How servant leadership can boost your business

Launching a business and actually running a business require two different skill sets. You start out with a creative concept—one that gets customers in the doors and results in a thriving operation, and also prompts you to hire employees that can help with the growing workload. 

It’s at this point that your biggest challenge becomes not what you can sell to consumers, but how to lead your team. What type of leadership style will you choose? How will you lead your business? What’s the best leadership philosophy to follow in a new business environment? 

With the new understanding that treating employees well, empowering them, and establishing a positive workplace is more valuable than holding an authoritarian attitude over team members, more and more business owners (including giants such as Microsoft and Whole Foods) are forgoing traditional leadership practices and instead choosing to lead by example and follow the practice of servant leadership. 

What is servant leadership? 

The philosophy behind servant leadership has been around since Lao Tzu illustrated the power of leadership by using the analogy of streams and seas 2,500 years ago:

“All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,
you must speak to them humbly.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.”

However, the phrase “servant leadership” rose in popularity in the US after Robert K Greenleaf’s 1970 essay “The Servant As Leader.” In the essay Greenleaf defines a servant leader as someone who shares power and puts others’ needs first by fulfilling his or her desire to serve. He even created the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership to spread the message and connect servant leaders around the world. 

“The servant leader is a servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first,” Greenleaf says in his essay. 

Author and former Director of the Greenleaf Center Larry Spears established 10 main principles that servant leaders should follow: 

  1. Listening 
  2. Empathy 
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Building community 
  6. Persuasion 
  7. Conceptualization 
  8. Growth 
  9. Foresight 
  10. Stewardship 

According to research found in Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant’s book “Give and Take,” servant leaders are more productive and more highly regarded by their employees than authoritarian leaders. Sounds like a win-win, right? 

Furthermore, a study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago Business School surveyed Jason’s Deli employees at 71 different restaurants and found that the locations with servant leaders had a 6% higher job performance, 8% increase in positive customer ratings, and a 50% higher staff retention rate. 

Let’s take a look at how to apply some of these principles to your everyday business practices in a long-term manner and create a healthy, successful environment in which both you and your employees thrive. 


In the wise words of Oprah Winfrey, “leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” 

A servant leader shares the feelings of every team member (and even those of the customers) by putting in the extra effort to understand what they’re going through. An effective way to build trust and loyalty in a team is to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume their intentions are good instead of harboring a pessimistic attitude. 


Some experts argue that self-awareness is a leadership quality that stands out above all the rest in terms of effectiveness. Former MedTronic CEO Bill George interviewed 125 CEOs when researching his book, “True North,” and said he learned that no one is born with specific skills needed to become a leader. Instead, leadership comes from knowing oneself, knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, and using life experience to frame and develop those necessary abilities. 

Take awareness even further by learning as much as you can about what’s going on around you as well. Take a page out of Elon Musk’s book when he reacted in a servant-leader-esque way upon learning about a series of injuries that occured on Tesla factory lines: 

“I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception,” he said in a letter. “I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.” 

Building community

Greenleaf said that the most important factor in building a community is for “enough servant leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by … demonstrating his or her unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group.” 

To establish a successful community among your team, it’s important to fully commit yourself to fostering strong relationships through coaching, mentoring, and exchanging feedback. 

Once your team is strong and you’ve established a community amongst yourselves, take it out into your real-world community and give back. A growing number of employees value working for a company that works to improve society, so doing so will only strengthen the bond between you and your staff. 


Servant leaders know that if the right culture and values are implemented into a business, employees will want to see the business grow just as much as the owners do. Put the work in to grow your team and give them all of the necessary tools to perform at high levels to ensure long-term success. 

A great example of fostering that employee development is Pixar University. The program offers not only required trainings for employees, but also optional classes for different fields in the industry. 

“Pixar University helps reinforce the mindset that we’re all learning and it’s fun to learn together,” Pixar President Ed Catmull said. 

While this is a large-scale example, inspiring employees to learn more about their field or even another field entirely is a great way to motivate them to be their best selves. 


After all of the logistics are put in place and a business is running smoothly, servant leaders switch gears and focus on the bigger picture instead of weighing themselves down with day-to-day operations and problems. Those challenges are left in the hands of your capable, empowered team. 

Putting this kind of trust in your employees to handle the daily grind allows them to find purpose in their work and ownership in what they do. If your employees know you can count on them, they’ll most likely go above and beyond to maintain that level of responsibility.

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