Five Servant Leadership Qualities Successful Organizations Share


One aspect of leadership development that I enjoy most is servant-leadership. Even though the example of servant-leadership goes back at least two thousand years, the modern servant-leadership movement was launched by Robert K. Greenleaf in a publication in 1970 titled The Servant as Leader. It is based on a value system that “[t]he 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.

Servant-leadership, a concept coined by Robert Greenleaf, founder of the Greenleaf Institute for Servant Leadership, in the 1970s, focuses on being a servant first—literally. Greenleaf states, “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.”

Contrary to what some people think of when they hear the term servant leadership, it is not synonymous with the word “doormat” or "Kumbaya" hand-holding sessions. The servant-leader gains fulfillment by serving, growing, and mentoring others. This experience and unselfish motive prompts his or her desire to become a leader. This is in sharp contrast with the typical individual who strives to become a leader first, usually to feed a desire for power, control, or material possessions. As Greenleaf stated, “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."

There is a good reason that Fortune Magazine‘s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For reveals that five of the top ten Best Companies to Work For are also identified as companies practicing servant-leadership.

Here is a very short list of prominent organizations managed with servant-leadership: SAS, Wegmans Food Market, Zappos.com, Container Store, Whole Foods Market, TD Industries, Aflac, Marriott International, Nordstrom, Men’s Wearhouse, and Starbucks.

So what does servant leadership look like? Here are some qualities you would see in one of the companies in the list above or any number of individuals or smaller scale organizations across the world successfully practicing servant leadership principles.

1. A culture of trust.

Top to bottom, members of the organization use open, honest, direct communication. Gossiping is frowned upon, and employees have the freedom to express themselves (appropriately, of course) to leaders who are humble and open-minded enough to listen.

2. Leaders develop leaders.

No dog-eat-dog mentality here. Leaders within the organization are constantly teaching and developing the leadership skills of others. They follow an “It’s not about me, it’s about you” approach. This includes providing adequate support, encouragement, and delegation to budding leaders so they can grow and thrive.

3. All input is welcome.

From the stock room to the board room, all input on how to better the organization is welcomed. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, famously said, “The key to success is to get out into the store and listen to what the associates have to say.” With a servant leader attitude, leaders seek out the opinions of others on a regular basis.

4. Humility, not superiority.

Servant leaders do not lord their titles over others or present an air of superiority. Rather, a servant-first leader shows genuine care and concern for others. No task is too menial (including brewing that first cup of coffee in the morning) and rolling up their sleeves is not out of the question to help get the job done. This example of service is contagious to others and motivates all members to do the same.

5. Long-term vision.

Servant-leaders recognize that the success of a person and an organization don’t happen overnight. They are willing to make short-term sacrifices for long-term development. This shows in the form of mentoring, ongoing professional development, and even personal development opportunities like financial planning or weight loss programs. Servant leaders support the whole person—with not only work skills, but also life skills, for a happier and more productive team.

These are just five of the many qualities that servant-leadership based organizations in Cleveland, Ohio and across the country are exhibiting. What is the culture of your organization like? If it is toxic, unproductive, or authoritarian, your organization will never function to its full potential.

Leadership Excellence helps develop leaders and organizations using servant leadership principles. Make your business a place where respect, cohesion, and effective leadership are the rule and discover how increased productivity, a healthy workplace culture, and effective leadership can grow your organization. Contact us today to learn about our servant-leadership training in Cleveland, Medina, and northeast Ohio.