Servant-Leader, An Oxymoron or the Key to Transformational Leadership?


When you think of the leaders that you have encountered over the course of your life there are good and bad ones, hopefully some great ones, and almost always some really bad ones. Sometimes the ones that truly stand out in our minds are the bad ones, you know the ones that demand the spotlight, take all the credit, and have no problem throwing everyone under the bus.

I’m sure we can all think of qualities from past leaders that we don’t want to emulate: being self-absorbed, arrogant, and condescending to name a few. These are exactly the things we want to avoid as a leader.

So, then what makes a great leader, a transformational leader?

Great Leader Traits

The qualities and traits that I look for in a leader are:

  • Humility
  • Honesty
  • Trust
  • Communication
  • Commitment
  • Passion
  • Positive Attitude
  • Creativity
  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Results

These are the types of qualities that servant leadership cultivates.


“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve,” Robert K. Greenleaf

The servant-leader seeks to serve their followers, they are stewards. The focus is on the growth and well-being of the people and the communities to which they belong. Traditional management generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one in a higher position, the “servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Simply put, servant leadership is about serving people well—above self-interest.

Six Behaviors Essential to Serving People Well

In her book, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others, Cheryl Bachelder talks about the six guiding principles that she developed for servant-leadership while she was the CEO of Popeyes. The following six behaviors were essential to serving people well and delivering superior performance:

  1. Passion
  2. Listening
  3. Planning
  4. Coaching
  5. Accountability
  6. Humility

Cheryl and her team at Popeyes intentionally decided to integrate these six principles into their personal attitudes and leadership approach. It is these six behaviors that helped turnaround and transform Popeyes into a thriving brand.

The servant-leadership approach requires two major paradigm shifts… One, it requires leaders to think positively about the people they lead. And two, it requires leaders to serve others over self-interest.

Look for the Good

This can be a hard one. It’s easy to see all of the negative “pain in the neck” things about other people.

  • They are difficult to work with.
  • They are poor performers.
  • They are impossible to please.
  • They are challenging.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. This list could go on and on.

The first step to servant-leadership is to think positively about the people that you lead. This is true whether you are leading in your home, at work, in your community, or in your church. These principles are universal.

If you cannot view the people you are serving as worthy to serve, how can you truly serve them in the capacity they deserve?


There are several possible obstacles in implementing servant-leadership, in Dare to Serve, Cheryl lists a few mindset “traps” that may get in your way.

  1. “But I am right.”

    Sometimes in a conflict situation, our first inclination is to think “I’m right and they’re wrong.” Conflicts are a part of life, we are going to disagree with one another, but it is imperative that we work together to move forward. Sometimes that requires us to slow down, swallow our pride, and put the relationship as a higher priority than our need to be right.

  2. What’s wrong with them?

    One of the many challenges of leadership is getting followers to go with you on the journey. Why don’t they see and embrace your vision? Why can’t they see the opportunities ahead? It may be tempting control or exercise authority over others, however, “influencing and persuading others is ultimately more effective than exercising authority over them.”

  3. Just trust me.

    Trust is essential to success, but it is difficult to attain. It can take years to build and seconds to break. Unfortunately, once trust has been broken, it has to be earned again. The good news is, that even in a relationship where there is some distrust, you can still “lead them, love them, and serve them well.”

When face to face with these obstacles, it can be hard to see the positive in the people we are serving. However, it is our job as the leader to find a way over, around, under, or through the obstacles so that we can find the way to our common goal.

The Biggest Obstacle

The biggest hurdle you will face in implementing servant-leadership principles into your life is you. At least that is what I have found for me. It is easy to say that you want to serve others, but it’s quite another thing to actually live those principles every day.

Whether you say your motive is to serve others or not, your actions speak louder than words. Your actions are what others see, and they will know your motive, whether you truly know it or not.

“They will know your motives by your actions, not your words.” – Cheryl Bachelder

Benefits of Servant Leadership

Even though servant leadership is about serving others, there are benefits to becoming a servant-leader. Cheryl Bachelder lists five benefits of becoming what she terms a “Dare-to-Serve Leader”:

  1. “People will tell you the stuff you need to know.” Leaders who don’t invest time in getting to know their people don’t develop the trust needed for those people to share with them what is going on.
  2. “People will be more likely to follow your bold vision.” A leader creates the vision, but it requires other people to implement the vision, people need to know their leader has their best interests at heart to be highly motivated.
  3. “People will actually do the stuff you need to get done without a lot of reminding.” Leaders can create a dependent environment where people are unable to perform on their own, they have to wait for the manager to tell them what to do. Or, leaders can create an environment of trust where people are empowered to make decisions and lead themselves.
  4. “People will perform better.” Self-centered leaders do not create work environments that foster risk taking or growth, and there is no motivation to give more than what is required. In contrast, when leaders create an environment that is focused on personal growth, development, promotion, and winning as a team, then the team has incentive to win together.
  5. “People will watch out for you and protect you from yourself.” A leader who receives little/no feedback can become over confident and make choices that are self-serving. A leader who serves others is surrounded by people who have mutual respect for each other and provide checks and balances.


The term servant-leadership in itself seems like an oxymoron. How is a leader a servant? The two words seem like polar opposites.

My life has been full of managers, and a few great leaders. The managers were concerned with managing things: time, money, goals… The leaders were the ones who truly cared. They were the ones who invested in me. They wanted me to grow as a person, which cultivated a relationship where I wanted to give my best to them. It turns out that under true leadership, I performed at my best.

I believe that servant leadership is the ultimate model of a transformational leader.

Transformational Leaders are “leaders who are making a difference, doing something that makes a difference, with people who make a difference, at a time when it makes a difference.” – John C. Maxwell

Embracing the concept of servant-leadership means investing in others. Filling the needs of the people around you regardless of “what’s in it for you.” And it just so happens that people who are well served are more likely to give their best in return. It is a win-win situation.

Dare to serve.


  1. Bachelder, C. (2015). Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  2. (2017). Retrieved from
  3. The John Maxwell Team. (2017). Retrieved from

Krista Palo

I'm Krista, the owner and creator of Evolve. I have a masters degree in Business Administration and I am passionate about development, motivation, and change. I love stories in all of their forms, and believe in continuous learning and the power of positivity.

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2 thoughts on “Servant-Leader, An Oxymoron or the Key to Transformational Leadership?

    • I just love this mindset. It seems like the general tendency is to go about this backwards. How we can squeeze as much as possible out of people and reduce costs as much as possible… It’s an entirely different way of looking at things. I’m so grateful she helps bring awareness to obstacles so that we can be ready for them as we try out this great leadership model.