Servant Leadership Styles in Startups or Early Stage Organizations


When starting a new business or a non-profit making organization, one of the main issues that one has to take into consideration is the leadership approach that has to be embraced. According to Blanchard and Broadwell (2018), the concept of leadership has been attracting the attention of scholars for the last several decades. In the past, the authoritarian approach to governance was seen as the best way of governing an organization. A leader has to issue instructions and expect full compliance from the subordinates. However, the trend has been changing, and managers are currently under pressure to determine the most appropriate approach to governance when dealing with different situations in a firm. Horsman (2018) explains that sometimes situational or coaching as a leadership style may be the most appropriate in dealing with a specific scenario in an organization. For startups, it is critical to understand the fact that the leadership approach that one takes defines the ability of the new firm to achieve sustained growth. At this stage, the firm is at a delicate stage of its development, and the chances of it collapsing because of poor leadership are considerably high. In this research paper, the focus is to investigate if the servant leadership style is good for startups or early-stage organizations.

Understanding the Concept of Servant Leadership

A startup business faces numerous challenges that can easily cripple its operations if its leaders fail to understand the most appropriate approach to governance. To determine the appropriateness of servant leadership to such organizations, it is essential to start by clearly defining this approach to leadership. According to Yang et al. (2017), as its name suggests, the primary goal of such a leader is to serve others and ensure that their needs are taken care of effectively. The goal of a servant leader is to understand the needs of the subordinates and find ways of addressing them effectively so that they can perform optimally in their respective assignments. Such a leader finds it necessary to share power and to make junior officers feel that their views are respected by those in power.

Servant leadership sharply differs from many other forms of governance, such as autocratic leadership. In servant leadership, there is a belief that a leader is a servant first. There is a strong desire by the leader to serve the subordinates and guide them towards growth in their places of work. Such a leader understands that the growth of an employee within the firm would not only lead to increased satisfaction but also the overall growth of the firm. It is significantly different from the leader-first approach of governance, such as that used by autocratic leaders. In a dictatorship, the primary goal of a leader is to exercise maximum power to control followers and to ensure that they act as per the directives given to them. In contrast, a servant leader empowers employees to think creatively and to share their opinions with the leader and colleagues on how to undertake their responsibilities more effectively. Letizia (2017) observes that “the difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served,” (p. 67). Having a team of happy and highly satisfied employees helps in improving the overall performance of the organization.

Principles of Servant Leadership

Servant-first leadership has proven to be effective in various contexts when governing organizations of varying sizes. In a startup organization, one of the issues that have to be defined in clear terms is the leadership approach that one seeks to use to achieve success. One can choose to use servant leadership or an autocratic approach to governance. In between these two extreme forms of governance, Blanchard and Broadwell (2018) argue that there exist other forms of leadership that blend the principles of the two. In order to determine if servant leadership is appropriate for startups and early-stage organizations, it is necessary to understand the principles that such a manager should embrace. The following are the fundamental principles of this form of governance.

One of the fundamental principles of servant leadership is listening to subordinates. As Letizia (2017) explains, one of the best ways of demonstrating to followers that a leader cares is to listen to them whenever they have a concern. This principle requires a leader to give followers full attention without any interruption whenever they are explaining an issue. It is closely intertwined with the second principle of empathy. In this case, a leader is expected to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the workers in their respective areas of assignment. One needs to know what makes these employees perform well and issues that may compromise their overall performance. The manager should then empower these workers in a way that will ensure that they can overcome their weaknesses using their strengths.

Healing has been identified as one of the primary principles of servant leadership. It is normal for employees to be emotionally or even physically affected when undertaking their duties at work. Sometimes the problem may be personal, emanating from challenges that one is facing at home. Irrespective of the source of the problem, an employee with a troubled mind cannot perform optimally (Horsman, 2018). A servant leader should try and help the employee in the healing process, providing emotional support and reminding the employee that all shall be fine. Creating an effective work-life balance may be an effective method of enhancing the healing process.

Persuasion is another critical aspect of servant leadership in an organization. An autocratic leader will issue commands that subordinates have to obey at all costs. On the other hand, a servant leader has to persuade followers to take a specific path toward success. It starts by explaining why it is important to embrace a given principle or undertake a given task. During the process, subordinates are allowed to share their ideas with the leader and express their displeasure or concerns. The leader will have the responsibility of explaining to them the importance of embracing the new idea (Lemoine et al., 2019). The goal is to make sure that employees follow the guideline of the leader without any form of coercion.

