How Serving Can Make You a Better Leader

The popular ideal of a leader who stands alone in the face of adversity barking orders that are instantly obeyed makes for good cinema.  But in the real world, that’s not the way the most effective leaders get the job done.

Instead, they practice something called Servant-Leadership, a much more powerful and sustainable approach to leadership.  In this post we’ll talk about what Servant Leadership is, and how acting more like a servant will actually make you a better leader.

Servant Leader - How Serving Can Make You A Better Leader

Carrying the Sick Ashore

On June 12th, 1741, the HMS Centurion under command of Commodore George Anson anchored at the island of Juan Fernandez, in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile.  The ship had left England with a full complement of 521 men on board, and at the head of eight ships ordered to fight the Spanish in her South American territories.

But after nine months at sea and a very difficult passage around Cape Horn, the Centurion had lost contact with the other ships and was a mere shadow of her former self.  Harsh weather, the dangers of life at sea, and scurvy had taken a huge toll on her crew; there were barely enough healthy men to sail her at all.

Desperate for fresh food, water and respite for her sickened crew, Anson dropped anchor at the island and ordered that the sick be taken ashore to recover.  The fleet’s Chaplain, Richard Walter, records the scene in Anson’s Voyage Around the World:

“On the two following days we sent [the sick] all on shore, amounting to a hundred and sixty-seven persons…The greatest part of our sick were so infirm that we were obliged to carry them out of the ship in their hammocks, and to convey them afterwards in the same manner from the waterside to their tents, over a stony beach.  This was a work of considerable fatigue to the few who were healthy, and therefore the Commodore, with his accustomed humanity, not only assisted herein with his own labour, but obliged his Officers, without distinction, to give their helping hand.” 

The Servant-Leader Idea

To aid his men, Commodore Anson was practicing the concept of Servant-Leadership by placing the needs of his sick seamen above the privileges of his high rank.  Not only did he personally help carry the sailors to shore so they could convalesce, he directed all of his officers to do so as well.  By these actions, and many like them, he earned the undying loyalty of his crew.

In the modern age, the concept of leading by serving found its voice in Robert Greenleaf, a longtime employee of AT&T where he taught management.  In 1970, Greenleaf published an essay entitled The Servant as Leader, in which he articulated the cornerstone idea:

“Good leaders must first become good servants.” - Greenleaf Click To Tweet

Ultimately, those who are led place their faith in leaders they believe will look out for their best interests.  A Servant-Leader is someone who does just that – works for the benefit of another.  Greenleaf defined the effect of Servant-Leadership this way:

“The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?”

10 Characteristics of the Servant-Leader

Larry C. Spears, long-time president and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership outlined ten key characteristics of the Servant-Leader.  All of them focus on the relationship the leader has with those he serves; notice how the Servant-Leader is “other” focused.

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualization
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to the Growth of People
  • Building Community

Benefits of the Servant-Leader Approach

As Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, put it:

You put your employees first. If you truly treat your employees that way, they will treat your customers well, your customers will come back, and that’s what makes your shareholders happy. - Herb Kelleher, CEO Southwest Airlines Click To Tweet

Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes, credits Servant Leadership with turning the restaurant chain around, improving profitability, market share, restaurant sales increase of 25%, and driving stock price from $13 to over $60 per share.  The difference was making the focus all about serving the franchises.

To me, the number one benefit of this approach is building trust between the leader and the organization, and from that trust, many additional benefits spring.

  • Increased work place satisfaction
  • Greater loyalty to team and organization
  • Lower personnel turnover
  • Greater individual engagement
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased creativity
  • Fewer formal disputes to resolve

From serving comes trust. Click To Tweet

Servant Leader Paradoxes

To lead and to serve may seem mutually exclusive at first glance.  But as Bachelder says, it’s not all “nice-guy leadership that’s about hugs and campfires.”

Benjamin Lichtenwalner, founder of, captures the Servant Leader paradoxes nicely.  He says the Servant Leader has to be:

  • Great enough to be without pride – The team gets the credit, the leader takes the blame.
  • Compassionate enough to discipline – Sets high expectations and follows through consistently to ensure they are met.
  • Right enough to say “I’m wrong.” – Has the strength of character to admit an error, and then go fix it.
  • Wise enough to admit when you don’t know – Never pretending to know something you don’t, but getting the answer quickly.
  • Busy enough to listen – No matter how much else is going on, making the time to hear what your teammates are telling you.

Servant Leader – The Takeaway

It takes a lot to be a good Servant Leader, but it is also the greatest long-term path to success as a leader.  When you put your teammates ahead of yourself, you steadily build trust.  From that trust springs loyalty, commitment, growth, and performance, and that’s how organizations, and leaders, succeed.

In the final analysis, the Servant-Leader has to be a person of character; you can find more about what that means in this discussion of Referent Power.

The long-term, sustainable approach to good leadership is the Servant Leader path.  Are you ready to take on the Servant Leader challenge?

The sustainable approach to good #leadership is the Servant-Leader Path. Click To Tweet

Lead On!

Note:  For a great, detailed look at how to become a Servant Leader, be sure to check out this free Servant Leadership 101 Course over at

Greenleaf, Robert (1977).  Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, ISBN 0809125277, pp 13-14.
Photo Credit:
By Florian Plag (Flickr: Serve chilled.) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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