Your Ultimate Guide to Servant Leadership

The other day, our team received a congratulatory email from Dave, our manager, for completing a crucial project. A little later, John, who had worked on tough assignments for the project, thanked Dave for praising his efforts. He was delighted for not being forgotten, even after a couple of months of leaving the organization.

I was pleasantly surprised to know that my leader carried his relationship with his employees with such grace.

Dave was a true servant leader. He was genuinely interested in the welfare of his employees, often inquired about our well being, and ensured we reach our career objectives, even if this means we may move on. With his serving attitude, he always got the best out of us.

Let’s discuss the servant leadership style to know how leaders like Dave operate and bring success to an organization.

What is servant leadership?

Leadership, for some people, is all about enforcing power. Whatever the issue, they believe sheer strength and brute force can solve it.

These leaders stay at the top in an organization to accumulate power and follow the traditional leadership pyramid model, as explained in the following figure.

As can be seen, the leader is right at the top in such a model, followed by employees, customers, and investors.

Servant leaders, on the other hand, have a serve-first attitude. These leaders help people develop and perform to the best of their abilities. They achieve this by putting the needs of others first. Unlike traditional leaders, they do not try and accumulate power. On the contrary, they share it with other people.

 As a result, they turn the traditional leadership model completely upside down. This model puts leaders at the bottom of the hierarchy and others, i.e., employees, customers, and investors at the top. Here is what the servant leadership model looks like:

Although servant leadership is a universal concept, it was Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term in his essay that he published in 1970.

According to him, servant leadership starts with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first; then, conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. And finally, the best test of servant leadership style is to check if those whom you serve grow as an individual.

To understand servant leadership better, let’s have a look at the attributes of a servant leader.

The characteristics of a servant leader

According to Larry C. Spears, President, and CEO at the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, Regent University, there are ten basic characteristics of servant-leader

Let’s discuss them one by one.


As a servant leader, you follow two-way communication. You not only communicate by saying, but by listening to others as well. When you listen, you can find out the areas of concern, and also the suggestions that can help with better results.

Listening ability also allows you to understand the desires and aspirations of the people around you. As a result, you are able to make better decisions in the interest of your team.


You need to be able to connect to people and understand their feelings to be a servant-leader. When you can relate to the circumstances of others, you can handle them better. Empathy also helps you understand the challenges faced by the stakeholders in your business.

Worried that people may not reciprocate? Here’s why they will:

You genuinely care for people and try and solve their problems by being empathetic. As a result, people endorse and support your ideas and align themselves to attain the objectives you set.


Everyone, including you, goes through rough patches. However, you are expected to deliver accurate results all the time. Hence, you need to have the power to repair the damage caused by poor performances. To achieve this, traditional leaders rely on punishments and penalties.

However, as a servant-leader, you lift the spirits of employees. You understand that a poor show is no one’s choice, and instead of pressurizing, you start healing.

And then, magic happens!

Like therapy relieves the pain of wounds; similarly, healing amends the emotional state of people. As a result, they work with greater zeal and enthusiasm to achieve desired goals.


You need to be aware of yourself and the needs of others to be a servant-leader. When you are self-aware you gain clarity on the issues of ethics and values. You also gain an understanding of how these apply to the situation you are in.

Awareness of others’ needs gives you a holistic view. In case of a problem, you can examine all aspects before you attempt to solve it.  


“Persuasion can take many forms, but the result is still the same – a willing partnership designed to accomplish a shared vision of purpose”  – Dr. Ed Rough in Leadership is Persuasion).

As a servant-leader, you convince people, rather than coerce them, to follow a particular path. You use persuasion, not your authority, to motivate people to take action. You do not dominate people and throw orders at them, but inspire and build trust. You arrive at decisions with consensus.


As a servant-leader, you need to hit the balance between the vision of your organization and the day-to-day operations. Traditional leaders are fixated only on immediate goals; however, you need to shift focus to involve the bigger picture to use the power of conceptualization.

Find it hard to implement? Here’s a quick tip:

You need to think beyond numbers and the operational grinds of the tasks in hand. This can involve helping your team with tools and training that they’ll use not only immediately, but also in the longer run.


To be a servant-leader, you should have the capacity to predict the results of your decisions before you make them. Foresight is your ability to learn lessons from your past and take steps in the present that prevents undesired outcomes for the future.