Conceptualization is another important principle of servant leadership. As a leader, one has to know the path that the team should take to achieve the vision of the organization. Having a clearly defined path gives one a sense of authority and earns them respect among the followers. Junior officers will trust their guidance because they know the leader understands what needs to be done to achieve specific goals (Yang et al., 2017). At the same time, the leader should have foresight. It means that they should have the capacity to use the knowledge gained through past activities to predict the future. They need to know what can lead to success and issues that may result in major failures.

Stewardship is one of the important principles that a servant leader should embrace. As Letizia (2017) observes, stewardship entails leading a group of people by example. Instead of issuing a command and expecting everyone to do as instructed, servant leaders will always demonstrate to the subordinates what needs to be done. If it is selling products to specific clients, the leader will need to join the sales team in approaching these customers and pitching the sale to them. The sales team will learn from the leader what they need to do when approaching the customers and the mistakes that they need to avoid. The leader must create trust among workers and remind them that it is normal to make mistakes as long as it is not deliberate and was made in an effort to achieve a positive outcome for the organization.

Commitment to the growth of subordinates is another common trait of a servant leader. These leaders know that the strength of their organizations depends on the skills and capabilities of their employees. Starting new projects and injecting new capital to start a new project may be necessary, but such a firm can only grow if its workers have the needed potential. As such, a servant leader will set time and resources aside for the growth of employees, knowing that they have a major role to play in enhancing the growth of the organization (Lemoine et al., 2019). Initiatives such as on-job training and sponsoring workers to advance their education in local or international institutions of higher learning are critical in enhancing the growth of employees. Building community and self-awareness are the other major principles of servant leadership.

Benefits of Servant Leadership in Startups and Early Stage Organizations

When trying to answer the question of whether servant leadership style is good for startups or early stage organizations, it is necessary to look at the benefits that it has to such entities. The section above has outlined primary principles of servant leadership (Evaa et al., 2019). It is clear what such a leader needs to embrace when guiding employees towards the vision of the organization. Based on the information above, it is possible to understand pros and cons of this style of governance. The following are the benefits that such a startup or early-stage organization will get if its manager embraces servant leadership.

Strong Team Spirit and High Morale

One of the benefits of using servant leadership is that it creates a strong team spirit within an organization. Employees know that they are respected and that their opinion counts. As such, they will always strive to be responsible and when necessary they always make consultations with their peers and superiors on how to undertake different assignments. It creates an environment where people believe in working as a team to address different problems or to undertake their normal responsibilities. Servant leadership has also been associated with high levels of morale among workers. The morale comes from the satisfaction they have because of the engagement and consultative approach of governance. Such employees tend to perform better than their colleagues who lack motivation. For a startup, such a united and motivated team of workers is critical for success.

Employee Engagement through Collaborative Decision-Making

Employee engagement is another benefit of using servant leadership in an organization. At infancy stage, Blanchard and Broadwell (2018) believe that a firm requires a team of highly skilled workers who can identify opportunities and work as a unit to pursue them. Servant leadership creates an environment where employees are actively involved in policy formulation and implementation. They feel responsible for such new policies and as such, will be committed to their implementation even if it means working for extra hours. Such workers will not hesitate to share with the management possible challenges they face or threats that the organization is facing based on their personal assessment. A solution to the identified problem can be developed, making it easy for the firm to achieve growth.

Ethical Behavior

Servant leadership is known to promote ethical behavior, especially in a startup or early stages of an organization. At this stage, the manager is the role model for all employees and is responsible for creating organizational culture (Lemoine et al., 2019). Such leaders will strive to create a culture of commitment, trust, transparency, accountability, and information sharing among workers. Given the trust that the manager has towards employees and responsibility that they are given, they will make an effort to maintain an ethical behavior at all times. Ethics is critical for startups, especially when it comes to handling customers and managing organization’s resources.

Employee Growth and Satisfaction

The previous discussion indicated that one of the fundamental principles of servant leadership is its commitment to employees’ growth. It means that such an organization will give its workers an opportunity to pursue further education. They will also have the opportunity to get on-job training as a way of enhancing their skills. Letizia (2017) explains that when employees are empowered through continuous training and further education, their output within an organization will improve. They will become more creative and capable of developing solutions based on their newly acquired skills. A startup can benefit significantly from such highly skilled workers.

