Servant Leadership: Nine Steps to The Ultimate Transforming Culture

The History of Servant Leadership

The Promise of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership is defined as “a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. (Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.) This definition offers an audacious claim – “a more just and caring world.” Can it deliver on the promise?

Servant Leadership and the Greatest Minds in History

The principles of servant leadership have been around for centuries. A Chinese philosopher in the 5th century B.C. by the name of Laozi referenced it. Aristotle, in the third century B.C., referenced it. Two of Jesus’s disciples were arguing during his last meal with them. Their argument was about who was going to be the “greatest.” He told them, “the greatest among you should be like …the one who serves.

What is the Philosophy of the Servant Leader?

The definition above references the philosophy of servant leadership. Contrary to what people consider leadership “styles,” servant leadership comes with a philosophical value proposition. Servant leadership is not about the personal values of individual people. It is about delivering on the philosophical value to the people and customers of the business or organization.

The Value Proposition When Leaders Serve Their People

By virtue of being human, employees bring to their employer unimaginable capacities for creativity, innovation, problem-solving, and transformation. The best way to realize this value, is for leaders to serve and empower their employees.

From Research and Writings of Daniel Edds

This value proposition defines the value of employees and the role of the business leader to realize this value. The only question is how? The principles of servant leadership dictate that the best way of capturing this value is for the individual leader to serve the employee. In short, the servant leader flips the traditional business power dynamic. Instead of using position to manage (a nice way of saying control) employees, the servant leader uses position to empower employees. Imagine the opportunity if the entire management system was designed to execute these principles. This is when a “style” becomes a system of leadership or management.

Does servant leadership produce better team results?

designed systems create cadence

Art Barter is the Founder and CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute. In 2004 he bought Datron World Communications. Annual revenue at the time was $10 million. Six years later, it was $200 million. People might say Mr. Barter is a brilliant strategist or the growth was due to emerging technology. Other critics may note that there are many examples of corporate turnarounds with no mention of servant leadership. Therefore, one story does not make servant leadership better than another style.

Examples of Servant Leaders

There is research that pits servant leadership against various leadership styles. They seek to determine which one is “best.” There are several reasons why styles are difficult, if not impossible to measure. However, we know who practices servant leadership. It is an impressive list. Here is just a partial list of well-known companies that practice some version of servant leadership:

  • Google
  • Starbucks
  • The U.S. Army (other branches as well)
  • Coca Cola Consolidated
  • South West Airlines

What Does Leadership That Serves, Deliver?

In a word: value. In my research for the book, Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance, I found businesses from all sectors that have institutionalized the practices of servant leadership. The book details high-performing, and high-impact organizations that consistently deliver more value: value to customers, value to employees (higher bonuses), and value into communities.

a radical difference between average organizations and those that operate at an elite level is this: average organizations see people, money (in the broadest context), and knowledge as assets requiring management (control). High-impact organizations see them as resources to be developed for ever-increasing value.

Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance, Daniel Edds, Aviva Publishing

A True Story – The System of Servant Leadership at North Mississippi Health Services

John Heer joined North Missippi Health Services (NMHS) in 2004. He is one of the few people, to have ever intentionally designed a system of leadership. Furthermore, it is a system founded on the practices of servant leadership. Servant leadership was the pathway to a culture of high employee engagement and patient satisfaction. . When he took over as CEO, every leader operated according to their personal values and style. Consequently, there was infighting between departments and leadership. The NMHS board wanted something different. In an interview, John explained that his first step was to gain
the board’s approval of his approach. They would use the Baldrige Excellence Framework to guide innovation, transformation, better patient care, and a happier workforce. The system he designed had had all of the attributes of a leadership system:

  • A clear statement of purpose or outcome. At NMHS, servant leadership would be the pathway to a highly engaged workforce. John was looking to create a people-centric culture. Servant leadership was the pathway.
  • Foundational behaviors that leaders were expected to model. Behaviors such as forgiveness, taking responsibility for team failures, giving the team credit for their successes, and “no excuses.”
  • A set of operating rules and routines. Organizations are as much a function of their routines as people are. Therefore, he determined that daily rounding would be THE priority of the day. This daily rounding also increased the speed of learning within the organization.
  • Assessment and measurement of the system. NMHS used employee engagement scores to measure the system of servant leadership. This assessment also formed the basis of organizational learning about how to engage their people. Engagement scores would also be used to the performance of individual leaders.

