At the heart of every great leader is a servant who is ready to uplift, empower, and inspire.
In this article, we’ll delve into the lives of 12 renowned individuals who epitomize the essence of servant leadership. For each, we’ll shine a light on the distinct servant leadership qualities they embody.
Alongside each summary, I’ve included a link to a recommended book, frequently authored by the leader themselves, so you can gain even deeper insight.
Howard Schultz: A Catalyst for Change and Inclusivity
Renowned as the driving force behind Starbucks, Howard Schultz transformed a local Seattle coffee shop into an iconic global brand. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Howard’s personal experiences and upbringing significantly influenced his leadership style at Starbucks. His vision extended beyond selling coffee; he endeavored to create a “third place” between work and home where people could connect and engage in meaningful conversations.
For Howard, Starbucks was about the experience, the community, and the people behind the counter serving the coffee. His leadership is marked by strong values, a sense of responsibility, and a commitment to both his employees and customers.
Growing up in the Canarsie Bayview Housing Projects, Howard was intimately familiar with the struggles of working-class families. These early experiences fueled his commitment to provide health insurance to all Starbucks employees, including part-time workers. This unusual move in the retail sector was a testament to Howard’s genuine empathy and commitment to ensuring his employees had the resources to thrive, both personally and professionally.
Howard’s vision for Starbucks was to create a space where everyone felt welcomed. It’s no accident that Starbucks outlets feel like cozy nooks, encouraging people to sit, talk, and connect.
Furthermore, Howard took steps to make Starbucks an active part of its communities. From initiatives like “Race Together,” aimed at sparking a conversation about race in America, to opening stores in underserved areas to promote economic development, Howard aimed to build spaces where people could hold meaningful dialogue.
For further reading, check out Howard’s book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul.
Melinda Gates: Empowering Change through Philanthropy
An advocate for women and children’s rights and health, Melinda Gates has transformed philanthropy with her blend of empathy and strategy. Alongside Bill Gates, she co-founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is recognized globally for its commitment to solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
Born in Dallas, Texas, Melinda’s journey from her early days at Microsoft to becoming a global philanthropic force is driven by her unwavering belief in the potential of every individual and the transformative power of community engagement.
Recognizing early on the far-reaching impact of diseases like malaria, Melinda steered the foundation’s resources into research and prevention. Her vision focused on holistic approaches to address root causes. For instance, under her guidance, the foundation has not only funded the distribution of bed nets to prevent malaria but has also invested in research to eradicate the disease altogether.
As a steward of vast resources, Melinda has always been mindful of the responsibility that comes with it. Instead of dictating solutions, she often emphasizes the importance of listening to the communities the foundation serves. By engaging with local leaders, beneficiaries, and stakeholders, she ensures that initiatives are culturally sensitive, relevant, and sustainable.
Melinda’s dedication to forming partnerships – with other foundations, governments, and private sectors – further highlights her role in protecting the long-term success of the foundation.
For further reading, check out Melinda’s book, Moment of Lift.
Tony Hsieh: A Visionary of Employee Well-being
A pioneer in the world of e-commerce, Tony Hsieh was the brilliant mind behind Zappos, turning it into a billion-dollar online shoe business. Born in Illinois, he became CEO of Zappos and transformed the company’s culture, emphasizing the importance of employee happiness.
Tony always believed that a company’s success hinged on its culture. Under his leadership, Zappos became renowned for its unparalleled customer service and innovative workplace environment.
Tony was known for his open-door policy, where any employee could walk in and share their concerns, ideas, or personal stories. This not only made him accessible but also showed his genuine interest in the lives and well-being of those he worked with. He once set up a “no titles” system, emphasizing the importance of every voice, regardless of rank.
Commitment to People’s Growth
One of Tony’s most innovative moves was the implementation of a system called “Holacracy” at Zappos. This system removed traditional managerial hierarchies, allowing employees to take on roles they felt passionate about and grow in their careers organically. Employees were empowered to make decisions, fostering a sense of ownership and pride in their work.
For further reading, check out Tony’s book, Delivering Happiness.
Bob Iger: A Visionary Leader with a Personal Touch
Often heralded as one of the most influential business leaders of his time, Bob Iger’s first tenure as CEO of The Walt Disney Company saw the enterprise reach unprecedented heights.