Challenges of Servant Leadership in Startups and Early Stage Organizations

The discussion above clearly outlined various benefits of servant leadership to startups and early stage organizations. However, it is important to note that this form of governance has its challenges that sometimes make it less desirable. It is not easy for a leader to use this firm of governance at all times. In some of the cases, it may force a manager to use other forms of governance. The following are some of the major challenges of this approach to leadership in startups and early stages of an organization.

Time Consuming Approach to Governance

The main challenge of using this approach of governance is that it is time-consuming. A servant leader will always want to make consultations before taking a given action that may influence employees. Getting a consensus, especially when there is diversity among workers and their number is considerably high, is not easy (Evaa et al., 2019). It takes a lot of time to persuade those with divergent opinion why it is beneficial for everyone and the organization to take a given path towards achieving specific goals. An authoritarian leader will have an easy time in implementing new policies. They will only make consultation when they feel it is necessary, then issue instructions to the subordinates, which has to be followed strictly. A servant leader does not have such a privilege and they have to ensure that the masses is satisfied. For a startup, such time wastage may be costly, especially when trying to accomplish specific goals within a given period.

May not be Effective at All Times

It is necessary to note that servant leadership may not be the effective approach to governance at all times. When a manager has to make a quick decision, such as sourcing for materials from a given company, it may be necessary to avoid lengthy consultations which may not result in quick consensus. In such a case, the leader may be forced to embrace a different approach to governance. The problem is that in such cases, employees may be dissatisfied with the action of their leader. Many will question why the management used a different form of governance from what they are used to in the past. They may feel that their views and opinions no longer matter to the organization. Convincing them that it was necessary to take such a new approach in the normal operations of the firm may not be easy (Yang et al., 2017). As such, one should consider such issues before embracing this leadership style.

Relies Heavily on Trust and Self-Motivation

Servant leadership heavily relies on McGregor’s Theory Y when managing people. This theory holds the belief that people are often self-motivated and are capable achieving success in their assigned duties without constant supervision (Blanchard & Broadwell, 2018). It means that a leader will trust the subordinates that they will behave as expected and deliver the expected output without the need for the leader to be physically present at their workstation. The problem is that not all employees are self-motivated and capable of working without proper supervision. It only takes one lazy employee to influence others within the workplace negatively. Everyone will feel that they do not have to work hard because a colleague, who is paid the same salary as them, is joyriding while they have to work hard. Some of these employees may not embrace diversity unless the management develops and strictly implements strict rules. In such an environment, servant leadership may not be effective because it is a relaxed approach of governing workers.


When starting a business, it is essential for one to define the leadership approach that will be used to govern employees. Servant leadership is one of the possible management approaches that one can use to guide workers towards the realization of an organization’s vision. The analysis conducted above has identified principles or servant leadership, its benefits, and challenges when using it in a startup. It is evident that it has numerous benefits that makes it one of the most appropriate governance approach to such organization. Although it also has some weaknesses, just like other forms of leadership do, the benefits outweigh these challenges. Directly responding to the research question, servant leadership style is good for startups and early stage organizations. It creates a sense of responsibility and commitment among workers. Employees are given an opportunity to be creative in their respective assignments, and their views are taken seriously whenever a new policy is introduced. However, it is important to note that sometimes there is a need for a balance. The manager may use servant leadership most of the time, but in some cases, tough decisions have to be made when it is necessary.


Blanchard, K., & Broadwell, R. (2018). Servant leadership in action: How you can achieve great relationships and results. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Evaa, N., Robin, M., Sendjaya, S., Dierendonck, D., & Liden, R. (2019). Servant Leadership: A systematic review and call for future research. The Leadership Quarterly, 30(1), 111-132.

Horsman, J. H. (2018). Servant-leaders in training: Foundations of the philosophy of servant-leadership. Palgrave Macmillan.

Lemoine, J., Hartnell, C., & Leroy, H. (2019). Taking stock of moral approaches to leadership: An integrative review of ethical, authentic, and servant leadership. Academy of Management Annals, 13(1), 1-12.

Letizia, A. (2017). Using servant leadership: How to reframe the core functions of higher education. Rutgers University Press.

Yang, J., Liu, H., & Gu, J. (2017). A multi-level study of servant leadership on creativity: The roles of self-efficacy and power distance. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 38(5), 610-629.

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