Total Team Results?

What were the results of this servant leadership system, designed to engage the workforce of 5,000 people?

  • In the 96th percentile in workforce engagement nationally.
  • In the 90th percentile in patient satisfaction nationally.
  • At a 9 percent turnover ratio of nurses (the national average is 25 percent).
  • Among Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 Companies to Work For three straight years.
  • Named the number one hospital in Press Ganey’s patient-satisfaction database for five straight years.
  • Named Performance Improvement Leaders Top 100 Hospitals for three straight years.

Two Approaches to Implementing Servant Leadership

call sign chaos lessons in leadership
  1. Servant leadership is an attribute of the individual leader. Simon Sinek in his book, “Leaders Eat Last” describes a servant leader should serve subordinates. His observation is that in the U.S. Marine Corps the highest-ranking officer is the last to go through the cafeteria line. Sinek brilliantly describes the attributes of the servant leader. However, he fails to recognize that the U.S. Marine Corp, has institutionalized servant leadership into a system. They are teaching servant leadership from the first days of basic training.
  2. Servant Leadership as a culture transforming system. In the U.S Marine Corp, the highest-ranking officer does not have a choice about when he or she will eat. Being the last is a requirement. In eating last, the officer is modeling servant leadership. The same is true when a squad is disembarking from a helicopter in a “hot” (or any other) landing zone. The highest-ranking is the first to get off the helicopter. Therefore, putting themselves in harm’s way first. It is not a suggestion. It is a rule to supports the system of servant leadership.

Nine Steps to Design and Implement a System of Servant Leadership

When servant leadership becomes a fully integrated system, it becomes part of the business DNA. For example, John Heer began evaluating each leader by their staff’s engagement levels. Therefore, servant leadership became more than a good idea. Modeling the practices of a servant leader became THE way to engage and lead the team. Servant leadership became the pathway to an engaged workforce. A leader who chose not to follow its practices was removed or (more likely) removed themselves.

Time needed: 4 minutes.

A system of servant leadership will transform the organization. It will result in higher engagement of the workforce, higher operational performance, and a better customer experience.

  1. Determine that all leaders will practice servant leadership.

    Some individual leaders will react to being told they must become servant leaders. Expect it and plan accordingly. However, the opportunity far outweighs the risks. Designing a system of servant leadership brings enormous consistency to the workforce. Furthermore, by training, coaching, and monitoring all leaders to the practices of servant leadership, more organizational power will be created to deliver value to customers.

  2. Determine the result or output

    Servant leadership is not an end in and of itself. I found organizations that used the practices of servant leadership to create cultures based on relationships, respect, collaboration, engagement, safety (psychological and physical), team, and eliminating waste. By knowing the intended result, individual leaders will know the expectations of their own leadership. Unfortunately, in our business and management practices today, leaders are too often not provided a clear expectation of what they are suppose to produce.

  3. Know exactly how to empower front-line staff.

    Servant leadership is all about empowering employees. Here are three ways to empower others, 1) refrain from being a problem solver. Solving problems will make the leader feel good, but it is devastating to the worker. 2) conduct a daily round or Gemba to your team and ask them what they need. 3) Train staff in how to run and conduct meetings. It is a practice of public speaking and communication, the most frightening experience for most human beings. This experience will build self-confidence within the workforce.
    Designing the system of leadership to maximize employee engagement

  4. Identify and model behaviors that will support a culture of servant leadership.

    Examples might include “listening to understand,” “giving credit for team success to the team while accepting responsibility for their failures,” and writing “thank you” cards. Douglas Conant served as the CEO of Campbell Soup (2001-2011) and took the company from last place to first place within its industry. His secret (one of them anyway)? He handwrote 30,000 thank you notes.