Born in New York, Bob’s journey from a small-town television weatherman to the helm of a global entertainment titan is a testament to his visionary leadership. Under his guidance, Disney expanded its reach, acquiring Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox. Yet, for all his business acumen, Bob’s leadership is deeply rooted in the principles of listening, understanding, and fostering an environment where every voice matters.
When Pixar was going through negotiations to be acquired by Disney, there was considerable tension between the two companies. Instead of dictating terms, Bob chose to listen actively. He took the time to understand Pixar’s concerns and values, particularly from its CEO, Steve Jobs. This approach smoothed the acquisition and formed the basis for a successful integration of the two company cultures.
Bob’s decision to acquire major brands, such as Marvel and Lucasfilm, showcases his foresight. The multi-brand strategy became essential to Disney’s multiyear initiative to launch a Netflix competitor, Disney+.
Bob drew upon his experiences from when Disney acquired ABC to facilitate smooth transitions for other companies joining the Disney family. He prioritized preserving their unique cultures while ensuring they meshed with Disney’s objectives.
Bob also championed the growth of other leaders from each acquisition. For example, he placed the Pixar executive team in charge of Disney Animation, resulting in a new renaissance for that business unit. Drawing on his understanding of the creative side of the entertainment industry, he was able to foresee a bright future for a animation unit that Steve Jobs had once suggested shutting down.
For further reading, check out Bob’s book, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company.
Cheryl Bachelder: Transforming Leadership Through Service
As CEO, Cheryl Bachelder revitalized Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc., not through top-down mandates, but by putting the needs of the franchisees and their teams first.
Cheryl’s leadership journey intertwines her belief in the principles of servant leadership with her sharp business acumen, proving that success and service can coexist.
Commitment to People’s Growth
Cheryl’s leadership philosophy centers on the potential of her people. When she took the helm at Popeyes, the brand faced declining sales and low employee morale. Instead of resorting to corporate reshuffling or strict measures, Cheryl centered her strategy around investing in the people of Popeyes.
Under her direction, the company introduced leadership training programs, emphasizing personal growth and professional development. Recognizing that successful franchises were helmed by motivated and empowered leaders, she made sure the right tools, resources, and training were provided, enabling franchise owners to succeed. Putting people first led to a remarkable turnaround in sales.
Cheryl actively encouraged collaboration between franchisees, fostering an environment where they could learn from each other’s successes and challenges. Annual franchisee conventions under her leadership were celebrations of shared achievements and collective learning.
Cheryl also championed open communication, creating platforms where franchisees could voice their concerns, share their ideas, and feel genuinely heard and valued. This sense of belonging and shared purpose transformed Popeyes into a cohesive community, driving its resurgence.
For further reading, check out Cheryl’s book, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others.
Herb Kelleher: Flying High on the Principles of Servant Leadership
Herb Kelleher, co-founder and long-time CEO of Southwest Airlines, revolutionized the aviation industry, not just with low fares but with a commitment to people and principles.
Herb’s legacy isn’t just the airline he co-founded, but the culture he cultivated. With his ever-present cigarette and glass of Wild Turkey, Herb was known for his unique style, but at the heart of his leadership was a belief in the power of servant leadership.
While the aviation industry is notorious for its boom and bust cycles, Herb kept his eyes on the bigger picture. He didn’t just see Southwest Airlines as a company that moved people from point A to B. To him, Southwest was about democratizing the skies, giving every individual an opportunity to fly, breaking the norm of air travel as a luxury.
Herb’s vision guided the company through tough decisions, always balancing short-term challenges with long-term goals. Under his leadership, Southwest remained profitable for 45 consecutive years, a feat unmatched in the aviation industry.
Herb knew that the success of Southwest Airlines hinged on its people. He built a sense of community among employees. He often said, “You have to treat your employees like customers.”
Whether Herb was dressing up for company parties, celebrating milestones with employees, or standing by them during personal hardships, Herb was there, ensuring that the Southwest family felt united and valued. Once, when an employee’s husband passed away suddenly, Herb flew out immediately to be with the grieving family, showing his genuine care for the community.
For further reading, check out the book, Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.
Mother Teresa: A Beacon of Compassion and Service
An icon of selfless service, Mother Teresa dedicated her life to aiding the sick and destitute. Born in North Macedonia, she moved to India and founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, which grew to have a presence in over 100 countries.
