7 servant leadership examples in business (some may surprise you!)

Servant leadership examples in business aren’t easy to find, at first. But with a little exploration there are examples all around us. They’re just not shouting “I’m a servant leader!”.

To help us recognize servant leadership Robert Greenleaf gave us a test for servant-leaders in business and servant leadership organizations. He called it the Best Test:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? Robert Greenleaf

Some of the best real world servant leadership examples in business probably come from your own experiences. Managers, colleagues, team leaders who quietly serve others without asking for recognition or reward.

This quiet service by those close to you (and your own service too) is just as important as our examples of servant leadership in the workplace.

Servant Leadership: the ‘business thinkers’ perspective

Many leading business thinkers and writers recognize the value of servant leadership:

Organizations exist to serve. Period. Leaders live to serve. Period. Tom Peters

The key to greatness is to look for people’s potential and spend time developing it. Peter Drucker

Leadership is about taking people from one place to another. One of a leader’s top priorities must be to assure that the team knows where you are headed. Ken Blanchard

This ‘service first’ mentality: to develop others, to create a compelling vision, to show people a better future and how to get there, is increasingly relevant to the challenges that leaders face today.

Watch Simon Sinek being interviewed about leadership and how “Leader’s Eat Last” on CBS:

Servant leadership examples in business

It’s easy to be a little cynical about servant leadership examples in business (partly because the phrase itself evokes such profound expectations). However, there are many servant leadership organizations that strive towards these ideals.

1. FedEx

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FedEx was founded in 1971 by Fred Smith who still leads the company as CEO. He believes “when people are placed first they will provide the highest possible service, and profits will follow“. What emerged from this thinking is a distinctive company culture. The ‘People – Service – Profit’ philosophy which has helped the company grow rapidly and remain competitive.

2. Marriott

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Marriott is another company founded on a ‘people first’ philosophy. As another service company the thinking is very similar: “Take care of associates and they will take care of the customers”. Here are the Marriot core values and heritage.

3. Starbucks

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Starbucks may not be an obvious choice of servant leadership organization, but the culture of inclusion and social responsibility is deeply rooted in servant leadership. Howard Schultz, is described here as a true servant leader.

4. SAS

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SAS is a leader in data analytics and Artificial Intelligence, based in North Carolina. SAS believes: “… in empowering our employees to change the way the world works”. As Jim Goodnight, the Founder and CEO says, “Treat employees like they make a difference and they will”. The company has recently been named a ‘Best Workplace for Innovators” by Fast Company.

5. The Container Store

The Container Store is the leading specialty retailer of storage and organization products in the United States. The Container Store fosters an employee-first culture built around their Foundation Principles. These principles were formalized by the Chairman Kip Tindell together with all the employees of their Houston store, when it first opened in 1988.

Read more about the benefits of their unique culture.

6. TDIndustries

At TDIndustries, we have a diverse, people-centered culture built on a foundation of trust. We accomplish this through a Servant Leadership philosophy that puts others first.” Listen to this Podcast with Harold MacDowell, the CEO of TDIndustries, to better understand his philosophy.

The core values of the company are:

  • Build and Maintain Trusting Relationships
  • Fiercely Protect the Safety of All Partners
  • Lead With a Servant’s Heart
  • Passionately Pursue Excellence
  • Celebrate the Power of Individual Differences

There focus on living these values is one of the reasons that TDIndustries has made Fortune magazine’s prestigious 100 Best Companies list for 20 straight years.

7. WD-40

Garry Ridge, the Chairman and CEO of WD-40, believes that “Leadership is about learning and teaching”. He co-authored a book called ‘Helping People Win at Work’ with Ken Blanchard. He’s also an advocate of Simon Sinek and the ‘leaders eat last’ mentality. At WD-40 he has successfully created a culture of servant leadership based around the idea of the team as a tribe. Take a moment to learn more about his approach to servant leadership.

Servant-leadership made more accessible

In addition to these examples of servant leadership in the workplace, there is also plenty of research and writing that makes servant leadership more accessible to today’s emerging leaders.

For example Marcel Schwantes writing for INC, describes how servant leaders do these 6 things every day:

  1. Be authentic
  2. Value others as human beings
  3. Grow their people
  4. Provide direction
  5. Share leadership
  6. Build community

And experts in specific fields, in this case a scrum master as servant leader.

Servant leadership examples: in conclusion

Examples of servant leadership in business are common, but not immediately obvious.

A little exploration quickly finds many examples of servant leadership in the workplace: in business thinking, the leadership philosophies of today’s CEOs, the company cultures they aim to build, and in fresh interpretations of Robert Greenleaf’s work.

Servant leadership is alive and well!

Dive deeper

Explore the 10 characteristics of servant leadership.

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