Servant leadership helps you produce better business results, but how do you build a servant culture?

Servant leadership produces better business results, but how do you build a servant culture?

Servant leadership fosters stronger business results. In a landmark study, Dr. James Sipe showed that servant-led companies outperform both the S&P 500 as well as each of the stand-out organizations featured in Jim Collins’ classic book Good to Great. Yet, servant leadership is an A-typical leadership style shrouded in misconception. Therefore, many executives face an uphill battle when they try to adopt it. Given this, how do you equip yourself to use the servant leadership method, build a servant-led culture, and access its benefits?

Comparison of Annual Pre-tax Profits

Servant-led Companies
“Good to Great” Companies
S&P 500

Source: Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership: Practicing the Wisdom of Leading by Serving
©2018 Triune Leadership Services, LLC

This guide to servant leadership will help you grasp:

Who launched the modern servant leadership movement?

The Origin of Servant Leadership

The term “servant leadership” was first used by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader. In this essay, Greenleaf differentiated servant leaders from autocratic top-down leaders by saying:

It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first…Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served…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?

In 1972, Greenleaf wrote his second major essay, The Institution as Servant. In this essay, Greenleaf offered what is now considered to be his “credo” for servant leadership:

This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.

Greenleaf believed that servant leadership was the most effective method to create a “good society” — a society that unlocks the potential of everyone. Through his popular and influential essays, Greenleaf launched the modern servant leadership movement. He expanded his essays into books and founded the Center for Applied Ethics (now called the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership).

Several leadership experts have since embraced and built upon Greenleaf’s work. Each advocate has offered unique viewpoints of how leaders can consistently apply servant behaviors within our “me first, now” culture.

What does modern-day servant leadership look like?

The Core Principles of Servant Leadership

Today’s experts differ in how they guide themselves and others to become effective servant leaders. However, they do seem to agree that servant leadership is based on a few core principles.

Servant leadership:

  • Depends upon putting others’ long-term best interests before your own;
  • Turns hierarchical organizational structures upside down;
  • Leverages personal values, meaning there is an ethical component;
  • Does not come intuitively for most people, meaning it requires deeper intentionality;
  • Can be practiced by anyone, at any level of responsibility.

Experts also agree that while anyone can practice servant leadership, relatively few leaders do. It takes high emotional intelligence, high character, and a profound commitment to inner growth in order to build influence through serving others. Moreover, harmful yet widespread misunderstandings about this leadership style keep more executives from adopting it.

What do most executives misunderstand about servant leadership?

4 Common Misunderstandings About Servant Leadership

The 4 most common yet harmful misconceptions about servant leadership are:

1. Servant leaders have lower standards of performance.

Because of its focus on lifting people up and encouraging them, many people think that servant leadership does not hold people accountable. The opposite is true. In fact, servant leaders hold themselves and their employees to an even higher standard of performance. Traditional workplaces hold team members accountable only for their functional performance. In servant-led companies, employees are held accountable not only for their functional performance, but also for the quality of their contribution to the servant culture. People must account not only for their results, but also for how those results were achieved through service to their team members.

2. Most employees will take advantage of servant leaders.

Servant leaders are not doormats or pushovers. They are thoughtful and savvy stewards of their companies’ resources. When servant leaders provide support to their employees, they do so through a process of discernment. They ask: What do others need from me in order to stretch, grow, and reach their potential? How can I best use my time, energy, and expertise to facilitate others’ development and actualization? When leaders learn and apply servant principles, they lay a foundation of transparency and accountability. Therefore, in servant cultures there is no room for “dialed-in” performance. Employees who try to take advantage of servant leaders quickly find themselves shared with the competition. However, that rarely happens. Cultures of servant leadership are vibrant, engaging environments that inspire people to want to grow and contribute at the highest levels.

