All Articles Leadership Inspiration What does servant leadership in action look like?

What does servant leadership in action look like?

Southwest's former president, a WNBA legend and Stephen M.R. Covey share why servant leadership is a winning practice.

8 min read


Servant leadership

Jeremy Yap/Unsplash

To me, servant leadership is the only way to guarantee great relationships and great results. Why? When you treat your people well—catch them doing things right, praise them when they are doing well, and redirect them when they get off track; when you empower them to bring their brains to work and make decisions—they will treat your customers well. Your customers will come back, tell their friends about your company, and become part of your sales force. Your company’s bottom line will improve and that will please the shareholders or owners.

I’m such a huge believer in servant leadership that I’ve brought together dozens of people—CEOs, authors, thought leaders, and servant leadership practitioners—to help me write a book about it. “Servant Leadership in Action” is a collection of essays by today’s top servant leadership experts that explains not only what servant leadership is and what it does for today’s organizations, but also how you can implement this proven leadership practice in your organization.

Want to learn more about servant leadership right now? Here are three common questions about this age-old leadership approach, answered by three of the book’s contributors.

Can servant leadership really work in a competitive industry?

Answered by Colleen Barrett, president emeritus of Southwest Airlines and winner of the Tony Jannus Award in 2007 and the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 2016.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Over the years, all of the leaders at Southwest Airlines have tried to model servant leadership. Herb Kelleher, our founder, led the way clearly — although I don’t think he knew what the expression “servant leadership” meant until we told him. For over four decades, Herb and I have said that our purpose in life as senior leaders with Southwest Airlines is to serve our people. To us, that means treating people as family.

We want each of our people to realize they have the potential to be a leader. They can make a positive difference in anybody’s work and life, regardless of whether they are in a management position. So we try to hire leaders, no matter what role we want them to fill. Our entire philosophy of leadership is quite simple: treat your people right and good things will happen.

Not only do we serve and care about our people, but we empower them to use common sense and good judgment. Yes, we have written rules and procedures, and you can go look at them, but we say to our folks every day, “The rules are guidelines. We can’t sit in Dallas, Texas, and write a rule for every single scenario you’re going to run into. You’re out there. You’re dealing with the public. You can tell in any given situation when a rule should be bent or broken. You can tell because it’s simply the right thing to do in the situation you are facing.”

We have had pilots pay for hotel rooms because our customers were getting off at different cities than they intended for the night, and the pilots could see the people needed help. They don’t call and ask, “Is it OK? Will I get reimbursed?” They do these things because that’s the kind of people they are.

Servant leadership and empowering your people is not soft management. It is management that not only gets great results but generates great human satisfaction for both employees and customers.

What is the connection between trust and servant leadership?

Answered by Stephen M. R. Covey, co-founder of CoveyLink and the FranklinCovey Global Speed of Trust Practice, author of “The Speed of Trust” and co-author of “Smart Trust”

Covey (Credit:
Nan Palmero/Flickr)

The practices of servant leadership and trust are inextricably linked. I find it difficult to talk about serving without talking about trust—and vice versa.

First, the defining outcome for the servant leader is trust. If you lead as a servant, you’ll know it—you will be surrounded by high-trust relationships and a high-trust team, and your company will reap the dividends of a high-trust organization.

Trust and servant leadership are both built on intent. The clear intent of a servant leader is to serve others. The deliberate behavior of the servant leader is authentic, trust-building behavior—the place where conviction becomes real, where intent becomes a potent force for value-creating change, and where the leader can make intentional moves for the purpose of establishing a servant leadership culture.

The strong bias of the servant leader is to extend trust to others—to start with trust. The positional leader seeks to control, but the servant leader seeks to unleash talent and creativity by extending trust because the servant leader fundamentally believes deeply in others and in their potential.

And, the purpose of the servant leader is contribution—to make a difference; to give back. The positional leader serves the bottom line, or the self. The servant leader serves something greater, which inspires trust not only in the leader but potentially in all of society, as well.

Trust and servant leadership are simple disciplines, but they are not easy. In fact, they are hard. Both trust and servant leadership require the full engagement of the leader as well as the courage to set aside self-serving pursuits in the service of other people and higher outcomes.

How can a tough leader still be a servant leader?

Answered by Tamika Catchings, retired WNBA player, 2011 WNBA MVP and 10-time All Star, four-time Olympic gold medalist, and former University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer under coach Pat Summitt.

Catchings (Credit: 14_AllState Goodworks – 10/Flickr)

When I think of servant leadership, I think of Pat Summitt, my basketball coach at the University of Tennessee from 1997 to 2001. Pat was more than our coach. She was our friend, our mentor, our mother, our inspiration—and a true servant leader. Pat passed away on June 28, 2016, but she will be a part of me forever. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t feel her impact on my life.

I was in eighth grade when I first laid eyes on Pat Summitt. I was home from school, sitting on the couch channel-surfing, and suddenly it happened. Those icy blue eyes were staring at me from the screen. She was stomping up and down the sidelines, yelling to her team, staring them down and demanding respect. My first thought was, “Whoa! That lady is intense!” But my next thought was, “Wow, if I ever get good enough, I want to play for her.” One minute, she would be shooting that steely glare, and the next minute, she would be smiling and grabbing one of the players in a bear hug.

Every day at UT, Pat drilled into us her team-first philosophy: it’s not about you—it’s about the team. It’s just like life; you need your people around you to be successful and to help you get through it. Pat was an extremely humble person who never gravitated toward the spotlight. She would always turn it around and shine it on her players. Despite her legendary glare, stomping, and shouting, Pat’s ultimate goal and purpose was to help each of us be better—not just better players, but better people. That’s the kind of person and the kind of leader she was—a servant first.

The world is in desperate need of a different leadership role model. We have seen the negative impact of self-serving leaders in every sector of society around the world. I hope you will not only implement servant leadership in your organization but also spread the word to everyone who will listen. I believe that someday everyone, everywhere will be influenced by a servant leader—or become one,.God bless.


Ken Blanchard is one of the most influential leadership experts in the world and co-author of more than 65 books, including the groundbreaking best-seller “The One Minute Manager.” His books have combined sales of more than 21 million copies in 42 languages. In addition to being a renowned speaker and consultant, Blanchard is co-founder and chief spiritual officer of The Ken Blanchard Cos., an international training and consulting firm started by Ken and his wife, Margie, in 1979. His new book, “Servant Leadership in Action,” is a collection of essays from 44 of today’s top servant leadership authorities and practitioners. Learn more.

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