  5. What rules will need to be in place to support a culture of servant leadership?

    Every organization has them. Most have too many rules. The president of a manufacturing company referenced one primary rule, “Machines serve people, rather than people serve machines.” For this President, it meant selling an expensive cutting machine for precision cuts for their furniture. It required more steps by the worker.
    For another President, it means people treat each other the way they would want to be treated. Simply stated, there is no yelling at subordinates.

  6. What routines will support a culture of servant leadership?

    Organizations are products of their routines as people are. Point three above lists three practices that will support a system of servant leadership. Here are three more, 1) measure it. Ask your team to give you feedback on your servant leadership. Yes, this isn’t very comforting, but you are a leader, so get over it. 2) Reward risk-taking. I guarantee that your team has more ideas on how to improve operations than you ever will. Reward with PTO the implementation of a good idea. 3) Learn how to conduct a lean or kaizen workshop yourself. Then make it a practice to facilitate 1-3 kaizens each year, yourself.The power of habit

  7. Develop the whole person

    When employees walk in the door, they bring their capacities for creativity, innovation, and problem-solving with the technical skills for which they are getting paid. Help them develop self-confidence. The more self-confidence they have, the more they will flourish.

  8. Leaders become coaches and mentors, so considering using these terms.

    There is nothing wrong with changing the titles to coach and mentor. These are better descriptions of the relationship of a servant leader, so make titles work accordingly.Mentors as servant leaders

  9. Tone down symbols of positional power

    Servant leadership is about empowering others. However, traditional symbols of executive power often serve to dis-empower employees. For example, it is customary that the CEO enjoys a nice corner office with a view. Also, when subordinates need to see the CEO they are confronted by the trappings of rank, privilege, and power. But in terms of value, an executive office is an expensive piece of real estate and a two-lane tunnel through which six lanes of daily problems need to be prioritized and eventually addressed. High impact organizations are realizing that executive privilege is often a detriment to empowering the workforce. For example, in a hospital that is consistently ranked as one of the safest in America, the executive offices are in the basement.

Implementing Servant Leadership to Build a People Centric Culture

Implementing a system of servant leadership requires more than a single executive setting an example. The power of example may work in a small team or even a few teams. However, an example gets diluted the larger the organization becomes. It requires more than modeling foundational behaviors, although this is a fabulous start. Imagine a healthcare organization with 5,000 employees. The distance between the CEO and the Director of Food Services is long. Thus, the CEO needs to take servant leadership principles and turn them into a system that will drive the high-impact culture.

Achieving a Transformational Culture By Institutionalizing the servant leader


Changing a culture is not easy but the results are often a massive improvement. Every organization has a system of leadership. It may look like a T.V. show that profile hoarders, but there is a system. Systems, by their very nature, resist change. Furthermore, servant leadership flips the traditional power structure of a business leader. Leaders who are used to command and control, solving problems for their team, and utilizing their power to accomplish their objectives will have difficulty. Some will see it as a threat to their personal career. Expect people to move on and expect to encourage some leaders to move on. When I asked John Heer about his leadership team’s response when he rolled out his servant leadership system, he said, “half of them walked out.” However, he could replace them with other leaders who believed in servant leadership values and principles.
Therefore, bringing your senior leaders along slowly is a good idea. Give them time and opportunity to learn and assimilate. Please don’t force it on them. The first time I assisted an organization in this transition, the CEO invited the senior leadership team to participate in the design of their leadership system. When it was time for implementation, it was the senior leaders who were leading the transition because it was “their” system.


Special Report – Servant Leadership as a Culture

There is a special report that provides additional insight into designing a culture of servant leadership. It is available on the resource page.

About the Author

Dan Edds is the author of Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance. He is recognized nationally and internationally for his expertise in the design and implementation of leadership systems. He can be reached for comment at Dan@DanielEdds.com, and he is happy to take a personal phone call at (425) 269-8854