3. Servant leadership is not sustainable long-term.

Academic literature calls servant leadership a “transformational leadership style.” This means that when people are exposed to it, they can’t not change in fundamental ways. Their attitudes and perspectives change, as does their understanding of what it means to contribute to a team. Through exposure to servant principals, people begin to perceive their roles and relationships differently. Instead of thinking first and foremost about their own needs, goals, and desires, they begin to consider how they can serve others. They ask: What can I do to promote the well being of my team members? How can I support others to take their work to the next level?  Because of the goodwill generated through service, cultures built on servant principals are self-reinforcing, which means that they actually become more effective over the long-term.

4. Servant leadership only works in non-profits or small, close-knit cultures.

Servant cultures can be built and leveraged anywhere, from 5-person teams to Fortune 500 corporations. Here is a brief, incomplete list of global companies whose CEOs credit their success to having cultures of servant leadership:

  • Aflac
  • Alaska Airlines
  • Balfour Beatty Construction
  • Chick Fil-A
  • Container Store
  • Hobby Lobby
  • Interstate Batteries
  • JetBlue
  • Krispy Kreme Doughnuts
  • Marriott International
  • Men’s Warehouse
  • Nordstrom
  • SAS
  • Service Master
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Starbucks
  • TD Industries
  • Tyson Foods
  • Whole Foods Market

Moreover, top media outlets including the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Bloomberg News, and the Wall Street Journal regularly seek out and cover servant-led companies for their business-minded readers.

How can you bring servant leadership into your organization?

3 Phases of Learning to Practice Servant Leadership in Your Organization

Servant leadership is a transformative leadership style. Both the people who serve and the people who are served fundamentally change. This transformation takes place in three phases:

  • Phase 1: Developing the Servant Mindset
  • Phase 2: Developing the Practice of Serving Others
  • Phase 3: Scaling Your Service

When you take steps to bring servant principles into your workplace, here is what you can expect to experience:

Phase 1 of Learning Servant Leadership: Developing the Servant Mindset

As humans, we often think about ourselves first. We do care about other people. But, their needs, desires, and plans simply take a back seat to our own. To become a servant leader, you must learn how to flip the subconscious “me, first” script that’s running in your mind.

This process is called Developing the Servant Mindset. For every aspiring servant leader, it is the first — and most critical — phase of building a servant-led culture.

Developing the Servant Mindset means that you engage in a process of clarifying your individual servant purpose, values, and vision. When you do this, you strengthen your commitment to serving others because you understand why you are serving; the outcome that you are forging.

Benefits you can expect to experience when you engage in Phase 1:

  • Deeper self-awareness;
  • Heightened emotional intelligence;
  • More nuanced understanding of your leadership role and key responsibility areas;
  • More accurate perception of your own and others’ potential;
  • Increased energy and enthusiasm;
  • Enhanced functional performance;
  • More authentic relationships;
  • Stronger character.

Phase 2 of Learning Servant Leadership: Developing the Practice of Serving Others

After Phase 1, you understand how, why, and for whom you are uniquely equipped to serve. It’s now time to take what you’ve learned and begin offering support to the people within your functional team — strategically. 

Becoming an effective servant leader does not mean that you start doing everything for the people on your team. It means that you practice specific servant behaviors so that you can empower teammates to achieve their own goals. Learning how to practice these behaviors at the right time, in the right way, to produce the best outcome is a process. Developing a Practice of Serving Others takes time, patience, and intention. You’ve got to work at it, and your heart has to be in it.

Benefits you can expect to experience when you engage in Phase 2:

  • Stronger alignment among team members regarding team objectives;
  • Increased energy and enthusiasm within your team;
  • Enhanced team performance;
  • More genuine, trusting, and supportive relationships;
  • Stronger character within the team — teammates will do what they say they will do more often.

Phase 3 of Learning Servant Leadership: Scaling Your Service

In Phase 1, you built your foundation for service. Because of this, you can now motivate yourself to keep serving others even when it becomes challenging to do so. In Phase 2, you practiced how to serve others effectively. Therefore, you now know what servant leadership that produces results looks and feels like. You’ve witnessed the positive change that this leadership style stimulates.

Phase 3 is where you begin multiplying servant leaders across your organization. This process is called Scaling Your Service. It’s the most challenging phase. Yet, here is where you change the game for your organization.

