Servant leadership
by Deborah Barnard

Servant leadership


Three of us at KnowledgeOwl recently attended a virtual training day by ZingTrain, a training division of Zingerman’s food business It was my first time at a ZingTrain event, though Marybeth has attended their training before. One of the brilliant talks, by Amy Emberling, was on servant leadership - a new term to me.

This is a leadership approach that changes management and leadership dynamics in productive, healthy ways. This article will explore a few of the key points of servant leadership. It is primarily aimed at managers, but is relevant for any type of leader or person with power. You can practice servant leadership even as a junior, for instance when training a new team member.

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy that reimagines the role of leaders, managers, and other people in positions of power: instead of accruing power, control and wealth to themselves, their work is to support and facilitate others.

The servant leadership style was first set out by Robert K. Greenleaf, and has been embraced by Zingerman’s internally, as well as promoted through their training.

What does it look like to be a servant leader?

This section lists three key aspects of being a servant leader, with examples of what it looks like in practice.

The leader comes last, not first

A simple, practical example of this: as the leader, it's more important for you to bring coffee to the new intern than the other way around.

It also changes the perspective on promotion: we get promoted in order to serve more, not to be served more by others.

Servant leaders respond to staff complaints with the same sort of positive, appreciative response we would give to customers

This is quietly revolutionary. Imagine someone on your team expressing frustration with the project management tool used by the company. It can be tempting to shrug and take a “too bad, get on with it” attitude. Now imagine a customer complaining about struggling with a feature of your product. Even if you can’t do anything about it immediately, you would at minimum try to show empathy and support them, perhaps with documentation, a workaround, or training. 

This doesn’t mean you have to change something every time someone complains. It just means listen properly, respond kindly, take notice, and look for possible solutions.

Hire people in order to help them succeed

This flips the usual dynamic on its head: the focus is on employee success, not company success. This approach can require flexibility, but can also bring great benefits. Be open to non-traditional investment in people, finding ways to use their individual talents and experience. Amy recounted discovering someone working at Zingerman’s with an art history PhD. Amy found out she loved to write, and so they set up two days a week for her to pursue her interest in writing about food.

A part of this is creating an appreciative workplace. Make sure people are given credit, praise, and reward for their work. Make noticing the good things a common practice. 

Evaluating servant leadership

If you’re trying to be a servant leader, it’s important to check in with yourself and see if you’re really doing it. There are a few questions you can ask yourself, and things you can test for, to check you’re really being a servant leader, and how it’s working:

  • Are those served growing as persons?

  • Are they becoming healthier and wiser?

  • Are they becoming more autonomous?

  • Are they more likely to become servant leaders themselves?

Servant leadership, emotional labor, and glue work

Emotional labor, strictly defined, is “about performing or deliberately obscuring emotions at work” (this BBC article gives more detail). However, it has come to mean empathetic and caring work more generally - this is the current popular usage of the term. Glue work is the additional work, outside of your core job responsibilities, that still needs doing. This can be anything from cleaning up the office kitchen, to acting as liaison between two teams. 

Servant leadership involves a lot of emotional labor and glue work. There is a tendency to associate this type of work with women, and with not being well-rewarded. Adopting a servant leadership approach is one step towards fixing this. It raises the value of emotional labor and glue work, making it a promotable, career-enhancing skill.

Glue work has its risks, described here by a software engineer, who explains how glue work can be risky, especially early on in your career. As an employee, it is worth making sure you are not falling into this trap. As a servant leader, it is your responsibility to make sure the people doing valuable glue work for your teams are being properly recognized and rewarded.


This article has been a very brief introduction to servant leadership. Hopefully it has inspired you to learn more. The following resources are a good starting point.

Giving Great Service To Your Staff [free article]

Amy Emberling - Servant Leadership: A Leadership Style Committed to Social Justice [free video]

A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Being a Better Leader [book]

Deborah Barnard

Deborah is a tech writer who is passionate about readability, accessibility, and all things API-related. When she isn't writing documentation, she can generally be found trying out a new static site generator.

You can find out more about Deborah at Starfall Projects, or connect on LinkedIn.

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