A servant leadership style is more likely to build trust, enable employees to thrive and be creative

“The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible” – ROBERT K GREENLEAF

Despite servant leadership being conceptualised by Robert Greenleaf over 40 years’ ago, there is still much to learn about it, particularly in relation to how such a style can impact performance.

Much of the research over the past 40 years agrees that servant leadership focuses on the well-being of employees. And it is compassionate love that differentiates servant leadership from other leadership styles (transformational, authentic, ethical etc.).

Research by Neeraj Jaiswal and Rajib Dhar set out to build a more complete picture of servant leadership, namely how such a style might influence levels of trust, individual creativity and thriving at work.


Jaiswal and Dhar undertook their research across 26 organisations in India. Paper surveys were sent out and completed by 48 managers and the 567 people who reported in to those managers.

Direct reports rated their managers on the Servant Leadership Scale, a 30-item scale by Dirk van Dierendonck and Inge Nuitjen. Direct reports also rated the level of trust they had in their manager. This was measured via a seven-item scale developed by Sandra Robinson and Denise Rousseau. 

And finally, direct reports were asked to rate how much they thought they were thriving at work. This was measured through a 10-item scale developed by Gretchen Spreitzer and colleagues who first developed the theory of thriving. This suggests thriving is a psychological state which is fed by two factors – vitality and a sense of learning at work.

Managers were asked to rate their team members’ creativity. The researchers measured this by adapting the four-item scale by Pamela Tierney and Steven Farmer.


“…the behavior of servant leaders inspires an environment of mutual trust in which subordinates reciprocate by exhibiting creative behavior”

  1. Servant leadership has a positive influence on individual creativity.
  2. The amount of trust people have in their manager increases the link between servant leadership and its influence on individual creativity.
  3. The relationship between servant leadership and individual creativity is stronger when the level of thriving is high, and weaker when the level of thriving is low.


“Servant leaders build an atmosphere of trust where followers are free to experiment and feel safe”

Managers can develop a servant leadership style through the following:

  1. Self-awareness: One of the key characteristics of a servant-leader is having a high level of self-awareness. This comes from being open to feedback and proactively seeking feedback. An effective way to do this is through something like 360-degree feedback. This can be formal or informal and be as simple as asking three questions such as – What do I do well? What do I do less well? What should I do more of?
  2. Effective listening: For some of us this can be easier said than done! A tactic used by one of my coaching clients was to put the word ‘listen’ at the top of each page of her notebooks. That way, when she was in a one-to-one with a member of staff, she had a reminder which acted as a cue to manage her tendency to dominate the discussion.
  3. Noticing: In other words, pay attention to what is going on around you in your team. For example, is there a team member who is normally front-and-centre when it comes to ideas and enthusiasm who has become unusually quiet and withdrawn? Showing people you notice them is one way to show you care about them and is a form of compassion, something which goes to the heart of servant leadership.
  4. Understanding: Before jumping to conclusions about why a person isn’t performing to an expected level, take the time to pause and suspend your judgement. Find out what is going on for them (links to noticing) and listen to their point of view. Rather than impose your own views on the other person, find out if they have ideas for improving things.
  5. Developing others: Servant leaders tend to focus on helping others grow. Take the time to find out what makes each person in your team tick. What are they interested in? What are their aspirations? Are there some things they find easier to do than others? And how can you help them bridge any skills or knowledge gaps? A servant leader will devote lots of time to focusing on the development of their team members – both individually and also as a team.

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