10 Principles of Servant Leadership

Principles of Servant Leadership

In this article I will be summarising the ten principles of Servant Leadership, as proposed by Robert Greenleaf. In order to be an effective Servant Leader, Greenleaf proposed that you must demonstrate the ten leadership qualities outlined in this article.

10 Principles of Servant Leadership

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the Growth of People
  10. Building Community

Table of Contents

VIDEO: 10 Principles of Servant Leadership [Explained]

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership was first proposed by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 work entitled, ‘The Servant as a Leader.’

What better way to define servant leadership than to use Greenleaf’s own definition.

"Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world."

The Servant as Leader
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Servant leadership completely re-thinks the hierarchical model of leadership and turns it on its head. 

The traditional hierarchical model of leadership sees the leader at the top of the pyramid in a position of authority and power.

Whereas, servant leadership flips this concept up-side-down by placing the leader at the bottom of the pyramid in a supportive, serving position.

Servant Leadership Inverse Pyramid Hierarchy

"Anybody can be great because everyone can serve."

The key strengths and key criticisms of Servant Leadership are not covered in this article but if you wish to explore these topics further I would recommend you read this article:

ARTICLE: What is Servant Leadership? 

1. Listening

Communication is a two-way process and many leaders will be very good at doing the talking but less so at listening. Effective servant leaders are able to listen intently and respectfully to others and act on the information they receive.

Listening is central to servant leadership so if one of your team members is speaking, give them your full attention and actively listening to what they are saying.

This would involve you giving them the ability to speak without interruption, actively listening to what they are saying and responding in a meaningful way. 

Listening is a massively overlook skill. You never hear people saying that they are ‘working on their listening’ but we should all be aiming to improve our ability to listen more effectively and respond to others in a more helpful way. 

Find out more about the importance of listening in leadership by reading this article:

2 Main Reasons Why Leaders Should Improve Their Listening Skills

2. Empathy

Servant leaders are able to effectively empathise with others. It is important to recognise and accept people for their uniqueness and understand their individual point of view.

Empathy in leadership can be a complex topic but in relation to servant leadership it mainly refers to getting to know your team.

The better you understand the individuals in your team the more effectively you can support and serve them. In turn, this will result in improved team performance.

What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their likes and dislikes? What motivates them?

Knowing this will greatly enhance your ability to lead.

3. Healing

Healing does not refer to physically healing but rather healing on a more holistic level. This can be achieved through discussion, coaching, mentoring and relationship-orientated leadership styles.

Some team members may have challenging lives outside of work, some may have experienced difficult work situations and relationships with previous managers/leaders, and some may have experienced negative work cultures at another employer.

These challenges may be long-term and chronic or they may occur to people intermittently throughout their lives.

An effective servant leader will be able to identify these issues and provide healing through creating a positive and supportive work environment, and by ensuring every individual is valued and provided with the tools they need to succeed. 

4. Awareness

Having a good awareness of yourself and others is a quality that is commonly found in servant leaders.

Understanding your own strengths and talents, as well as your weaknesses and areas for development, is essential fore your own growth and development in being a servant leader. It is also important to understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of your team, as a whole and as individuals.

If you have a sound understanding of your own capabilities and your team’s capabilities you will be better placed to utilise yourself and others to benefit the organisation and vision. 

However, awareness shouldn’t just be limited to individual capabilities, awareness can also refer to the culture, climate and atmosphere of a work environment and how the leader is able to adapt, empathise and respond in an appropriate way.

5. Persuasion

A key feature of servant leadership is that they gain followers through persuasion and collaboration, as opposed to some other leadership approaches which are more concerned with power, authority and delegation.

Another way of looking at this principle is that servant leaders have the ability to persuade and convince others to follow them, rather than coercing them into compliance.

It is important not to think about persuasion in a negative way, such as tricking someone through persuasion or trying to persuade someone to make a sale. Instead, we consider persuasion with regard to the servant leader’s desire to use persuasion to build consensus and get buy-in from people.

Using this approach ensures everyone believes in the vision and are personally invested in their achievements and collective undertakings.