Mother Teresa aimed to uplift the spirit and dignity of every individual she touched. Her compassionate endeavors earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, but for her, the reward was always in the act of loving service.
In the slums of Calcutta, Mother Teresa listened to people’s stories, their pains, and their hopes. She once said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” Mother Terese focused on the individual, ensuring that in their last moments, they felt heard and cared for.
The establishments she founded, from orphanages to hospices, were communities where people lived, prayed, laughed, and cried together. Overflowing with empathy, these spaces made everyone feel they belonged.
Throughout her life, Mother Teresa focused on healing both the body and soul. When she founded the Missionaries of Charity, her aim was to give people who were suffering a place where they could find love and acceptance so they could heal.
For further reading, check out the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.
Jack Welch: A Titan of Transformational Leadership
Jack Welch, the iconic former CEO of General Electric (GE), reshaped the contours of global business during his tenure.
Jack’s journey with GE began in 1960 as a chemical engineer and culminated in his role as CEO, a position he held from 1981 to 2001. Under his watch, GE’s market value rocketed from $14 billion to over $400 billion. But numbers aside, Jack’s real legacy is in the way he transformed the organization’s culture.
Jack was a visionary. He wasn’t just focused on the present day’s bottom line; he was continually looking ahead, planning for the future.
In the early 1980s, Jack realized that for GE to thrive in the global marketplace, it had to be either number one or two in any industry it was in or get out of it. This approach led to the sale of businesses that were not leaders in their domain and the acquisition or growth of others where GE could dominate.
His “Number One or Number Two” strategy exemplifies how he always aimed to see the broader horizon and position GE for lasting success. His success shows how valuable a clear, long-term vision is in driving monumental change.
One of Jack’s most enduring legacies is the community of leaders he cultivated. He believed in nurturing talent from within, leading to the creation of GE’s leadership development center, Crotonville.
In Crotonville, employees are groomed into leaders, thinkers, and innovators. Jack was a frequent visitor, engaging directly with employees, listening to their ideas, and offering guidance.
His hands-on approach fostered a sense of belonging among GE employees, making them feel valued and part of a larger mission. Jack once said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”
Jack understood that cultivating these future leaders was vital to carrying GE’s legacy formward. His approach showed that leadership isn’t about individual brilliance but rather lighting the path for others to follow and flourish.
For further reading, check out Welch’s book, Winning.
Max De Pree: A Luminary in Transformative Leadership
Max De Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller Inc., was a visionary who believed in the power of individuals to make a difference. He frequently emphasized the value of people over processes. He is quoted as saying, “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.”
Under Max, Herman Miller transformed from a traditional furniture company to an innovative powerhouse, recognized globally for its commitment to design, the environment, and the welfare of its employees.
One of the defining aspects of Max’s leadership was his acute self-awareness. He often spoke of the need for leaders to recognize their limitations and strengths.
In his book, Leadership is an Art, Max wrote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” This statement underscores his belief that a leader must be introspective, acknowledging both the challenges and potential of any situation. He demonstrated awareness of his own limitations by actively seeking feedback, listening to employees at all levels, and adjusting his strategies accordingly.
Max often emphasized the value of each individual within an organization. His belief in nurturing and supporting his employees was evident in a touching story he shared: When his father, the founder of Herman Miller, discovered that one of his workers had a son with special needs, he designed a role within the company specifically tailored to the young man’s abilities.
Max took this lesson to heart. He realized that a leader’s role is to create an environment where each person feels valued and can reach their full potential, building a corporate culture of healing and understanding.
He held true to this principle even in the face of financial challenges in the early 1980s. Instead of resorting to mass layoffs, which would have disrupted the unity of his team, Max nurtured the company environment by introducing a 10% profit-sharing system.
He believed in mending the situation by ensuring every member felt valued, trusting that a motivated workforce would guide the company through the cyclical nature of business. This approach not only helped Herman Miller rebound by the end of the decade but also set industry benchmarks.
For further reading, check out Max’s book, Leadership Jazz: The Essential Elements of a Great Leader.
Robert Greenleaf: Pioneering the Path of Servant Leadership
Regarded as the father of the modern servant leadership movement, Robert Greenleaf’s insights into leadership were both transformative and ahead of their time. His long tenure at AT&T not only marked his professional achievements but laid the foundation for his leadership philosophy.