Companies who have learned how to scale servant leadership from one team to the entire culture are the organizations you hear about. They significantly outperform the S&P 500. They land on Fortune’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.” They get 1,500 qualified applicants for every open position.

Phase 3 is the most challenging. But, it’s worth your investment.

Benefits you can expect to experience when you engage in Phase 3:

  • Stronger alignment among all employees with the organization’s mission, vision, and strategy;
  • A more vibrant, energetic culture;
  • Deeper loyalty and commitment to the organization’s success;
  • Increased employee engagement;
  • Enhanced organizational performance;
  • More transparent and reciprocal relationships among leaders and employees;
  • Elevated corporate responsibility — a high character culture that positively impacts the community in which the organization exists.

Conclusion: Your Next Steps to Build a Culture of Servant Leadership

It’s not easy to build a culture of servant leadership. But, you can achieve this goal — with support from leaders who’ve been already been successful at transforming their cultures through service.

Triune Leadership Services offers a proven system that you can use to implement servant leadership in your organization and begin experiencing profound results. While our system is built on the life of history’s most impactful servant leader, Jesus Christ, you don’t have to be a Christian to use it and benefit from it.

But you do have to possess a natural curiosity for how Jesus — through unparalleled servant leadership — leveraged a small band of 12 followers to build a global movement that today has more than 2.4 billion followers worldwide.

Benefits of adopting faith-based servant leadership:

  • Gain a perfect example of servant leadership in action through the life of Jesus Christ;
  • Understand how to practice servant leadership even in emotionally challenging circumstances;
  • Learn the concrete, step-by-step process for multiplying servant leaders across your organization quickly and effectively;
  • Leverage Jesus’ counterintuitive wisdom around servant leadership and save yourself, your team, and your company from common mistakes and pitfalls as you build your servant-led culture;
  • Realize the spiritual, cultural, and financial rewards of servant leadership more readily;
  • Build a more sustainable culture of service rooted in profound spiritual chemistry among your leaders and employees.

3 ways you can adopt a faith-based servant leadership strategy:

Real Results from Clients of Triune Leadership Services:


Alexandria Industries

  • 85% increase in sales
  • 75% increase in earnings
  • 22% increase in # of employees
    *Results at 5 year benchmark of faith-based servant leadership

Warning! If you participate in Triune Leadership Services’ Faith-Based Servant Leadership Training, and read Leading Jesus’ Way, be ready to radically change your life and your approach to leadership. The results speak for themselves, but the true value is the positive impact you will have on people’s lives within your sphere of influence.

~ Tom Schabel, Owner & CEO, Alexandria Industries


Knute Nelson

  • 182% increase in people served
  • 135% increase in sales
  • 17% increase in employee engagement
    *Results at 5 year benchmark of faith-based servant leadership

The Faith-based Servant Leadership principles that Mark so clearly outlines in his training and in his book Leading Jesus’ Way have helped me understand my personal purpose, and how to drive a culture of servant leadership at Knute Nelson. By leading Jesus’ Way, our leaders have strengthened our culture beyond measure to grow our capacities to serve and live out our mission.

~ Mark Anderson, President & CEO, Knute Nelson


Aagard Group

  • 108% increase in sales
  • 71% increase in # of employees
    *Results at 4 year benchmark of faith-based servant leadership

Bible principles work! Aagard has leveraged the servant leadership training that Mark outlines in his book Leading Jesus’ Way to build a company that has more fun, wins more often, and better serves its customers.

~ Brenton Smith, Owner & CEO, Aagard Group


Glenwood State Bank

  • Named a “Best Company To Work For” 2 years running
    *Results at 5 year benchmark of faith-based servant leadership

“The servant leadership principles in Leading Jesus’ Way are life changing.  Gaining God’s perspective for the purpose of my life as a servant leader has provided the prospective, energy and focus to make a true difference in my personal and professional life. You will be blessed by leading Jesus’ way!”

~ Peter J. Nelson, President, Glenwood State Bank

Learn how you can build a culture of servant leadership in your company: