What Are The Pros And Cons Of The Servant Leadership Model?

servant leadership

Many leadership models have been propagated over the years, as societal and business needs have evolved and progressed. Many of them developed as models through application, rather than measured analyses.

Scientific, transactional and transformational, coaching, action centred, Tuckman’s forming, storming, norming and performing model and many others have proved effective and built up a series of followers.

One that was conceived and developed over 50 years ago has stood the test of time and proved valuable in its ability to drive measurable results. It’s known as the servant leadership model.

Don’t scoff…it’s not exactly as it sounds. You don’t act like the proverbial servant, with masters driving your every move.

As we will see in this article, servant leadership is more of a mindset and enables you to link with your team members in many aspects of their roles and responsibilities.

We look at where the whole concept came from, what the idea consists of, some examples in real businesses and we cover some of the pros and cons, while sharing some quotes on the whole concept. We finalise by identifying what the process could mean for you in your business.

Let’s start with a clear definition of the term ‘servant leadership’

Servant Leadership Definition

question mark

So, what does servant leadership mean? How can we define ‘servant leadership’?

The original modern derivation is thought to belong to author Robert Greenleaf in his essay ‘The Servant as Leader’. In 1970, Greenleaf subscribed to the view that the leader should put the emphasis on what his/her team members require from the leader to become autonomous and free-thinking themselves.

He referred to the ‘leader-first’ and the ‘servant-first’ mentalities. A leader-first mindset, according to Greenleaf, was espoused as ‘the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid”. Also, the leader-first syndrome was seen as occupying positions of power, and came across as ‘often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt’.

Greenleaf wanted to promote the concept of an opposing viewpoint, driven by the rapidly evolving concepts of altruism and self-sacrifice, determined by new styles of businesses and ‘new regenerative forces operating within them’. (www.greenleaf.org)

Larry Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership, stated in an interview:

“Greenleaf credited his reading of Hesse’s 1932 book, Journey to the East, as the personal source of inspiration in his coining the term, ‘servant-leader’ in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader.”

(Dittmar, James K. (September 2006). “An Interview with Larry Spears”. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. 13 (1): 108–118)

His work quickly gained interest and ideas pertaining to the philosophy spread during the next few years.

So, in reality, what does servant leadership mean? How can we define the term ‘servant leadership’? Here are some examples.

“Servant leaders should seek to be servants first, to care for the needs of all others around them, in order to ensure growth of future leaders” Robert Greenleaf

“Stewards who are entrusted to develop and empower followers to reach their fullest potential” Sendjeya and Sarros 

“The authority figure intends to promote the well-being of those around him or her. Servant leadership involves the individual demonstrating the characteristics of empathy, listening, stewardship, and commitment to personal growth toward others” Investopedia.com

The overall impression is one of caring, showing empathetic symptoms and highlighting interests of others above themselves. But it also goes deeper and more emphatic than simply showing altruism to others. Devoting our leadership skills simply to being the type of person who is at the beck and call of others would quickly make the leader and their department less competitive and taken advantage of.

Let’s look closer at what the whole concept of servant leadership conveys.

Servant Leadership Theory Explained

seven pillars


Above are the seven pillars from Sipe’s and Frick’s studies, that support the concept of servant leadership principles.

There are many servant-leader characteristics and principles that can be applied in the workplace. Servant leadership books confirm the theories first mentioned by Robert Greenleaf and others.

James Sipe and Don Frick in their seminal book ‘The seven pillars of servant leadership’ espouse that there are seven supports that can be developed by any leader in their quest to demonstrate servant-leadership.

When displayed effectively, the leader can demonstrate the perspective that serving others within the established organisation can lead to a furtherance of engagement and motivation within team members.

Sipe and Frick purported in their servant leadership book that within every employee there is a desire to control their own growth and progress, with the support mechanisms aligned with the servant-leader model as one that develops this initiative within the employee.

There are other facets of the model that can be determined as having impact on the results the servant leader is trying to achieve. Let’s look at just two:

Employee engagement and commitment

It’s often been rightly determined that a major contributor to the effectiveness of any business is the commitment and engagement of their employees. Much of this can be attributed to the specific management style.