The skill of having foresight has a lot to do with your intuitive mind. However, remember that intuition is a mix of experience and common sense.

Have a look at this video to understand how foresight helps Jeff Cohen, CMO Seller Labs, develop better customer products & solutions.


Peter Block, the author of Stewardship, defines a steward as ‘someone who holds something in trust for another.’

As a servant-leader, you need to get out of the ‘hit the targets at any cost’ mentality and adapt to a steward’s mentality, i.e., you need to think beyond personal achievements and rewards for the bigger cause.

How do you go about bringing this change in your attitude? Here’s a suggestion:

Make sure every decision you take has something for your employees, customers, investors, and all stakeholders; they should prosper with the service you offer. Do not take decisions that benefit only yourself.

Commitment to the growth of others:

If you want to hit the sweet spot in your journey as a servant-leader, THIS IS IT – you need to get passionately involved in the growth of other people. You should not keep the best opportunities for yourself, allow others to grab them too.

Remember, the most important resource that you work with is people. You need to overcome the fear that they will move on or outshine you. Instead, practice commitment for their growth- take suggestions before making decisions, give them training opportunities for growth, promote them for better roles.

Building a Community:

To be a servant-leader, you need to understand the importance of communities in shaping humans; the way they positively influence lives. Hence, you have to build a community within your organization.  

Build a community! Do you think it will have no impact on your company? Not really, it can actually change the fortunes of your business. Here’s how:

Your employees can easily feel detached and focus on individual goals. When you inspire them to take the goals of others and organization into account, you form a community. As a result, genuine lasting bonds develop.

Now, you are aware of the characteristics of a servant-leader. The next step is to apply these to your business. The following are a few methods you can use.

How to apply servant leadership in your organization?

Do you believe the servant leadership model will work best only in non-profit organizations or humanitarian institutes? Think again!

According to a study by Roger William University, servant leadership is effective in a competitive, for-profit, service organization.

Following are a few practical methods you can use to develop servant leadership in your company :

Change the mindset :

You cannot apply servant leadership unless you have the right mindset. You need to have a ‘serve-first’ attitude rather than ‘lead-first’ to be a servant-leader.

You serve your staff, which in turn serves and benefits your organization. Need an example to understand better?

Southwest airlines’ leadership is a classic case of the servant-leadership model. Founder Herb Kelleher’s philosophy of putting employees first, helped Southwest create employee-friendly policies.

The outcome?

A highly engaged workforce with low turnover resulted in 35 plus consecutive years of profit – quite a feat – in the turbulent airline industry.

How do you build a people-first mindset in your organization? Following are a few tips:

  • Develop a cultural department that evolves the policy of ‘everyone matters.’  This department can form committees to solve employee and client issues.
  • Arrange for regular one-to-one private counseling sessions with your employees. Such forums encourage open discussions and help in identifying their needs.
  • Appreciate people for their work and commitment through monetary benefits. Make sure awards and appreciation recognize every piece of great work.
  • Celebrate anniversaries of clients, investors and stakeholders, and birthdays of employees. Organize family gatherings of your staff. Such events help in building a healthy workplace environment.

Ensure availability of resources:

You need to make sure that everyone has the tools and knowledge they need to meet their objectives. Without the necessary resources, your team will not be able to complete their assignments efficiently and accurately. You have to identify the challenges and roadblocks your employees are facing.

Wondering how are you going to find out the areas where people need assistance? Here are a couple of methods that can be useful :

As a servant-leader, you need to figure out ways to help people open up on the issues they are facing. One-on-one meetings are a great tool to let your team have an open discussion on the bottlenecks. Such meetings are also useful in resolving conflicts and interpersonal issues.

Traditional leaders, at times, expect one employee to do the work of two. However, to be a servant-leader, you need to hit the ‘appropriate workload balance’ culture in your organization. Include a new team member if there are tight deadlines, and employees are finding it hard to meet them.

While it’s important to be there for your employees, hit the right balance between providing them the essential resources, and making them think about solutions themselves.

If you are always there to help your employees, some of them may stop solving problems on their own. Hence, don’t avoid making tough decisions or giving negative feedback when this is needed.

Offer opportunities for personal development :

You need to take care of your employees beyond their jobs to be a successful servant-leader. If you restrict yourself only to the professional aspects, your staff is bound to work only for personal goals. However, if you provide opportunities for personal growth, they will align themselves with organizational objectives.

