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Servant Leadership: Putting Employees First

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Leadership styles greatly influence organizational culture, employee satisfaction, and business sustainability. Servant leadership, a term popularized by Robert K. Greenleaf (2002), suggests that a leader’s primary role is to serve their subordinates, prioritizing the workforce’s needs to enhance the overall health of the organization. This essay unpacks the principles of servant leadership, evaluates its benefits, recognizes its challenges, and examines its application through case studies, while proposing strategies for its practical implementation.

The Principles of Servant Leadership

At the core of servant leadership lies a set of principles that delineates this philosophy from more conventional leadership styles. These principles are not just guidelines but embody a way of life that transforms the traditional power hierarchy and inspires a service-first mindset that ripples through the organization.

Empathetic Listening: The servant leader actively engages in deep, reflective listening that values the speaker’s perspective, fostering an environment where every voice is heard and considered (Spears & Lawrence, 2004).

Healing Relationships: A servant leader recognizes the personal and professional tribulations of their team, offering support and facilitating a healing process that cultivates a healthy workplace (Greenleaf, 2002).

Awareness: This involves a keen self-awareness and an understanding of the broader context within which the organization operates. Such awareness enables servant leaders to act with a balance of heart and mind (Spears & Lawrence, 2004).

Persuasion Over Coercion: Rather than resorting to authoritative commands, servant leaders rely on their ability to persuade, creating consensus and buy-in among team members (Greenleaf, 2002).

Conceptualization: Servant leaders possess the ability to visualize the future with a sense of clarity and ensure that day-to-day operations are aligned with long-term goals (Spears & Lawrence, 2004).

Foresight: With a combination of intuition, experience, and analytical thinking, servant leaders are able to anticipate the potential impact of decisions and steer their organizations prudently (Greenleaf, 2002).

Stewardship: Servant leaders view themselves as stewards entrusted with the well-being of the organization and its people, leading with an ethic of caring and a commitment to the growth of others (Greenleaf, 2002).

Commitment to the Growth of People: They invest in the personal and professional development of employees, recognizing that an organization’s success is deeply rooted in the growth of its individuals (Spears & Lawrence, 2004).

Building Community: By fostering a sense of community within the organization, servant leaders create an atmosphere where employees feel a sense of connection and belonging (Greenleaf, 2002).

These principles are the bedrock of servant leadership, shaping leaders who prioritize the needs of their team members and, as a result, cultivate an environment of trust, commitment, and mutual respect. By embodying these values, leaders not only enhance the operational effectiveness of their organizations but also contribute to the creation of a more just and caring world.

Benefits of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is not just a fleeting management trend; it’s a proven approach with tangible benefits for organizations and employees alike. At the heart of servant leadership is the idea that leaders who prioritize the needs of their employees can create an environment that fosters respect, loyalty, and high performance.

Increased Employee Engagement and Job Satisfaction: Servant leaders aim to understand and address the needs and aspirations of their employees, which can result in a more engaged workforce (Greenleaf, 2002). By focusing on the development and well-being of team members, servant leaders often see higher job satisfaction and engagement levels.

Fostering a Culture of Trust: The servant leader’s commitment to ethical behavior and concern for the welfare of their employees helps to build a foundation of trust within the organization (Spears & Lawrence, 2004). This trust can enhance open communication and a supportive work environment.

Enhanced Team Collaboration: By valuing and seeking input from all members of the team, servant leaders encourage a culture where collaboration is the norm (Autry, 2004). A collaborative environment leads to more innovative solutions and shared ownership of both challenges and successes.

Improved Customer Service: When employees feel valued and supported, they are more likely to extend those feelings to customers (Spears & Lawrence, 2004). Servant leadership can, therefore, lead to an improved customer experience and higher levels of customer satisfaction.

Higher Employee Retention: Servant leadership practices contribute to lower turnover rates (Greenleaf, 2002). When employees feel their leaders are invested in their growth and well-being, they are more likely to remain with an organization long-term.

Greater Organizational Performance: The combination of engaged employees, a culture of trust, collaborative work practices, and strong customer relations contributes to enhanced overall organizational performance (Spears & Lawrence, 2004).

Challenges and Limitations

While servant leadership can yield numerous benefits, it also faces challenges and potential drawbacks:

Perception of Weakness: The servant leader’s focus on serving others may sometimes be misconstrued as a lack of assertiveness or authority (Greenleaf, 2002). This misperception can lead to challenges in situations where decisive action is required.

