What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership, founded about 40 years ago, can be defined as willingness to serve others and bringing together people who are in conflict, while helping them in leadership capacity. I would definitely say that this is one of my preferred style of leadership.

In the book Servant Leadership Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars and Ed Voerman provide 7 core qualities of servant leadership. I will give my suggestions on how you can put these core principles into action.

  1. Leading Through Serving
  2. Better Rules Through Exceptions
  3. Building Teams of Creative Individuals
  4. More Passion as a Result of Control
  5. Putting Parts into a Whole
  6. Short-Term and Long-Term Vision
  7. Combining Internal and External

1. Leading Through Serving

Some people see the phrase “leading through serving” and see it as a contradiction, as many leaders feel that they need to be served instead. This is not Greg’s or my philosophy. We frequently talk about the importance of ensuring our teams are happy and getting their needs met.

If you want to practice servant leadership, get your team coffee, offer to help them during busy times, or give up your cushy parking spot to one of your staff. And remember, you can serve those who are in higher or lower positions than you. It is your mindset to serve as opposed to the desire to gain favor that makes you a servant leader.

Finally, don’t forget that everyone is a leader. Everyone is responsible for their own actions and everyone needs to support others to make good decisions.

What is Servant Leadership

2. Better Rules Through Exceptions

The servant leader believes in following rules while at the same time believing that exceptions have a place in making decisions.

For example, we all believe in a general rule that speeding is not allowed. However, if you find a dying person on the side of a deserted road with no cell phone service, you may decide it is OK to speed to the nearest hospital.

Servants leaders, above all, pay attention to mistakes of others, so that they themselves do not repeat them. If you see someone put their hands in hot steam and get burnt, there’s no need for you to give that experience at try!

3. Building Teams of Creative Individuals

A good servant leader realizes that they can tap into group creativity, but understands that it is also the individual’s responsibility to tap into their own creativity. As a servant leader, you want to develop a strong team that has a sense of community, with members that can trust, teach and learn from each other.

The servant leader can be a better speaker if they know how to listen, can use their power more effectively if they let it go and can build teams of creative people.” – Fons Trompenaars and Ed Voerman

Creating trust in your team will take time. Here, you need to let your team to learn to trust you. Don’t come on strong. Learn from them before you try to teach them. To earn trust, you must show trust.

4. More Passion as a Result of Control

The servant leader has control over his emotions. She is passionate about what she does but will keep herself in check, especially when she is helping others.

Also, servant leaders are skilled with humor, knowing how to break the ice or tension in the room with a well-timed joke or two. I can really identify with this as I do this all the time; sometimes too much in other people’s opinions!

Servant leaders – learn to laugh! Then, teach others how to laugh!

5. Putting Parts into a Whole

A servant leader needs to have an aerial view of the organization. They need to remember that even though they must see the bigger picture, they cannot lose sight of their employees. One way they can do this is to ensure their staff is educated in regards to their jobs.

So, as a servant leader, you need to pay attention to both your employees and the organization. Make sure they know their jobs. Sign them up for training when needed. With time, you can create some Subject Matter Experts that will benefit everyone involved.

It is essential to remember that if you treat your staff right, they will increase their loyalty to you and to the organization.


6. Short-Term and Long-Term Vision

A servant leader needs to be able to look and plan both short-term and long-term goals for their organizations. They need to act proactively rather than reactively.

For example, if a cruise line knows that a storm is heading towards one of their ships, they will want to tell the captain of the ship to take a different route rather than allow the ship to encounter the storm and hope for the best.

As a servant leader, you need to understand your industry so you can forecast potential problems and deal with them when they are still small. When I was taking a crisis communications course, it was said that the best way to deal with a crisis is to avoid one altogether.

When faced with a crisis, don’t forget to get the support of your team. Use those Subject Matter Experts you created.

7. Combining Internal and External

A skilled servant leader combines the internal world with the external world. This is where they engage in active listening, develop empathy for others and stay open to what others have to say.

This last point is especially important and meaningful to me.

I had a teammate once who I felt was very bossy and would always use blaming language when she was frustrated or upset with me. My boss saw this dynamic and she talked to me about the situation. She taught me that the intent is usually more important than the words and challenged me to listen for intent.

It worked wonders for me! I gained some empathy for my teammate that day.

Your job, as a servant leader is to find out the needs of your staff and meet those needs. How do you do this? Simple – ask them and talk to them. Build a positive rapport.


Those are the 7 core principles of servant leadership, outlined in the book Servant Leadership Across Cultures. I just touched on them here, but I hope you are excited to learn about both servant leadership and leadership in general.

If you have any comments on what is servant leadership, or want to add to the article, be sure to leave us a comment. And don’t forget to subscribe to our leadership newsletter, for practical lessons on skills and techniques you need to learn to be a good leader.

John Maloney
John Maloney is a leadership instructor, a life coach and a contributing writer at Online Leadership Network. He has over 22 years of experience as a front line staff, team leader and program coordinator at a large non-profit organization, as well as a Masters Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with focus on Leadership in the 21st Century.


  1. i just git promoted to the work of supervisor at work which means I am a leader in that sort and I have people who will be looking up to me but I do not know so much about leadership. I only know that I want to serve them and also make them know that I wish to serve them as their leader. This seven points really got me thinking and I’m going to be a good leader of I follow what is written here I’m sure.

    • Hey Suz! Good luck with your new position. We have many articles on our website that will assist you in developing your leadership skills. Also, you can subscribe to our newsletter. If you want to take your leadership journey to the next level, you can also get our book How to Be a Leader. Best of luck!

  2. Hello John it’s nice to be here and I have to say in happy with such a wonderful idea which they have come up with. I have really wondered how leadership qualities can be learned and I have read appreciated this effort that servant leadership brings. I have a learn to learn from them. Cheers


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