Servant leadership can be seen to have an effect on the relationship between the employee and the manager. The method considers that the manager makes their employee the number one priority, putting their overall well-being ahead of all other components of the business. Hence the employee feels trusted and may be obligated to reciprocate this form of relationship.

Trust is built up and the employee feels responsible to their manager in creating higher performance and better results. Hence their engagement and commitment improves. It can also be seen that the reduction in employee turnover is increased when servant leadership is employed.

Following their leader’s role, employees’ commitment to the organisation is affected and improved.

Overall performance on the job

The servant-leadership approach tends to give people a sense of support and well-being, and can also heighten job performance and engagement from employees.

Setting overall goals in a servant leadership manner helps individuals to see that their performance is not being measured simply by top-down criteria, but also by a change in the hierarchy of the organisation and particularly of the department . This “bottom-up” style fills the needs of the employees first, and that elicits engagement and commitment from people working for their leader.

Servant leadership can have a big effect on the overall relationship between colleagues as well. When colleagues talk to each other about the leadership style and what goes on behind closed doors they are more likely to agree that their leaders see them as key components in the success of the business, rather than just an asset that they have to manage.

These principles can be put in place at various levels within the organisation and can be demonstrated as providing further engagement in the working environment for staff lead in this way.

Examples Of Servant Leadership In Business

looking glass

We all love a good case study in the Leadership Development Training that we run so this blog should be no different! So, what are some of the ways that servant leadership mentality is being used in business today?

Some of the main benefits of servant leadership is to develop others, to drive a vision that inspires people, to get employees to buy into a better future, and build cohesion for the future.

Many organisations have introduced the concept of servant leadership, with varying degrees of success. Here are some examples of servant leadership in action:


The US delivery company, founded in 1971 by Fred Smith, developed a servant leader culture, allowing the company to thrive and grow accordingly.

Their philosophy of ‘People-Service-Profit’ could only work if it was embedded into every decision that the company made. In fact, Smith’s quote of “when people are placed first, they will provide the highest possible service, and profits will follow“ has become a mantra that everyone in the company demonstrates, or they risk going against company culture.


The overall culture of social responsibility that the company drives is deeply rooted in the concept and philosophy of servant leadership, as demonstrated especially by its founder Howard Schultz. After setting up the company, he wanted its culture to reflect the ‘future-focused’ ideology of ‘putting our people first’.

The servant leader philosophy fitted nicely into the big plans he had for the business and it is still championed in the way the company wants their people to thrive and develop in their careers.

TD Industries

How would you like to work for a company with these core values?

  • Build and Maintain Trusting Relationships
  • Fiercely Protect the Safety of All Partners
  • Lead with a Servant’s Heart
  • Passionately Pursue Excellence
  • Celebrate the Power of Individual Differences

They define the culture of the mechanical construction and facilities services company, TD Industries, based out of Dallas, Texas.

They place the emphasis on servant leadership, with their key messages including “we have a diverse, people-centered culture built on a foundation of trust. We accomplish this through a Servant Leadership philosophy that puts others first.”

Fine words, but they prove this adage by walking the talk and getting their people to re-enforce their philosophies in the community whenever possible.


Nordstrom are renowned for their extremely popular customer-centric focus and way of marketing their stores in America .

One thing that isn’t known about them very well is the organisational model that inverts the normal hierarchical pyramid.

Each staff member (known as partners) is seen as a leader in their own right. This attitude encourages staff to make decisions based on their own common sense. This can only happen with a servant leadership mentality that Nordstrom possesses in spades.

The Nordstrom brothers themselves started off in the stockroom and worked their way up. Their business philosophy as they built their business reflected ideally the servant leadership mentality.

Each of these businesses evoke a familiar emotional connection to their staff, partners and customers, driven by an unending desire to support their people and help them bring their best selves to work every day. They display very well the concept of servant leadership in action.

The Pros and Cons of Servant Leadership


Having got this far, we can be forgiven for thinking servant leadership should be the panacea that will solve all business challenges for leaders. But, for the sake of balance, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of the philosophy, so we can weigh up when it’s good to develop this style and when it’s not so good.

