What makes Servant Leadership work in the workplace?

Agile Actors
Published in
5 min readFeb 22, 2019


By Nora Gikopoulou, Head of People Development

Servant Leadership is an age-old concept. So how can one explain the fact that it has become “the talk of organizations” in the last decade?

Servant Leadership is a term loosely used to suggest that a leader’s primary role is to serve others, especially employees. Lao-Tzu wrote about Servant Leadership during the 5th century BC: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence people are barely aware. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’”

The modern era of Servant Leadership began with a paper, “The Servant as Leader”, written by Robert Greenleaf, in 1970. Robert K. Greenleaf ‘s idea of servant-leadership, now in its fourth decade as a concept bearing that name, continues to create a quiet revolution in workplaces around the world. Since the time of the Industrial Revolution, managers have tended to view people as tools, while organizations have considered workers as cogs in a machine. In the past few decades, we have witnessed a shift in that long-held view.

In countless for- and non-profit organizations today we are seeing traditional, autocratic, and hierarchical modes of leadership yielding to a different way of working, one based on teamwork and community, one that seeks to involve others in decision making, one strongly based on ethical and caring behavior, one that is attempting to enhance the personal growth of people while improving the caring and quality of our many institutions. This emerging approach to leadership and service began with Greenleaf.

But what are the reasons that made Servant Leadership “the talk of organizations”? We can count many, but here we are going to focus on two dimensions; Positive Psychology and the constant change of work environment due to technology.

During the first decades after Greenleaf’s publication, Servant Leadership has been linked to spiritual and religious concepts, with virtues that somehow could not be related with the work environment, or, if related, it was with negative correlation, implying it was a useless and worthless concept.

It’s important to note that, at that time, Servant Leadership was not a leadership model and was not backed with scientific research. It was mainly a philosophical approach, a way of working and leading, with a strong and effective “raison d’être”.

On 1998, Martin Seligman, after years of research, forms the term Positive Psychology and puts at its base the following concept: “We may be tempted to assume that happiness causes positive emotion but what if, instead, positive emotions cause happiness?”. Starting from this hypothesis, Seligman proved that positive emotions cause happiness.

Martin Seligman and Michaly Czikszentmihalyi worked intensively on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experience of love, work and play.

They found that employees who experience positive feelings in the workplace show dramatically improved engagement and productivity. Peoples’ happiness proved strictly related in a positive way with productivity. This research statement was the link and the model that Servant Leadership was missing.

Exploring those positive feelings, they concluded that employees who feel fulfilled, recognized, trusted, valuable, and connected within a community with common goals, had been over 180% more productive, while their engagement had increased by 150%.

Meanwhile, technological advancements have changed the concept of static work and new generations adopt more flexible ways of working. Organizations move from strict hierarchies to co-working models, from planning to experimentation and from controlling to empowering.

The Servant Leadership approach provides the framework and tools necessary to craft such an empowered workplace. Servant Leaders cultivate positive feelings to employees, offer meaningful goals, empower and develop, inspire and positively persuade, thus building communities where employees can flourish, customers can feel part of the organization and employees willfully serve customers. Relationships among employees become more collaborative, relations with customers become positive and meaningful. The community crafts its goals on serving others.

Servant Leadership in the workplace means that the qualities of a Servant Leader — listening, persuasion, intuition and foresight, communication, pragmatic measurement of outcome — are applied to employee-customer as well as manager-employee relationships. Employees need to stay connected to customers and industry developments, listen and remain receptive to clients, and practice empathy by taking the point of view of a customer. When a company employs Servant Leadership across the board it can help the business run more effectively and efficiently.

As mentioned before, Servant Leadership is more of a “raison d’être” approach than a leadership model and is often combined with compatible non-authoritarian leadership models. Some of the observed outcomes of Servant Leadership are:

  • Satisfied and fulfilled employees
  • A respectful organizational culture, based on empowering rather than judging others
  • A supportive and collaborative environment
  • Happy and resilient people in challenging periods
  • High productivity and engagement
  • Respectful and trusted relations with customers, along with a customer-centric approach which ensures customers’ satisfaction
  • A minimized ego from the part of employees and leaders and an enhanced tendency to truly give to and support others
  • Employees becoming ambassadors of the organization, building the reputation of their community

Experts agree that every Leadership style has its strengths and weaknesses, and each can be inspiring in certain circumstances. But while no person or approach is perfect, given the qualities displayed by Servant Leaders, we think it’s safe to say that servant leadership is one of the most effective approaches to guiding employees toward an outcome that fosters growth, contentedness and encouragement.