Robert believed that true leaders are those who serve first so as to ensure that others’ highest priority needs are addressed.
Robert’s writings and teachings on servant leadership have become seminal works, influencing countless organizations and leaders worldwide. His ideas were simple, yet profound. He said: By serving, one leads, and by leading, one serves.
When faced with internal challenges at AT&T, Robert would often hold listening sessions. Rather than dictating solutions, he listened intently to employees’ concerns and insights.
His empathetic nature allowed him to connect with people on a deeper level. He didn’t just hear people’s words, but also their motivations behind them.
These listening sessions informed AT&T’s strategies and ensured that everyone felt heard.
One of the defining moments in Robert’s journey was his reading of Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. The story of Leo, a servant who becomes a leader, resonated deeply and prompted a realization.
Robert recognized that great leadership was rooted in a deep understanding of oneself and a vision for the future. This self-awareness was pivotal in his conceptualization of servant leadership.
Long before the rise of employee-centric organizational cultures, Robert envisioned a world where leaders served first, understanding that the success and health of an organization depended on the holistic well-being of its members.
For further reading, check out Robert’s book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.
Abraham Lincoln: A Unifying Force in Times of Division
Abraham Lincoln steered the nation through its greatest internal conflict, the Civil War, and championed the abolition of slavery. Born in a log cabin in Kentucky, Lincoln’s journey from humble beginnings to becoming America’s 16th president was a testament to his self-taught wisdom and deep-seated values. He was often characterized not by a desire for power but by a commitment to national unity and justice.
For Lincoln, the preservation of the Union was paramount. He believed that the promise of American democracy was larger than the sum of its parts, and his leadership was grounded in principles that served the greater good.
During a time when the nation was torn apart, Lincoln sought reconciliation. You can see this commitment in his second inaugural address, delivered in 1865, near the end of the Civil War.
Instead of adopting a triumphant tone, he emphasized healing and unity. He said: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Lincoln recognized the need to mend a divided nation, ensuring that the end of the conflict would not perpetuate further divisions but rather pave the way for collective healing.
Lincoln’s leadership was marked by an ability to foresee the long-term consequences of his decisions. While the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a strategic move to weaken the Confederacy, Lincoln also recognized its profound moral and societal implications.
He knew that the end of slavery was not just about winning a war but about redefining the essence of liberty in America. In navigating the Civil War, Lincoln drew upon his knowledge of the nation’s history and his own experiences, ensuring that the choices he made would serve both the immediate needs and the future aspirations of the nation.
Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is a reflection of true servant leadership. Through healing a fractured nation and leveraging his foresight for the betterment of all, he showcased that real leadership is about understanding the broader implications of one’s actions and always striving for a united and just community.
For further reading, check out the book, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Visionary of Justice and Equality
Few have left as profound a mark on history as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired by his Christian beliefs and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King used nonviolent civil disobedience to advance civil rights.
Dr. King’s mission was to ensure dignity, respect, and love for all. His leadership, grounded in faith and a deep sense of justice, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Yet for him, the true reward was in the realization of a society where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Persuasion Over Coercion
In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, was a hotspot for racial tension. King and other civil rights leaders chose this city for a series of peaceful protests. When met with violence, including police dogs and fire hoses, King and the protesters did not retaliate with force. Instead, they showcased the stark contrast between their peaceful plea for justice and the violent oppression they faced.
When you revisit his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” you witness King’s strong belief in nonviolence and the power of persuasion. He wrote: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Dr. King was a master at mobilizing communities. One of his most iconic moments, the 1963 March on Washington, was a communal gathering of over 250,000 people who were unified in their pursuit of justice.
During the march, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He didn’t speak of a dream that was his alone. His words, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” emphasizes a communal hope, an aspiration for all of America. His words exemplify his leadership, which focused on bridging divides and pointing to a shared destiny.
Dr. King’s style of leadership was not about asserting power but bringing people together and lifting people up in the pursuit of a greater good.
For further reading, check out the book, Strength to Love.
I hope this article sparks your interest in exploring these remarkable figures more closely. For each individual, I’ve provided a link to a book either written by or about them.
Diving into one of these books is an excellent way to witness servant leadership. As you immerse yourself in their stories, look for the servant leadership traits we discussed. It’s a rewarding journey to see how these principles come to life in daily words and deeds.