Slow Decision-Making Process: The inclusive and consultative approach characteristic of servant leadership can lead to slower decision-making processes (Spears & Lawrence, 2004). While this deliberation can lead to more thoughtful outcomes, it may hinder the ability to make quick decisions in a fast-paced business environment.

Balancing Servant Leadership with Organizational Goals: Leaders may struggle to align the servant leadership approach with aggressive financial and market performance goals (Autry, 2004). Finding the balance between serving employees and meeting organizational targets can be challenging.

Risk of Exploitation: There is a risk that the servant leader’s willingness to put others first can be exploited by individuals within the organization (Spears & Lawrence, 2004). This could potentially lead to a lack of accountability or abuse of the leader’s altruism.

Implementing Cultural Change: Transitioning to a servant leadership model requires a significant cultural shift that can be difficult to achieve, particularly in well-established organizations with entrenched traditional leadership practices (Greenleaf, 2002).

Case Studies of Servant Leadership in Practice

Southwest Airlines: Cultivating a Culture of Care

At Southwest Airlines, former CEO Herb Kelleher exemplified servant leadership by prioritizing employee well-being and fostering a familial culture. Kelleher’s leadership style was rooted in the belief that the way employees are treated by the company is how the customers will be treated in return (Gittell, 2003). Under Kelleher’s stewardship, Southwest maintained a strong organizational commitment to mutual respect, recognition, and empowerment, which translated into remarkable employee loyalty and customer service.

  • The airline’s open communication policy and the Employees come first philosophy were fundamental to its business strategy (Gittell, 2003).
  • Southwest’s profitability streak (profitable for 47 consecutive years as of 2019) can be attributed to the high levels of employee satisfaction and the resultant operational efficiency (Southwest Airlines Co., 2020).

Starbucks: Partnering with Employees

Starbucks, under Howard Schultz’s vision, revolutionized the concept of coffee shops as community spaces but also set a benchmark for employee treatment in the retail industry. Schultz’s approach, often referred to as partner philosophy, involves treating employees as partners in the business, including offering stock options and health benefits to part-time workers – a rarity in the industry (Michelli, 2007).

  • The company’s leadership training programs emphasize emotional intelligence, empowerment, and creating a culture of belonging, which has been essential in driving the company’s market leadership (Michelli, 2007).
  • Such initiatives have engendered loyalty and dedication among Starbucks employees, which in turn has had a positive effect on customer experience and the company’s bottom line.

The Container Store: Stacking Up Employee First Principles

The Container Store, led by Kip Tindell, has been recognized consistently for its high-ranking workplace environment. The company operates on the principle of 1 Great Person = 3 Good People and invests in hiring and nurturing top talent (Tindell, 2014). Servant leadership is evident in The Container Store’s foundational principles, which underscore training, employee satisfaction, and the idea that leaders wake up every day ready to serve (Tindell, 2014).

  • The company places a strong emphasis on extensive employee training, equipping staff with the tools and knowledge to serve customers effectively (Tindell, 2014).
  • This investment in employees has paid dividends in the form of customer satisfaction, employee retention, and consistent financial performance.


These case studies exemplify how a servant leadership philosophy can be integrated into corporate culture and practices. Each company, though different in industry and scale, has demonstrated that when leadership prioritizes the needs of employees, the benefits can resonate throughout the organization, leading to operational success and a competitive advantage in the market.

Strategies for Implementing Servant Leadership

The transition to a servant leadership model can be complex and requires intentional action and commitment. Below are some in-depth strategies that organizations can employ to embrace servant leadership:

