Servant Leadership in the Workplace – 3 Principles

Principles are guiding rules that influence how things are done.

As I see it, servant-leaders follow these 3 workplace principles.

1.  Serve First.

Robert Greenleaf coined the term servant leadership in his important 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader.

There, Greenleaf contrasts two types of leaders, which he called the “servant first” and the “leader first.”

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

In the workplace, to use Greenleaf’s term, the “leader first,” puts personal considerations before the mission, company and team.

On the other hand, the “servant first” is the one who says:

“It’s not about me.”

Servant-leaders measure their individual success by the success of those they serve.

2.  Persuasion.

Greenleaf’s friend, management expert Peter Drucker, says:

“Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer.” *

Drucker means that, in the modern economy, people will quit jobs if they are mistreated.

Drucker also recognizes, as does Greenleaf, that the act of persuasion in the workplace is usually more important than the exercise of authority.

Every employee has an amount of “discretionary effort” available to be given or withheld from the employer. The authoritarian leaders – the dictators and the commander-and-controllers – never get the benefit of that discretionary effort.

But the pursuasive leaders in the workplace – the servant-leaders – are able to access vast amounts of extra creativity, productivity, quality, attention and level of effort.

It’s a joy to follow such leaders. We do so voluntarily. Not because we have to. Because we want to!

3.  Empowerment.

In my experience, servant leaders in the workplace act to empower their followers in two senses of the word “empowerment.”

First, servant-leaders empower their followers by sharing organizational authority. They know that this kind of empowerment gives people a stake in outcomes, increases innovation and raises employee engagement.

Second, servant-leaders help their followers grow stronger, more confident, wiser and more autonomous – as employees and as whole people. That’s another form of empowerment.

Servant-leaders are good stewards of power. They don’t try to grab power or hoard it once they have it. Instead, servant-leaders are generous with power.*


Because as author Stephen Covey observes:

“An empowered organization is one in which individuals have the knowledge, skill, desire, and opportunity to personally succeed in a way that leads to collective organizational success.”

What do you think? Are there principles you would add? Subtract?

Let us know.

As always, we appreciate your views. Thanks!


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See what you think of these posts:

* “10 Great Quotes from Greenleaf’s Friend, Drucker”

** “5 Ways Servant-Leaders Are Good Stewards of Power in the Workplace& “5 Ways Servant-Leaders are Generous with Power”