Whenever something resonates with the majority of society, it becomes the newest buzzword. Lately, servant leadership is one of these buzzwords with everyone adding it to their profile or headline to look more attractive to potential employers, partners or recruiters.

The irony, however, is that this title can not be self-proclaimed and publicizing it shows you probably don’t understand what it entails.

So what is servant leadership?

According to Wikipedia:

“”Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organizations.””

It continues to explain how it puts the needs of the employees first. Standing back to let them shine rather than you.  It’s about being the gardener rather than the flower.

Servant leadership is being willing to get your hands dirty.  It’s being willing to take out the weeds that keep your organization from flourishing. Even if it might be hard. It’s being willing to stand back to allow the flowers to bloom for the world to see, rather than trying to be the brightest flower yourself. Constantly monitoring the environment to make sure there’s enough sunlight, water and soil. It’s about knowing what each plant needs and making sure they are nurtured and nourished.  Servant leadership is ultimately about creating an environment where the team can thrive.

The traditional management style, or demand-and-control-paradigm of leadership, in contrast, puts the leader at the centre of the stage, not the team. The leader is deemed to be the most important person and everyone in the organization is employed for the core purpose of ensuring his (or her) well being.

Becoming a servant leader requires you to get your hands dirty and your nails broke.  It is not as glamorous as it sounds on paper. Here’s why, as explained in the top 5 characteristics of a true servant leader.

Characteristics of a true servant leader

1. They ask, rather than tell

In the traditional management style, the leader is typically the most experienced person in the organization. When people come to them with a problem, they give the answer. When they don’t know the answer, they’re seen as a bad manager and loses credibility.

A servant leader, on the other hand, is someone who, even when they know the answer, refrains from giving their opinion when asked for help. Rather than giving the answer, they ask guiding questions to help the team find their own answers and solutions.  Their way.

“A servant leader is not the hero, but the guide”.

2. They admit when they’re wrong

When a leader’s credibility is based on their ability to know all the answers, as discussed in the previous point, it’s a vice to admit when you’re wrong.

A servant leader, however, at their core, is humble. They are willing to be vulnerable and admit when they’ve made a mistake, even when it wasn’t intended as a mistake.  Also they put themselves into the shoes of the recipient. They try to understand the other’s perspective.

Being able to admit you’re wrong wins you credibility in the age of the millennial. It shows you are open-minded. That you listen. You care about your employees. That you value their input.

“Admitting you’re wrong becomes a virtue, not a vice when you are a servant leader.”

3. They say I am sorry

If you’re human and living, you’re guaranteed to make mistakes. It’s impossible to keep everyone happy. It’s impossible to remember absolutely everything and get to everyone equally, just as it’s impossible to give the same attention to triplets at the same time as you would one baby. It doesn’t make you bad when you make mistakes, it makes you human. The mistake matters, but what matters much more is what you do after the mistake has been made.

“It’s not whether or not you make a mistake. It’s what you do after you’ve made the mistake that matters.”

Traditional managers typically ignore the evidence of their mistakes.  They talk their way around it and pretend nothing happened. If this doesn’t work, the next strategy is typically to justify their actions.

A servant leader, in contrast, validates the other person by admitting their mistake. They say the three most important words in existence today.

I. Am. Sorry.

I am sorry you misunderstood. I should have been clearer.

So sorry I upset you. I didn’t realise this is so important to you. Surely I should have included you.

I am sorry I didn’t respond. Too busy. I should have prioritized you over work. Even then I could have responded immediately to say that I’m busy. I’m truly sorry.  Please forgive me.

Saying I am sorry is not about winning or losing. It’s about restoring harmony. A traditional manager apologizing was seen as weak. A servant leader apologizing is seen as strong and without ego. Because it requires the courage to listen to how you failed someone and humility to admit it.

4. They ask for help

A traditional leader figures things out behind the scenes. They hustle. They will avoid losing face at all cost.

A servant leader is humble. They allow themselves to be vulnerable. Also, they expose their weaknesses openly and ask for help.

They ask clarifying questions when they don’t understand something. They reach out to a partner or supplier when they can’t cope with the project to jump in.

Then they let go.

They let go of their power. Their need to control.  They let go of their fear.  Their fear of someone else being better than them.  Their fear of failing.  Finally the fear of not being in control.

They let go, allowing the team to take ownership of areas close to their hearts.  Show trust.  They respect their team and their team’s needs.

5. They maintain equilibrium

A gardener knows that some plants grow well together, while others don’t. They know some plants need more sunshine than others.

The good gardener doesn’t water the garden on Mondays because that is what the schedule says. They water each plant individually, taking into consideration each plant’s individual needs. Then they give less water when the leaves turn yellow. They give more water when the leaves are wilting.

They move a plant towards more shade when they see there’s too much sunlight. Regularly remove the weeds and sometimes prune the shrub to avoid overgrowth.

A traditional manager’s goal is to grow, regardless of the cost, following the plan at all cost. A servant leader’s goal is to maintain equilibrium within the team while providing direction.  Responding to change over following a plan.

They take people through the forming-, storming-, and norming phases of team development, not afraid of the storm. Rather, they stand their ground and allow the winds of change to blow over before they try to clean up the debris left by the storm.

How can you serve?

Servant leadership is primarily about ensuring alignment and coordination amongst team members towards a shared vision.  It requires humility.  Calls for vulnerability.  It demands an open mind as well as an open heart.

But more than anything, at the heart of servant leadership is asking yourself each day this one question:

“How can I serve?”.


Photo by Kyle Ellefson on Unsplash


With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.