Servant Leadership in Action: Two Great Examples

Servant Leadership is a potentially powerful leadership model for all types of organizations and businesses. The precepts are relatively simple and can be tailored and customized to the organization.

One great example of Servant Leadership in action is Chick-fil-A. The fast food giant’s phenomenal growth has caught the media’s attention. As reported in Forbes, “Chick-fil-A has achieved tremendous success by any business standard. They’ve experienced a more than 10% sales increase almost every year since launching in 1946. Franchisees retention rate has been 96% for nearly 50 years, while the corporate staff retention rate has hovered at 95-97% over the same time-period.” Truett Cathy founded the company on servant leadership principals before the model was even conceptualized, and the servant leadership model continues to be the foundation for management to this day.

In Dee Ann Turner’s book, It’s My Pleasure: The Impact of Extraordinary Talent and Compelling Culture, Chick-fil-A also has three guiding principles for sustaining its culture. First, Chick-fil-A recruits talent based on “character, competency, and chemistry,” with character being the most difficult to assess. Second, Chick-fil-A nurtures employees by “telling the truth.” Being respectfully honest with employees about their performance and their future creates trust and demonstrates that you value individuals and relationships. Finally, share your culture with guests and partners. Chick-fil-A is as well-known for its service as its food, as employees truly embrace the Second-Mile-Service philosophy. And, as anyone who has ever visited one of Chick-fil-A’s restaurants or worked with its business units, everyone sincerely delivers the signature response “It’s my pleasure.”

Another great example of servant leadership in action is Southwest Airlines. Trends frequently on social media reveal Southwest Airlines is known for its exceptional customer service, as well as for stories about its fun-loving employees. It should come as no surprise that these are its values:

  • A warrior spirit. A warrior spirit means to be committed to delivering the brand. As Ginger Hardage says in Forbes, “People travel for a variety of reasons — business, funerals, vacations — and you need to be sensitive to their space and schedules.”
  • A servant’s heart. Serve the customer openly and with respect. Southwest employees are known for their compassionate care of the customer.
  • A fun-luving attitude. (That is not a typoSouthwest Airline’s symbol on the NYSE is LUV.) This value reminds employees not to take themselves too seriously. Employees truly live the Southwest brand.

The airline’s spirit is even expressed in the intentional wording of these values. Southwest could have said (like so many companies) “treat everyone with respect,” but by wording their value “a servant’s heart,” they tap into their employees’ personal values and beliefs to motivate behavior.

Both Chick-fil-A and Southwest Airlines embrace and practice servant leadership. Both companies have extraordinarily loyal customers, strongly engaged employees, and great profitability. Coincidence? Probably not. However, as noted, both companies were founded on servant leadership principles. It is much more difficult to change a power-leadership culture to a servant leadership culture. Without a massive commitment from executives and senior leadership, it probably will not be successful.

However, the beauty of servant leadership is that it can benefit any size of organization – even a business unit within a larger business, or a department within a business unit. If servant leadership appeals to you, just go for it. Even for the smallest group of people, the benefits of servant leadership will pay off. And that success will spread as others learn about and understand the reasons for your success.

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