How can you help employees in their personal development?

Having a learning and development support department exhibits career growth assistance for your employees. You can include mentoring programs, training sessions, guest speakers, and external certifications as support functions in this department. This upskills your employees and upgrades your company to the latest requirements of businesses.

Do not restrict yourself to just work-related offerings as opportunities for personal development. How about running a program to lose weight? Or a policy on providing interest-free loans to your employees for personal needs?

These, and many such employee-centric policies, may not meet any immediate corporate needs, but leads to higher employee engagement and trust, and fosters stronger relationships with team members and other stakeholders.

A healthy work environment, built by an authentic interest in the personal development of employees, can upscale customer satisfaction levels as well. As a result, service ratings and customer loyalty increases, which can improve the credibility of your organization’s brand.

Final thoughts:

With a lot of successful stories of servant leadership in the corporate set-up, there is no reason why you cannot apply it in your organization.

However, make sure you analyze your situation before you apply the servant leadership model. For instance, consider applying servant-leadership alongside styles like transformational leadership, where you develop an inspiring vision of the future and motivate people to deliver it.

Also, keep in mind that servant leadership requires time to achieve positive results. Hence, if your organization is going through a financial crisis or there are other reasons why you need a quick turnaround, this leadership style should not be used. You need to be swift and decisive in such a case.

No matter what goals you have, as a leader, you need to consider servant-leadership as a compelling option for delivering results.

How are you going to apply servant leadership in your organization? Have you exhibited any of the servant leadership qualities in your business? Let us know in the comments below.


8 Major Leadership theories: Strengths, Weaknesses and Examples

Leadership is a multifaceted subject, and a combination of various factors determine why some people are successful leaders. The theories of leadership are the studies and views of experts, scholars, and researchers that describe the aspects that make a great leader.

Different schools of thought have varied opinions on how can you become an extraordinary leader. Some theories suggest that you need to have inborn traits, some advocate you to shape your persona as per the situation, while others emphasize on effective behavior.

However, there are some common characteristics of exceptional leaders. Analyzing the takeaways from these theories can help you understand them and evolve as a leader.

Let’s have a look at the eight major theories, along with their strengths, weaknesses, and examples.

1) Great Man Theory of Leadership: Leaders are born, not made

The great man theory is one of the earliest ways to look at leadership. It states that some people are born with the traits of a leader; they have the gift of unique qualities. These attributes separate them from the masses and make them reach the position of power and authority.

Thomas Carlyle, who is associated with much of the work on this theory, said,

“The history of the world is the biography of great men.”

For example, people like Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Stalin did not receive leadership training. However, they took on leadership roles and captured the imagination of the masses. These leaders had an unexplained tenacity to rise to the top when a lot of similar people were experiencing almost identical circumstances.

However, Herbert Spencer, a noted philosopher, was not in favor of this theory. He said, leaders are the result of their conditions; before they alter society, society has to make them.

For instance, people like Mahatma Gandhi, who were not trained in leadership but became great leaders, had leadership styles that were an extension of their personal experiences and life story.

2) Trait Theory of Leadership: Measure your leadership potential

The basis of Trait theory is the premise that ‘leaders are born not made.’ It is an extension of the Great Man theory of leadership.

The theory states that the comparison of your leadership characteristics to the list of the traits of many successful and unsuccessful leaders can be used to predict your leadership effectiveness.

The following figure gives us a list of a few traits of great leaders:

You can use the traits mentioned in this theory as a yardstick to assess your ability as a leader. Since these are personality traits, you can use personality assessment tests to identify your strengths and weaknesses.

Critics of this theory suggest that the list describing the leadership traits of successful leaders is very long – more than a hundred different traits. Also, situational factors, like social and economic inequities that impact your ability to lead, are not taken into account.

3) Contingency Theory of Leadership: Match your leadership style to the situation

Contingency theory, developed by Fred Fielder in 1958, assumes that leaders are either task-oriented or relationship-oriented. Task-oriented leaders assign tasks, set deadlines, and follow structural processes. Relationship-oriented leaders focus on people and are considerate.

Your success as a leader, according to this theory, lies in finding out the leadership style and situation in which you would flourish.

