Servant leadership is an approach to leading a team that focuses on developing individuals and building synergistic relationships. The term was coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf, who felt that an alternative to traditional leadership structures was required.
In theory, servant leadership can foster a pool of skilled, motivated people that ultimately leads to greater productivity and profit.
1 What Is a Servant Leader in Business?
A servant leader in business is an individual who follows an employee-centric leadership style to effectively motivate employees and help them achieve business goals. Servant leadership examples in business can be found everywhere from Starbucks to FedEx. The concept involves multiple factors, such as providing sufficient training and resources to employees, supporting professional growth and promoting a comfortable, transparent working environment.
Through these actions, a servant leader can increase the engagement of their staff, who are able to flourish in a workplace that they feel values their needs and not just the bottom line. This in turn has been shown to lead to greater creativity in problem solving.
2 What Is an Example of Servant Leader Behavior?
There are several ways to think about what is servant leadership. Examples of servant leadership behavior might include empathetic discussion with employees about their performance and future progression; active listening to discover any hidden problems as well as make staff feel heard; an open attitude to discussion and collaboration; and being accountable not just to superiors but also to employees, asking for feedback on your performance as a leader.
3 What are the characteristics of servant leadership?
Common servant leadership characteristics include empathy, active listening, stewardship (i.e., taking responsibility for your team and holding yourself accountable), encouraging the career growth of employees and facilitating an environment that makes their workplace better. As discussed above, it often means a leader placing themselves at the service of their employees, in order to achieve greater productivity, greater all around productivity, efficiency and wellbeing at a company.
4 Servant Leadership Examples in Business
4.1 Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen – Daring to Serve
When it comes to selecting who is a good example of servant leadership, Cheryl Bachelder is probably one of the most cited. In her 2015 book Dare to Serve, she describes how she turned fast-food chicken chain Popeyes’ ailing fortunes around by refocusing attention on serving not just customers, but franchisees and staff as well, enabling her to engineer double-digit growth in profits and market share.
The pillars to her approach included moving the spotlight away from leadership and onto helping employees more widely achieve superior performance, as well as setting clear, purposeful, transparent goals and values that elucidated for everyone the trajectory envisaged by the company management.
4.2 Starbucks – Brewing Up Employee Engagement
Coffee giant Starbucks have leveraged open forums, surveys and collaboration sessions to reach out to people across their portfolio to find out what people like and dislike about working at the company. Through this continuous engagement, they are able to identify areas of change to improve perception of the brand.
This approach facilitates communication, openness and inclusion, building relationships between management and staff that promote employee satisfaction.
4.3 FedEx – Delivering a People-First Philosophy
“People-Service-Profit” is one of the mottoes of FedEx. This servant leadership example takes the idea that constructing a positive working environment for employees will cause them to provide better service to customers, thereby causing customers to repeatedly utilize FedEx’s portfolio of products.
This is achieved through such tools as the annual employee satisfaction survey, a recognition and reward program, professional development schemes and an open-door program designed to deal with any staff feedback or complaints.
4.4 Marriott International – Training for Success
While global hotel chain Marriott also touts its people-first philosophy, they approach it more prominently via learning and development. The company has numerous opportunities for growth, including the Voyage Global Leadership Development Program, which preps recent graduates for future management roles within Marriott by exposing them to all the different aspects of the business over 12 to 18 months.
Marriott has also been active in developing a digital learning platform to get new staff up to speed and teach existing staff new skills via video courses and virtual simulations of potential real-world encounters.
4.5 Nordstrom – Pioneers of the inverted pyramid
Initially deployed at luxury retailer Nordstrom in the ‘70s, the inverted pyramid concept involves placing salespeople at the peak of importance at an organization, with management at the bottom, supporting their efforts. This servant leadership example hypothesizes that the people interacting with the customers are the most important to business success, and therefore need to be empowered by those above to do their jobs in the best possible environment.
As part of Nordstrom’s CSR policies, focuses on positive labor practices and women’s empowerment are enshrined as part of their goals for 2025.
4.6 The Container Store – Storing up good employees with foundation principles
Founded by Kip Tindell, Garrett Boone and John Mullen in 1978, storage retail chain The Container Store has articulated a set of 7 foundation principles as part of their company ethos. First among these is the maxim of “1 great person = 3 great people”: the idea that supporting great individuals to be truly engaged and excited about their work makes them three times as effective as more run-of-the-mill good individuals.
Other servant leadership examples at the company include an ongoing training and development program to ensure staff are always improving their skills base, and the idea that “communication is leadership” – in other words, that discussions with employees should always be consistent, thoughtful and empathetic, with leaders engaging in active listening to ensure everybody can contribute their ideas.
4.7 Balfour Beatty – Building an Attractive Cultural Framework
During his time as the CEO of US operations at construction company Balfour Beatty, Eric Stenman was a vocal proponent of servant leadership. His support for this style of management has continued since he was appointed Balfour Beatty US president in 2021.
The company’s global cultural framework, refreshed two years ago, includes servant leadership examples as part of its stated goals, including nurturing and empowering teams with regular feedback, celebrating inclusivity and encouraging an atmosphere of collaboration.
4.8 SAS – Analyzing the Benefits of Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance isn’t something that’s been mentioned so far as part of the servant leadership examples, but management enabling employees to have more control over their hours and wellness is certainly in line with the concept of empathy and support that is essential to servant leadership.
It’s one of several initiatives analytics company SAS has undertaken, with managers also encouraging their teams to take advantage of the professional development programs available at the company.
4.9 TDIndustries – Educating Managers About Servant Leadership
Facility services and mechanical construction corporation TDIndustries marked 75 years of servant leadership in 2021. In the past, it has appeared for 21 consecutive years on Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.
CEO Harold MacDowell has described leaders at TDIndustries as servants, teachers and role models for their employees. Part of their job is to supply staff with the information and knowledge they need to perform their roles well and reach optimum job satisfaction. In fact, the company claims it pays for a minimum of 32 hours of training per year, as well as offering coaching for new managers about the benefits of servant leadership.
4.10 Gravity Payments – Lending Weight to The Idea of Leadership Reviews
Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price has described servant leadership as “giving without the expectation of receiving.” The financial services company, which announced a $70,000 minimum wage in 2015, conducts biannual reviews of managers by employees, rather than the other way around.
In addition to reversing the flow of feedback, Gravity’s servant leadership ethos includes identifying how to support your team and resisting the urge to accumulate power. Instead, leaders should attempt to place it into the hands of employees.
4.11 WD-40 – Greasing The Wheels of Employee Success
Another CEO who has written a book or two on his beliefs regarding servant leadership, WD-40 boss Garry Ridge has described leaders as coaches who should help their tribe members deliver to their ultimate potential. There’s no such thing as a failure, according to the lubricant manufacturer, only learning moments, so that employees feel more able to discuss want went wrong without fear of repercussions.
Emotional intelligence is key to this approach, along with a collaborative attitude to problem solving.