Servant leadership: Why it matters

Servant leadership does not mean being subservient. But how contextual is it today? An HRKatha report


There is a difference between being a boss and being a leader. A boss is someone who makes the rules and takes charge. On the other hand, a leader is a person who influences others positively. Building that influence over time is another thing altogether. In today’s time, especially, we need leaders who are more hands-on, more empathetic and ready to stand by their team members. These attributes create servant leaders and we need more of them right now than before.

So what is servant leadership? At the outset, it is not to be confused with being subservient. The word servant in the phrase implies a serve-first mentality or selflessness in a leader.

The term was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, in his essay, ‘The Servant Leader’, published in 1970. He wrote, “The servant leader is a 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.”

Alok Nigam

“Great leaders display qualities of being authentic, courageous and humble, and these characteristics automatically transform into servant leadership.”


In the typical corporate setup, where traditional leadership is incumbent, it is the top management, followed by middle management, then front-line employees and finally customers. Here, the leader sits in the ivory tower at the top, while the employees remain at the bottom. Bring a servant leader into the scenario and they will turn the pyramid upside down, creating a new order where the needs and well-being of the team members matter more.

Essentially, it boils down to whether one wants to be a boss and have merely employees in the organisation, or whether one wants to be a leader and surround himself with team members.

Emmanuel David, director-HR, Tata Management Training Centre, says, “At its core, servant leadership encompasses the values of empathy, compassion and humility. The need for servant leadership comes to the fore especially in times like these.”

What do servant leaders do?

Motivate and adopt a hands-on approach: First, they motivate their team by creating an environment where their team members feel empowered to contribute and be engaged. They lead by example and show that they are willing to do the same work as their juniors. Translation? It means not hesitating to get one’s hands dirty.

For instance, let us take a member of a sales team. If an employee is unable to do the work, and is falling behind on the sales goals, the supervisor can step in, join the team on the sales floor and help them reach their targets. Instead of berating the individual, a more hands-on approach is much more helpful.

The past few months have been tough on all of us, and we have often relied on our peers, juniors or seniors to get some work done. At other times, we have struggled to complete the work without any help. In such situations, we may have found our bosses sitting down with us to help us through the mess. These are examples of servant leadership.

Communicate clearly and transparently: Excellent communication skills is another attribute of servant leaders. They strive to be transparent, are active listeners and empathetic. This helps them understand the views and opinions of their team members and leads them in a way that shows their opinions are important.

Care about people’s personal lives: They care about their team members on a personal level. It hardly matters whether the leader is the head of a global firm or somebody’s supervisor. A servant leader will try to make sure that employees feel secure and happy in their personal lives. Alok Nigam, senior vice president and group CHRO, Bhartiya Group, shares an anecdote as an example of servant leadership.

He recalls his days working as a junior manager at a company and an incident when he had to attend a training session at Jamshedpur. Once on his way back to Kolkata, he chanced upon his MD in the same train. While parting ways at the station, his boss made sure arrangements were made for Nigam and his family to be safely dropped at the hotel, before he got into a car himself. A small gesture, but it conveyed the essence of what servant leadership envelopes at its core.

“Great leaders display qualities of being authentic, courageous and humble, and these characteristics automatically transform into servant leadership,” says Nigam.

Display humility: Even before the corporate world, servant leadership is found in the society from which it emanates. David shares a story of his own father, who was witness to an example of servant leadership by one of history’s greats. “My father went to see Mother Teresa with a group of five foreigners at Nirmal Hriday. They were ushered into the room, where there were five chairs. Mother noticed that there was no chair for my father, so she went out and personally carried a chair into the room for him. She did not allow him to carry it. We do not know what was discussed, but my father was so touched that he carried the memory of the incident in his heart, and did not fail to recount it to many later on,” recalls David.

What do we gain from it?

The benefits of servant leadership manifest slowly and in subtle ways, but the results are extraordinary. Leading with such a philosophy creates employees who look up to the leader as someone worth following. It creates a mindset where the employees feel the need to give 100 per cent dedication to work. Moreover, it empowers them to speak up. An empowered team is a happy team, which is more productive, innovative and creative.

When that happens, there is low turnover, because employees are more engaged, and this leads to building a great culture. Trust is both a defining part of servant leadership, and the end-result. Organisations with high levels of trust among members ultimately lead to great cultures and increased efficiency.

Another curious fact of servant leadership is that it not only creates more followers, but helps build great leaders. It is easy to see why. Acts of compassion, humility and empathy are modelled on leaders, and followed by the people they influence. A single act of empathy or kindness is remembered for a lifetime, as we have seen from the examples mentioned earlier.

Emmanuel David

“At its core, servant leadership encompasses the values of empathy, compassion and humility. The need for servant leadership comes to the fore especially in times like these.”

So what do servant leaders do?

At the same time, there are pitfalls as well. No good comes without a few faults. Overindulging in acts of empathy and compassion can result in overlooking underperformance. Instead of encouraging the team, it can create an opposite effect and bring down the whole team’s morale.

In addition, it is not feasible for a leader to constantly care for one’s employees. More to the point, it is not wise and can come at the cost of one’s own health and mental wellbeing. It can create mental and physical fatigue for the individual. It is safe to put some healthy boundaries in place.


  1. Excellent enriching article.Overindulging in acts of empathy and compassion might result in overlooking under performance. To avoid.What needs to be done to avoid is that manager’s role needs to shift from a controller to a enabler and the mode of coordinating work had to shift from bureaucratic plan-driven processes to what may be called dynamic linking, in which the customer becomes the boss. In dynamic linking, work is done in short cycles and measured not by managers as against a plan as to whether they are delighted. but rather by direct feedback from clients .

  2. Excellent Article! Servant Leadership came into this world thru the teachings of Jesus Christ. He was willing to be so humble and caring for all and even willing to wash the feet of his disciples.
    Especially during covid times we don’t need autocratic leaders but Servant leaders who can manage virtual teams showing Empathy and kindness and open communications. Many companies will not survive this pandemic due to poor leadership but whichever organisation promotes servant leadership will survive this crisis as it will take care of employees. Employees are the main asset of any organisation and hence if they are not cared for then survival may be difficult in this new era of digital business models with minimal direct human interactions.

    Servant leaders leave a long lasting influence on their organisations. They lead by example and protect their employees from any harm as Jesus Christ took all the blame on him and was crucified and came back to life to resurrect his kingdom and encourage his disciples who were willing to die for their leader and most of them died a horrible death while promoting the Truth and serving humanity with love. Servant leadership inspire their employees to such an extent that they are willing to even die for the cause of their objective. Servant leaders Vision always outlive them as was of Jesus Christ who gave a vision to his disciples to preach the good news and make disciples is so powerful that even today millions of missionaries are running after that vision and are willing to be even persecuted for guiding others to Truth and hope. “Vision should outlive u “ is also a concept from Servant leadership principles.

    Very well written article!!

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