The Enduring Relevance of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership

In an ever-evolving landscape of leadership styles, one approach has stood the test of time for its human-centric philosophy and transformative impact: Servant Leadership. Coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970s, this leadership style emphasizes the leader’s primary role as a servant to their team.

In this article , we explore the enduring relevance of Servant Leadership, and examine its advantages and disadvantages in contemporary organizational settings.

The Essence of Servant Leadership

At its core, Servant Leadership is a philosophy that upholds the idea that leaders should prioritize the needs of their team members, enabling them to reach their full potential.

Robert K. Greenleaf, the pioneer of this concept, succinctly captures its essence by stating, “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.”

Relevance in Today’s Organizations

There are a number of reasons why we argue that Servant Leadership remains relevant today, including:

Fostering Trust and Collaboration

Servant Leadership remains highly relevant today due to its potential to foster trust and collaboration within organizations. By prioritizing the well-being and growth of their team members, servant leaders create an environment of psychological safety. The resulting atmosphere encourages open communication, innovative thinking, and a collective commitment to organizational goals.

As Simon Sinek, renowned leadership expert, asserts, “Leadership is not about being in charge. It is about taking care of those in your charge.” This sentiment echoes the fundamental principle of Servant Leadership.

Empowering Team Members

In a rapidly changing global economy, empowering team members is essential for organizational success. Servant leaders invest in the development of their employees, providing them with the tools, resources, and opportunities to excel. This approach aligns with the words of Mahatma Gandhi, who stated, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

To learn more about empowering your people, view our course on: EFFECTIVE DELEGATION AND EMPWOERMENT.

Adapting to Diverse Workforces

In today’s multicultural and diverse workplaces, the principles of Servant Leadership are particularly apt. By acknowledging and respecting the unique perspectives and backgrounds of team members, servant leaders create an inclusive environment. This inclusivity promotes creativity and innovation, as diverse viewpoints are valued and integrated into the decision-making process.

To learn more about promoting diversity, view our course on: MANAGING EQUALITY AND DIVERSITY.

Examples of Servant Leadership in Practice


Here are some examples of business leaders who have employed servant leadership approaches to their roles:

Howard Schultz – Former CEO of Starbucks Corporation

Howard Schultz, the visionary behind the global coffee giant, Starbucks, is often cited as a prime example of a servant leader. He demonstrated this by prioritizing the well-being of his employees, whom he referred to as “partners,” and investing in their personal and professional development. Schultz instituted a range of benefits for Starbucks employees, including healthcare coverage and stock options, well before they became industry standards. His emphasis on creating a positive work environment translated into high levels of employee satisfaction and customer loyalty.

Tony Hsieh – Former CEO of Zappos

Tony Hsieh, the late CEO of Zappos, was a fervent advocate for servant leadership. He placed a strong emphasis on company culture and believed that happy employees lead to happy customers. Hsieh implemented a radical management approach called “Holacracy,” which distributed decision-making authority across the organization. By doing so, he empowered employees at all levels to take ownership of their roles, fostering a sense of purpose and autonomy.

Mary Barra – CEO of General Motors

Mary Barra, the first female CEO of a major global automaker, is known for her collaborative leadership style. She has been praised for her emphasis on transparency, inclusivity, and accountability. Barra’s approach to leadership involves actively listening to employees and valuing their input in decision-making processes. Under her leadership, General Motors has made significant strides in innovation and sustainability, demonstrating the positive impact of servant leadership on organizational performance.

Satya Nadella – CEO of Microsoft

Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014 and has since been credited with revitalizing the company’s culture and driving innovation. He has emphasized the importance of empathy and active listening in leadership. Nadella’s commitment to empowering employees has been evident in his encouragement of diverse perspectives and his focus on creating a growth mindset within the organization. Under his guidance, Microsoft has experienced substantial growth and expanded into new markets.

These examples illustrate how servant leadership principles can be effectively applied in diverse industries and organizational settings. Each of these leaders prioritizes the well-being and growth of their team members, creating environments where employees feel valued, empowered, and motivated to excel.

Situations where Servant Leadership may not be Relevant

While Servant Leadership is a highly effective approach in many contexts, there are situations where it may not be the most suitable leadership approach. Recognizing these scenarios is crucial for leaders to adapt their approach appropriately. Let’s explore some of these contexts:


  1. Crisis Management: In situations of immediate crisis, such as a natural disaster, a major security breach, or a financial emergency, a more directive and authoritative leadership style may be necessary. Decisive action and clear direction are crucial to navigate through these high-stakes situations. While empathy and consideration for team members’ well-being remain important, a swift and decisive response is paramount.
  1. Highly Regulated Industries: In industries with stringent compliance and regulatory requirements, such as pharmaceuticals or finance, leaders may need to adopt a more directive approach to ensure strict adherence to legal and ethical standards. In these contexts, a focus on compliance and risk management may take precedence over the empowerment and development of individual team members.
  1. Start-Up Environments: In the early stages of a start-up, where rapid decision-making and execution are critical for survival, a more directive leadership style may be necessary. The urgency to establish market presence and secure funding often requires leaders to make swift, authoritative decisions. As the organization matures, a transition towards a more collaborative and servant leadership style may become more appropriate.
  1. Turnaround Situations: When an organization is facing severe financial or operational challenges, a more directive approach may be necessary to implement rapid and substantial changes. In these high-pressure situations, a leader may need to make tough decisions and take a more assertive stance to turn the organization around.
  1. Military or First Responder Operations: In high-risk environments, such as military operations or emergency response situations, a hierarchical and command-and-control leadership style is often essential for maintaining discipline, ensuring operational efficiency, and protecting the safety of personnel. While elements of servant leadership, such as caring for the well-being of team members, are still crucial, the overall leadership approach must be adapted to the unique demands of these contexts.
  1. Highly Specialized or Technical Roles: In roles that require specific technical expertise or a high level of specialization, leaders may need to adopt a more directive approach to provide clear guidance and ensure the accuracy and precision of work. While still valuing the contributions of team members, leaders must balance empowerment with the need for technical oversight.


Servant Leadership’s enduring relevance is evident in its ability to cultivate trust, empower employees, and adapt to the diverse needs of modern organizations. As organizations grapple with the complexities of the contemporary business environment, the principles of Servant Leadership provide a compelling framework for effective leadership.

By prioritizing the well-being and growth of team members, organizations can create a culture of excellence that drives performance, innovation, and sustained success. As Greenleaf aptly stated, “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

While Servant Leadership is a powerful and transformative leadership approach, it is important to recognize that it may not always be the most appropriate approach in every situation. Leaders must be adaptable and discerning, selecting the most suitable leadership style based on the specific context, challenges, and goals they face.

By understanding the nuances of different leadership approaches and styles, leaders can navigate diverse scenarios with skill and effectiveness.


In weighing the advantages against potential challenges, organizations can strategically implement and adapt Servant Leadership to suit their specific needs, ultimately reaping the benefits of a more empowered and engaged workforce.

To learn more about the key characteristics of Servant Leadership, view this video: SERVANT LEADERSHIP – EMPOWERING YOUR PEOPLE TO EXCEL.


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