  1. Leadership Development and Training: To cultivate servant leadership, organizations should invest in leadership development programs that focus on the core principles of servant leadership. This training can include workshops, seminars, and role-playing exercises that emphasize empathy, active listening, and community building (Spears & Lawrence, 2004). For instance, training programs might use case studies from companies like Southwest Airlines to demonstrate how servant leadership directly contributes to employee satisfaction and customer loyalty.
  2. Recruitment and Hiring Practices: Aligning recruitment practices with the values of servant leadership is crucial. Organizations should seek candidates who demonstrate a propensity for empathy, humility, and a genuine interest in the welfare of others. Behavioral interview questions can help identify these traits in candidates (Greenleaf, 2002).
  3. Performance Evaluation Adjustments: Traditional performance evaluations might not capture the essence of servant leadership. Adjusting evaluation criteria to include measures of servant leadership behaviors—such as the number of mentoring sessions conducted, feedback quality, and team satisfaction scores—can reinforce the importance of these practices (Autry, 2004).
  4. Mentorship Programs: Establishing mentorship programs can support the development of servant leadership within the organization. By pairing less experienced employees with servant leader mentors, organizations can facilitate the direct transmission of values and skills (Greenleaf, 2002).
  5. Encouraging Self-Awareness and Reflection: Self-awareness is a key component of servant leadership. Organizations can encourage leaders to engage in self-reflection and self-assessment exercises that help them understand their strengths and areas for growth in serving others (Spears & Lawrence, 2004).
  6. Modifying Organizational Structures: Servant leadership often flourishes in flat organizational structures that promote open communication and reduce power distances. Organizations can consider restructuring to create a more inclusive environment where employees at all levels feel their voices are heard (Greenleaf, 2002).
  7. Fostering a Servant Leadership Culture: This involves embedding the values of servant leadership into the corporate culture. It requires consistent messaging from the top that serving others is not just encouraged but expected. This messaging can be integrated into company mission statements, policies, and daily operations (Spears & Lawrence, 2004).
  8. Incentivizing Servant Leadership Behaviors: Reinforcing servant leadership through recognition and reward systems can motivate leaders to practice serving others actively. This could include awards for “Leader of the Year” based on peer nominations or bonuses tied to servant leadership criteria (Autry, 2004).
  9. Creating Servant Leadership Communities: Encouraging the formation of groups or communities within the organization that meet regularly to discuss and share experiences related to servant leadership can provide ongoing support and development for leaders (Greenleaf, 2002).
  10. Leading by Example: Finally, for servant leadership to truly take hold, senior executives must lead by example. When high-level leaders demonstrate servant leadership, they set a precedent for other managers and employees to follow (Spears & Lawrence, 2004).


In conclusion, servant leadership stands out as a powerful and transformative approach to management, challenging traditional notions of hierarchical leadership. It emphasizes the profound impact that a culture of service can have on employees and, by extension, the entire organization. The benefits of servant leadership—increased engagement, collaborative work environments, and improved organizational performance—are substantial and well-documented through case studies from renowned companies such as Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, and The Container Store. However, the adoption of this leadership style is not without its challenges, including the potential misperception of servant leadership as a sign of weakness, the risks associated with slow decision-making, and the difficulties of aligning a service-oriented ethos with aggressive business objectives.

Despite these challenges, the strategies for implementing servant leadership offer a roadmap for organizations committed to cultural transformation. These strategies require a sustained commitment to developing leaders who are not only skilled in business acumen but also in the art of empathy, listening, and stewardship. For organizations willing to embrace this shift, servant leadership offers a pathway to a more humane and effective management model, one that aligns closely with the values and expectations of a new generation of workers and customers. As businesses look to the future, those that choose to put employees first, championing servant leadership principles, may well find that they are not only shaping a more ethical business landscape but are also enjoying a competitive advantage that is both sustainable and rewarding.


  • Autry, J. A. (2004). The Servant Leader: How to Build a Creative Team, Develop Great Morale, and Improve Bottom-Line Performance. New York, NY: Crown Business.
  • Gittell, J. H. (2003). The Southwest Airlines Way: Using the Power of Relationships to Achieve High Performance. McGraw-Hill.
  • Greenleaf, R. K. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
  • Michelli, J. A. (2007). The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary. McGraw-Hill.
  • Southwest Airlines Co. (2020). 2020 One Report. Southwest Airlines Co.
  • Spears, L. C., & Lawrence, M. (Eds.). (2004). Practicing servant leadership: Succeeding through trust, bravery, and forgiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Tindell, K. (2014). Uncontainable: How Passion, Commitment, and Conscious Capitalism Built a Business Where Everyone Thrives. Grand Central Publishing.

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I am passionate about agile methodologies and have experience as a Scrum Master, guiding development teams to deliver high-quality products. In my free time, I keep myself updated with the latest industry developments and participate in online communities and forums. I am always open to networking and connecting with like-minded individuals in the industry.

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