There are eight possible combinations for three situational variables, as shown in the following figure:

A good leader-member relation means your group members like you. High task structure implies that you are directing a well-defined job, and a strong position power would mean you have a position of high authority. The favorableness of a situation is the extent to which the situation allows you to influence your group.

For example, imagine you are a newly appointed store manager in one of the leading apparel brands. You will be poor on leader-member relations as you are new to the job. Task structure will be high as there will be clear operating procedures on how to deal with customers. You will be strong on the position of power as you can reward or punish employees as a store manager.

Now, how do you decide on your leadership style? That brings us to the second part.

As per the theory, task-oriented leaders perform well in situations that are very favorable or unfavorable, and relationship-oriented leaders perform well in situations that are intermediate in favorableness, as shown in the following figure:

Hence, as per the Contingency theory, the best way to approach your new job as a store manager is to use a relationship-oriented style.

What are the other situations in which you can apply contingency theory?

It can also help you identify the right talent for leadership openingsin your organization. You can compare the leadership style of the aspirants to the situation for which you need to hire a leader if they match you employ the person else you reject.

Though the contingency theory is quite dynamic, there are some downsides to it.

You need to fall under only a set of leadership styles to apply this theory. Also, there can be scenarios where you may want to change the situation rather than match your style of leadership to it. The contingency theory will not help you in these circumstances.

4) Situational Theory of Leadership: Adapt to the situation

Dr. Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard developed the Situational Theory of leadership. It states you cannot have one leadership style for all situations. The leadership style you adopt, depends on circumstances.

According to the theory, you should follow four primary leadership styles as per the readiness level of your subordinates:

Telling (Autocratic approach): You can adapt this style for the ‘Readiness 1 level’ of subordinates; these people lack the ability as well as the willingness to do the job.

For instance, if you are a leader in a war or an emergency room of a hospital, you need to adapt to telling (authoritative) style of leadership.

Selling (A little Democratic approach): This style is suitable for the ‘Readiness 2 level’ of subordinates, i.e., for people who lack the ability but are willing to do the job. Example: To lead a team of millennials in a software organization, you will have to use the selling style of leadership.

Participating (Democratic approach): You should use this method when your subordinates have the ability but lack the willingness to do the job.

Delegating (Hands-Off approach): You need to delegate work to people who have the ability, as well as the willingness to do the job. You can use this style in case you are working on an urgent assignment, and another task pops up, you will need to ‘delegate’ it to a competent subordinate.

The following figure explains the leadership styles according to the behavior of subordinates :

Do the above situations sound familiar? Go ahead and apply this theory to your workplace. Here is how you will grow as a leader:

You will be flexible to adapt to a variety of situations. Your awareness level will rise as you always need to be familiar with the situation around you. It will also lift the morale of your group members and give them a comfortable work environment.

However, you need to be cautious that this theory focuses on short term needs rather than long term goals. You may lose sight of your organizational objective and end up responding to immediate requirements only.

Another issue is that, even with the variables mentioned for various situations in this theory, it is difficult to ensure that you will analyze the situation the same way as other leaders. As a result, outcomes can vary.

5) The behavioral theory of Leadership: Leaders are made not born

This theory states that if you condition your behavior for the response to any given situation, you can be a leader. It focuses on your behavior and actions rather than traits or abilities.

According to the theory, your behavior as a leader determines your performance. Through teaching and observation, you can train yourself to behave as a leader. Thus, the theory concentrates on leadership and not the leader, i.e. it treats leadership as a characteristic that you can develop through practice. 

Kurt Lewin explained one of the behavior leadership theories in the 1930s. He identified three types of leadership behaviors, as described in the figure below:

In case you need to focus on the profit margins of your organisation or achieve stringent deadlines, you should apply the authoritative behavior of leadership. You can allocate tasks, arrange formal lines of communication, and set up quick turnaround time for your group members.

However, various researches on Lewin’s theory showed mixed results as most leaders used some part of either of the three leadership behaviors.

To help leaders decide on what behaviors to choose, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H. Schmidt devised a continuum of leader behaviors (see below figure):

The continuum ranges from boss centered leadership to subordinate centered leadership along with what behavior you should display. You move from autocratic to democratic behavior as you go from boss to subordinate centered leadership.

Another behavior theory of leadership is the Ohio State leadership studies. It describes leader behavior in two dimensions, as explained in the figure below:

Initiating Structure behavior: You define what is expected of group members, set up formal lines of communication, and determine how subordinates will perform tasks.

