear to the ground for improvements and think creatively. Remember that your teams are closer to the project than you, so listen to what they have to say and keep an open mind.


  • Have we established a mission?
  • Have we understood why we are on that mission?
  • Has the team had input into the mission and its impacts?
  • What are the driving factors for the team?
  • How can you use these drivers to get to the mission?


Servant Leadership is a fantastic way to build a resourceful, resilient, autonomous, creative and engaged work force. By putting others first, we develop credibility, trust and an effective workforce. Remember that serving isn’t just doing as requested and bending to every whim of the team members but thinking about the bigger picture, the success of the operation and putting our ego to the side.

Servant Leadership in action

Starbucks is a world renowned brand and is considered as a company that operates under Servant Leadership.

In his interview with The London Business Forum, CEO Charles Shultz demonstrated key points of Servant Leadership. He literally talks about “The way we serve our community.”, how he believes businesses are responsible for more than just profit and that in one month alone, Starbucks completed 200,000 hours of charity work.

When discussing influence, he talks about visiting a person who owns one shop and being inspired “A whole new way of thinking, a new roadmap.” – Shultz is demonstrating being a seeker here and it doesnt stop there. He goes on to say that not only does he not hold all of the answers but that no one in Starbucks does. This complete removal of the ego to fully be a seeker is one of the key points Greenleaf made about Servant Leadership.

Let’s look how that translates into the corporate culture, the Starbucks mission is:

To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

Starbucks refers to its employees as partners and its values include; helping each other grow, a culture of belonging, changing the status quo, and being performance driven. Remember what we said about Servant Leaders expecting the best from their team? That includes caring about their performance! 

Clearly, this leadership style can have phenomenal results, one question remains though…”Are you ready to serve?”

Check out our resources:

. Servant Leadership One Page Guide

. Servant Leadership Quiz

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