6. Conceptualisation

As a leader you need to have a clear understanding of where you and your organisation are heading and what you hope to achieve. Without this clarity you will lack direction and vision.  

Servant leaders have the ability to effectively conceptualise the situations they find themselves in. This is in relation to both the future outlook and the current day-to-day activities.

It is important to have the ability to conceptualise the future without being overly restricted by day-to-day activities, whilst also having the ability to understand and navigate day-today activities whilst keeping the longer term vision aligned.

7. Foresight

Foresight is a characteristic which enables servant leaders to understand lessons learned from the past, the realities of the present day, and the likely outcomes of future decisions.

Servant leaders are highly reflective of past experiences and are able to utilise prior outcomes of decision to improve their decision making in the future. 

For some people this quality comes naturally, but others will need to actively work it. Keeping a journal or allocating time each week for reflection and learning can be an effective way to develop a more self-reflective approach to your leadership.  

8. Stewardship

Greenleaf’s view of all institutions was that all leaders (CEOs, staff, directors, trustees, etc.) should play a significance role in establishing their institution in trust for the greater good of society.

Being a steward is applying the highest importance to the responsibilities you have as a leader and upholding your personal endeavours with regard to that responsibility.

Stewardship is all about ensuring your leadership is ethical, authentic and focused on more than just profits. In other words, it is leading by example and role modelling decency in leadership.

9. Commitment to the Growth of People

Servant leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond that of the work they do.

They lead with a deep committed to both the personal and professional growth of each and every individual within their organisation. Ensuring staff welfare and well-being is a major consideration for servant leaders.

In fact this principle can be found in a number of the other servant leadership principles, such as awareness and healing. Making the growth and development of others a central pillar of leadership is what servant leadership is all about. 

10. Building Community

Developing and maintaining an effective community is fundamental to servant leadership. Servant leaders seek to identify ways in which social and task orientated communities can be built amongst those who work within their organisation.

Team cohesion is an important component of effective team performance and servant leaders emphasise this need greatly. This is achieved through enhanced trust and alignment of ambitions.

The 12 Principles of Servant Leadership

In recent years, Larry Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, has added two additional principles to Robert Greenleaf’s original ten.

11. Calling

12. Nurturing the Spirit

11. Calling

Servant leaders have a ‘calling’ to serve others and have a natural and inherent desire to be a servant leader.

This could be considered from a religious or spiritual perspective, or from a born-trait or socially constructed perspective. 

The idea of servant leaders having a calling is well aligned with a values-based approach to leadership. Do your followers or employees believe that you would sacrifice self-interest for the good of the organisation and others?

Ultimately, servant leaders should adopt this approach because they believe it is the right approach to take, not because they should or because they are told to do so. Servant leadership should be authentic to the leader’s natural desire to lead using this method. 

12. Nurturing the Spirit

Servant leaders understand people’s natural desire to contribute to personally meaningful endeavours. People want to be part of something great, achieve something amazing and seek new ways to improvement themselves. 

Servant leaders nurture the individual’s spirit through support, encouragement and acknowledgement of achievements.

Rather than criticise, feedback is constructive and is centred around growth and enhancement of the individual. Identification of areas for improvement is never overly harsh or personal.

Servant leaders create a feeling of joy for the work being undertaken and activities are celebrated through means that acknowledge the value of the employees’ commitment to worthwhile endeavours.

Ultimately, the servant leader encourages others to reflect on their successes and struggles, to learn from them and to adopt the other servant leadership principles outlined above in this article.

How Can You Develop Your Servant Leadership Skills?

Obviously, focusing on the principles outlined above would be a good start but it is more helpful to think of some overarching qualities which pull all of these principles together. The four qualities below should be considered when aiming to develop a servant leadership approach. 
The four qualities of an effective servant leader:
  1. Encourage diversity of thought
  2. Create a culture of trust
  3. Have an unselfish mindset
  4. Foster leadership in others.

How Can You Assess Your Own Servant Leadership Capabilities?

If you would like to assess your own servant leadership capabilities I have created a modified version of Liden et al.’s (2008) Servant Leadership Questionnaire (SLQ). 