Consideration behavior: You are concerned about subordinates and establish a warm and friendly work environment like you allow flexible working hours to your employees or set up daycare for infants in your organization. This approach is subordinate oriented and can help create the right environment for increasing productivity.

You need to be patient while applying the behavioral theory. The difference between knowing the behavioral styles and actually applying them takes repeated failures and lots of practice.

6) Participative theory of Leadership: The democratic dimension to lead

This theory says that the ideal leadership style takes input from others. According to the theory, you need to facilitate discussion. After collecting relevant inputs from everyone, synthesize the given information to arrive at a decision.

Following figure represents the process to effectively apply participative theory of leadership:

The theory attempts to remove the hierarchical distance between you and your group. It involves collective involvement and responsibility to achieve the goal.

For instance, Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates has empowered his key employees to make crucial decisions of significant departments like innovation and marketing.

He has set up strong digital channels for facilitating communication within the company. Also, people who need specific information about the organization can access it. Open sharing of information and knowledge has helped Microsoft grow leaps and bounds.

Are you planning to bring new policies in your organization?

Use the tools of participative theory. The implementation of new policies becomes easier with this method as decisions arrive with consensus. Also, group members perform well, even in your absence, because their morale is high, and they feel valued and accountable.

You need to be aware though that the decision-making process may take a lot of time, which can affect the efficiency of your group. Taking input from every group member can also cause indecisiveness on some points.

7) Transactional theory of Leadership: Do or die

Max Weber and Bernard M. Bass described this theory. The basis of the theory is the concept of rewards and punishments. The group gets a reward or punishment depending on whether it achieves the goal set by you.

To understand further, you should know the hierarchy of human requirements.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, human needs can be represented in the form of a pyramid, as can be seen in the figure below. The needs at the bottom are the most basic ones like sleep, food. As you go up the pyramid, needs become difficult to achieve.

As a transactional leader, you concentrate only on the bottom of the pyramid for your group members. You ensure to fulfill the physiological needs of your group, along with financial security.

Sounds mean?

Well, it’s true that with this leadership style, the relationship between you and your group is transitory, with no emotional bond. Also, the creativity of your employees takes a hit as you do not encourage new ideas.

However, this type of leadership motivates your group members by engaging them in their self-interest. Also, the productivity of your group members increases as they try to achieve their targets in a shorter duration. If your project requires undeviating and specific processes, you can use this style to accomplish the desired results.

8) Relationship theory of Leadership: Transformation through association

Leadership expert James MacGregor Burns initially introduced this theory. Also known as transformational theory, the basis of it is the relationship between you and your group. According to the theory, you need to build the trust of your subordinates by building quality relationships with them.

You need to have four behavioral components to be a transformational leader, as explained in the figure below:

Charisma gives power to you as a relationship leader. Individualized consideration means your ability to increase the growth of the group. Inspiration refers to your quality to inspire group members. Intellectual stimulation allows you to build awareness of problems and solutions.

According to a study by the University of Cologne, Germany, transformational leaders result in well being of their group.

Here is how you can bring a positive change with this leadership:

By following this approach, you not only look at the bigger picture but also help individual group members attain their potential. You transform the culture of your organization and achieve goals. Your employees will show a higher level of performance and satisfaction because they feel inspired and empowered.

However, transformational leadership will not work if you have a group of less-skilled members, as they require direction and guidance in an authoritarian style.

A classic example of a transformational leader:

Steve Jobs was truly transformational. He inspired employees to think beyond what they had already done. His passion for innovation, perfection, and simplicity drove Apple to achieve unbelievable results. He challenged his employees and made them create things that the world had never seen before.


The ‘Great Man’ theory and ‘trait’ theory suggests that leaders have leadership traits by birth. It is imperative, though, that you groom and develop these qualities. The inspiration to lead may come from within, but you need to train yourself to appeal to the masses. Also, note that intrinsic qualities are a matter of choice and not chance. For example, being virtuous or dishonest to your group is an option.

You need the right psychological make-up to step in the shoes of a leader. Analyze the circumstances in which you are supposed to lead and prepare yourself according to the situation. Once you are aware of the circumstances and the qualities you need, use the tools described in leadership theories to set your leadership approach.

What are the qualities that you wish to acquire as a leader? How would you apply leadership theories to develop them? Do let us know in the comments below.