12 Actions of 21st Century Servant Leaders

When you look to the heart of leadership you’ll uncover that people are at the center. It’s not strategy, spreadsheets, or s-curves. These are important business elements created and interpreted by people. For them to be any good at all, people must feel unencumbered by oppressive cultures and managers. To that end, great leadership unlocks the imagination to discover how to create results that drive business value. It’s the leader’s mindset that influences his actions that generate results – people and business results.

When you examine a great leader’s mindset the belief and desire to serve is prevalent: serve a purpose, a calling, people.

“The servant leader is servant first . . . it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, serve first. Then conscious choice bring one to aspire to lead.”

Robert Greenleaf wrote the above quote in his 1970 essay on servant leadership. Over 40 years later Greenleaf’s message grips the keen servant leader tuned into the level of disengaged, unhappy employees and energy-depleted cultures.

But what does a 21st century servant leader do in the face of such discontent? Is it all too much to do something about? Absolutely not! What’s inspiring about the human spirit is our buoyant nature.

21st century leaders need to tap into the actions that unleash the human spirit in our organizations. These are merely 12 ways. Certainly in a list like this simplifications must be made. I hope, however, each action speaks boldly on its own.

Set Context

Our actions as servant leaders speak boldly for what we believe. So, too, does the context we create. By context I mean the work environment. Servant leaders pay close attention to the influence the work environment has on employees’ abilities to do great work. A great work environment coupled with great leadership leads to astonishing results.

A great work environment coupled with great leadership leads to astonishing results.

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Reveal Greatness

To serve means to place other’s needs first. A servant leader finds ways to helps others realize their greatness. Why? To amplify talent. To spread goodwill. To inspire confidence in the face of ambiguity and darkness. And brighten an already bright work culture.

Plus Others

It’s not how you benefit, but what you add that matters more. It’s what makes a difference for another person, team, company, even society. Such a shift in perspective looks to make things better for others, not for one’s self. GM could use more of this right now.

It’s not how you benefit, but what you add that matters more.

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Hone Strengths

When we do something we’re good at, accomplishments flow more naturally. Helping employees identify their strengths and finding ways to apply them are known to improve well-being.

Focus on Humanity

It’s in our DNA to want to make a difference. We want to do something that matters. We want to matter. A servant leader taps into this human need to reveal greatness in others and makes progress where others fail.

Be in Action

Serve is a verb. There is much work to be done in this post-Great Recession era. After massive layoffs, meager gains in the economy, and European and Asian market instability, reluctant executives aren’t focusing on the dismal mood in their companies. Servant leaders can find plenty of opportunities to lead locally and make better the environment in which their teams must work.

Unite People

The silos are showing signs of major wear-and-tear, and are not repairable. With a slim workforce, servant leaders must reach across the organization connecting people and purpose to exploit passion. A united group of people can accomplish remarkable results.

Servant leaders must reach across the organization connecting people and purpose to exploit…

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Look for the Underlying Story

A good story has a purpose and a lesson within it. A good story draws us in. The work to be done, to be shipped, has a story waiting to be told. Servant leaders know to look for it, tell it, and inspire people to complete the story.

Believe in People

This is a no-brainer.

Boldly Exploit Passion

Employees come to work with their passions hidden or known. Servant leaders work to know what lights up their employees, professionally and personally. Why? Because they care. They want to help people direct their passion towards achieving something great.


Perhaps one of the hardest actions. It requires discipline to see where sacrifice is needed. Where wants take a back seat. Where observation and timing are rewarded.

Be Guided by Purpose

My friend Anese Cavanaugh said to me recently, “If you’re having that moment of low inspiration, drill into what’s your Why.” Servant leaders rise above the day to day operations and fold into their leadership actions and words reminders of why employees’ work is important and why they matter. We all get consumed by what and how we do our work. It is purpose that informs, shapes and breathes life into what we do and how we do it.

In a time where we’ve heard countless stories of misguided actions of executives, managers, and employees it’s time to rewrite the storyline. It’s time that we do a deep dive in what it means to serve those on our teams. It’s time to see people and relationships as a competitive advantage. It’s time to serve first.
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Image credit: dashk / 123RF Stock Photo

Editorial Note: This is an updated post from an article Shawn wrote 2 years ago.

Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of ExchangeGain. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Randy Conley

    Excellent points Shawn! The uninformed casually link Servant Leadership to “letting the inmates run the asylum” when in reality that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Servant Leaders are secure in their leadership identity and aren’t afraid to share power, information, and control with others. It’s all about helping other people tap into their potential and be the best version of themselves they can possibly be.


  • Maria Garcia

    Be guided by your purpose, this is the best medicine specially when people are on their lows, it is your purpose that energize that motivates that makes up keep going and keep striving. What an awesome post Shawn as always will retweet and share :)

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