This is a self-assessment questionnaire containing 28 questions. You can download it using the link below.

This is a FREE download, NO email is required and the results are auto-generated

There’s no catch – just enjoy the use of this free resource!

Example of the questions you will be asked...

Servant Leadership Self Assessment Questionnaire

Example of what your auto-generated results will look like...

Servant Leadership Self-Assessment Questionnaire Results
FREE Servant Leadership Questionnaire Download

What Are The Advantages and Strengths Of Servant Leadership?

Improved Team Motivation and Morale

When a team can see that their leader genuinely cares about them they will be motivated to work for the leader and each other. 

Team members will also be more likely to be loyal to the organisation and their colleagues, leading to improved staff retention and longer-term development and upskilling of staff.

Improved Collaboration And Employee Engagement In Decision-Making

Seeking buy-in and authentic engagement from a team can be achieved with servant leadership as it involves team members in the decision-making process.

This ensures a wider input from the team, a more diverse set of inputs and a collective agreement on the best way forward.

Employees will feel empowered and valued through this collaborative decision-making model. This approach has some similarities with a democratic leadership style

However,  it is not just the team members who benefit from this approach. Servant leaders understand and appreciate that every individual within the team brings their own knowledge, experience and skills and combined the team will be better equipped to make a decision compared to the leader in isolation.

Improved Ethical Behaviour

Servant leaders are role models and lead in an authentic and genuine way. They set exemplary examples for others to follow.

Ethical practices at are the heart of servant leadership. This links back to the 10 (12) principles of servant leadership around nurturing the spirit of servant leadership and the leader having a calling to serve.

What Are The Disadvantages and Criticisms of Servant Leadership?

Not Having The ‘Calling’

There is an implication that servant leaders have an inherent desire to serve and that this style of leadership comes naturally to them.

This may be case for some leaders but for others they will have to work on it. This may be problematic when the underlying ethos is centred around the leader having the ‘calling’ to serve.

Serving In The Wrong Organisation

It can very challenging to adopt a servant leadership approach when you work in an organisation or industry which does not share your belief in this leadership model.

If there is a mis-match between your ethos towards leadership and the ethos of the organisation you are working for you ability to be effective as a servant leader can be greatly diminished. 

Social Team Cohesion Trumps Team Task Cohesion

Team cohesion is typically a combination of social cohesion and task cohesion. In other words, for a team to be cohesive there needs to be a healthy balance of social cohesion (where team members unite around their meaningful relationships) and task cohesion (where team members unite around their accomplishment of task).

By focusing too much on one of these areas, in this case social cohesion, the other can be neglected to the detriment of the performance of the team.

Who Are The Thought Leaders For Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership philosophy and methods have been expressed and applied in many contexts. Many prominent organisations have gone on record promoting their use of a servant leadership ethos to underpin their business model.

Some of the most well-known thought leaders and advocates of servant leadership are presented below.

Stephen Covey Servant Leadership
Stephen Covey
Margaret Wheatley Servant Leadership
Margaret Wheatley
Peter Senge Servant Leadership
Peter Senge
Ann McGee-Cooper Servant Leadership
Ann McGee-Cooper
Larry Spears Servant Leadership
Larry Spears
Ken Blanchard Servant Leadership
Ken Blanchard

The Servant As Leader

The servant-leader primarily focuses on the growth and well-being of other people and to the communities they belong to.

Traditional leadership models are typically concerned with the use of power by the people at the top of the organisation.

However, servant leadership is different. Servant leaders share power, place the needs of other people before their own and support the performance and development of others.

Principles of Servant Leadership

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature."

The Organisation As Servant

Greenleaf acknowledged the need for considering the role of organisations in the leadership of others.

Individual leaders can adopt a servant leadership approach but unless they are able to function consistently within an organisation that is aligned with this approach their success will be limited. 

Greenleaf therefore promoted the need for organisations to be servants, and in fact, strongly believed that servant-leader organisations had the ability to change the world.

"Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”

Robert K Greenleaf (1970)