Servant leadership

The future of work has arrived faster than we could have imagined in our post-pandemic world. One of the defining characteristics of this modern workplace is a shift away from traditional decision-making hierarchies. In today’s workplace, it makes more sense for decisions to be made by those individuals closest to the problem at hand. Teams are self-managed, meaning they decide what to work on, when to work on it, and how to best achieve the requested outcome. This shift comes with new demands on leadership, and effective leaders cultivate the values of servant leadership. 

Expectations on leaders have shifted alongside these changes. The very best leaders are not telling anyone what to do. Instead, they are removing impediments, aligning stakeholders, building trusting relationships, coaching, providing feedback, developing people’s skills and building the capabilities of the organization. They basically create the conditions for individuals and teams to perform at their best.

What is servant leadership? 

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy and set of practices in which the leader puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Robert K. Greenleaf first popularized the term “servant leadership” in The Servant as Leader, an essay published in 1970. 

The term might sound like an oxymoron the first time you hear it. You may think that the teams are there to serve the leaders, but in fact, organizations can benefit more when things are the other way around. A Servant Leader should be asking themselves, “Do my actions help those I lead grow as persons? Do they, because of my actions, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become leaders?”

Recommended reading: A Complete Guide to Agile Leadership

The principles of servant leaders

According to Greenleaf, servant leaders cultivate 11 key virtues. These virtues are maybe even more essential now than they were in 1970. In the current world, leaders can’t be effective without trust from people they are supposed to lead, and these virtues ultimately build trust.


They have a keen sense for what is happening around them. They know what’s going on and will rarely be fooled by appearances.


They are willing to sacrifice egocentric interests for the benefit of others. They have a natural calling to serve, which cannot be taught.


They believe that an organization needs to function as a community. They instill a sense of community spirit in the workplace.


They have the ability to conceptualize the world, events and possibilities. They encourage others to dream great dreams and avoid getting bogged down by day-to-day realities and operations.


They understand and empathize with others’ circumstances and problems and have well-developed emotional intelligence.


They are able to anticipate future events. They are adept at picking up patterns in the environment and seeing what the future will bring. They can anticipate consequences of decisions with great accuracy.


They believe that all people have something to offer beyond their tangible contributions. They work hard to help people in a number of ways..


They have appreciation for the emotional health and spirit of others. They are good at facilitating a healing process of relationships, when necessary..


They are receptive and genuinely interested in the views and input of others.


They are able to convince others to do things, rather than relying on formal authority. They never force others to do things.


They show a desire to prepare the organization to contribute to the greater good of society, making a positive difference in the future.

Recommended for you: Learn how to be a servant leader in our online course on Agile Leadership Foundations 

How to build trust as a servant leader

I learned that one of the most effective ways to build trust is to demonstrate that you truly care about people and you are committed to their growth. Most people want to feel they are valued as individuals; that they are heard and not judged. Ultimately, it is about making the workplace more humane and fit for human beings. Servant leadership is necessary to build leadership as a diffused organizational capability, or in other words, to make everyone a potential leader. 

Build trust as servant leader

The challenges of servant leadership

It is really difficult for managers who have learnt all they know in a traditional environment to change their fundamental leadership beliefs. They might be scared to let things go, or insecure because they don’t yet know how to contribute in a new and different way. They might be afraid to become useless or redundant, and they might feel lost since they might never have seen a real example of servant leadership before. A lot of the feedback they receive is what not to do, but there aren’t always great resources to help them find what to do. Finally, managers might be so used to pushing their ideas and instructions on their teams, that they end up pushing and forcing these new ideas too fast, with the unintended consequence of frustration and dissatisfaction of the people involved. 

How to practice a servant leadership approach

By coaching dozens of leaders, I learned that the following behaviors can help leaders understand and practice a servant leadership approach:

  • Listen to your employees’ fears with compassion and offer them support in trying different behavioral patterns, one at a time.
  • Help them visualize the benefits of applying those patterns, for example collecting feedback from people, through storytelling
  • Take action to build mutual trust between management and developers: for instance, encourage leaders to be present where the work happens and practicing MBWAL (Management By Walking Around and Listening) instead of MBSR (Management By Status Report)
  • Encourage peer support and peer feedback among leaders: things are less difficult if done together.

Want to learn more about leadership? 

Companies are investing more than ever in leadership development, and highly trained, skilled leaders are indispensable to the modern workforce. Agile42 offers a number of training, coaching, mentoring and other services. You could start with the Golden Standar d for Agile leaders, namely Certified Agile Leadership Essentials for Team and Organization Leaders (CAL-E+T+O) training, which we do in-person and remotely, or contact us for information about our other services.