The power of servant leadership

  • Servant leaders earn respect from their employees
  • It boosts team morale across the workforce
  • Employees realise that management is looking out for their higher interests
  • People feel more valued in their roles
  • Companies share their vision and mission more openly, allowing people to buy into them and be inspired by them
  • Because people feel trusted, they pass on that trust in their dealings with customers
  • People involved in decision-making processes feel more confident that their views are taken into account when businesses challenges are being faced
  • Leaders take into account the views of staff and show more empathy for their positions
  • It builds pride in the minds of people working there, as they see their business as one they would choose to work for rather than just doing a job there
  • Staff grow and develop their skills faster in an environment that supports advancement, decision-making, growth opportunities and collaboration between teams

Servant Leadership weaknesses

  • Not many leaders and managers have grown up with this philosophy, so it may take time and effort for leaders to change their thinking
  • Training managers to adopt the philosophy may need a change of cultural awareness, as staff may not have encountered this way of interacting
  • Because staff will be involved in decision-making, it may take longer for those decisions to be bounced around and conclusions reached
  • In crises situations, staff often look to leaders to take control and make fast decisions, something that servant leadership does not promote
  • Staff may not have the confidence or capability to drive the business forward, hence leaving the business exposed if the decisions are critical to successful market competitiveness
  • A mixture of different leadership styles exhibited by hierarchical enterprises may confuse people, as they don’t know which path to follow, especially if a different style or method has been used for a length of time

So, here we can see the differences between the power of servant leadership and servant leadership weaknesses. Servant leadership may not be the right set-up for every organisation, but in many cases, the pros outweigh the cons if the culture of the company can support the changes in leadership style. Any servant leadership book will extol the virtues of the philosophy, but you also have to identify when it may not be the most appropriate model to follow.

Servant Leadership Quotes


Here are some quotes that epitomise the value of servant leadership within a business:

“The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first, as opposed to wanting power, influence, fame, or wealth.”

― Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness

  “The best place for a leader isn’t always the top position. It isn’t the most prominent or powerful place. It’s the place where he or she can serve the best and add the most value to other people.”

– John C Maxwell

 “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”

– Matthew chapter 20, verse 26

 “A key question you must continuously ask yourself is ‘Am I a self-serving leader or a serving leader?’

– Ken Blanchard in The Secret

 “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

– Nelson Mandela

 “The qualities of a Servant Leader (LEADERSHIP):

L – Listening

E – Empathizing

A – Acting with awareness

D – Dedicating time for others

E – Empowering others

R – Removing doubts

S – Serving others

H – Helping others with humility

I – Interacting with others with integrity

P – Persevering”

Farshad Asl

The Last Word On The Servant Leadership Style

Simon Sinek talks about the “power of why”. We have to have a reason to come to work and an inner belief that we can actually make a difference at work in order for us to be effective. It’s at the heart of any relationship that managers have with their team members. Most Servant leadership books epitomise the greater good that any leader can accomplish with their teams.

Jim Laub, president of Servant Leader Performance and creator of the Organizational Leadership Assessment (OLA), assessed servant leadership into six key components, which he said, when demonstrated well, will produce a thriving and profitable work culture

Those six components can be broken down thus:

  • Be authentic
  • Value others as human beings
  • Grow their people
  • Provide direction
  • Share leadership
  • Build community

Servant leadership isn’t a model to follow or a style to display; it’s not something you would follow step by step on any Management Training that you may attend; instead, it’s a philosophy to be adhered to, a mindset to demonstrate and an attitude to manifest under real leadership conditions. When done correctly, you will see a greater camaraderie between team members, a higher purpose being driven by the business and the commitment to excellence that many other philosophies won’t be able to touch.

I hope this model has given you some food for thought on what makes a good team leader because modern day leaders really do shape the culture of your organisation which in turn has an impact on whether your people are engaged and motivated with their work. Please take our Free Leadership Assessment which will diagnose your strengths and weaknesses as a leader or check out our Management Skills Courses that will help take your game onto the next level.

Thanks again,



Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training   

LeaderDNA button



Updated on: 15 September, 2020

Related Articles

Arrow down

Search For More arrow