Servant Leadership in practice

“Explore real-life examples of servant leadership in action with our collection of case studies.
Learn how top organizations have implemented servant leadership principles to drive success,
and discover how you can apply these strategies in your own workplace.
Start your journey towards becoming a servant leader today!”

Background on Zappos and its leadership philosophy

Zappos is an online store that sells shoes, clothes, and accessories. But what makes it special is how they treat their employees. They have a leadership philosophy called "servant leadership," which means the leaders think of themselves as servants to their employees. They want to help their employees be happy and successful. Zappos does lots of things to make sure their employees are happy, like offering free food, volunteer programs, and more. This has helped Zappos be very successful as a company, and their employees are happy too!

Specific examples of how Zappos implements servant leadership

Here are some processes at Zappos that set them apart from traditional hierarchies: Zappos does lots of things to make sure their employees are happy and successful. For example, they have a program called "Zapponians," which is a way for employees to connect and learn from each other. They also have a program called "Culture Book," which is a book that's written by employees and describes what it's like to work at Zappos. This book helps new employees understand what the company is all about. Zappos also offers free food and drinks to their employees, and they have a program where employees can earn money by volunteering in the community.
  1. Servant Leadership Philosophy: Zappos' leadership philosophy is based on the idea of "servant leadership," which means that the leaders see themselves as servants to their employees, rather than the other way around. They believe that by putting their employees first and empowering them to make decisions, they will create a happier and more productive workplace.
  2. Flat Organizational Structure: Zappos has a flat organizational structure, which means that there are very few layers of management between the employees and the CEO. This allows employees to have more autonomy and decision-making power in their work.
  3. Emphasis on Culture: Zappos places a high value on creating and maintaining a positive workplace culture. They have programs and initiatives in place to build community among employees, and they prioritize employee happiness and well-being.
  4. Unique Interview Process: Zappos has a unique interview process that focuses on finding candidates who are a good fit for the company's culture, rather than just their technical skills or experience. They ask offbeat questions and give candidates a chance to interact with current employees to get a sense of whether they will thrive in the Zappos environment.
  5. Focus on Customer Service: Zappos is known for its exceptional customer service, which is rooted in their company culture. They empower their employees to go above and beyond to help customers, even if it means going outside of their job description or company policies.

Results of Zappos' use of servant leadership

Zappos has been very successful because of their use of servant leadership. They have won many awards for being a great place to work, and their employees are very happy. Zappos is also very successful as a company. In fact, in 2009, they were bought by Amazon for more than $1 billion! This shows that when leaders focus on making their employees happy and successful, it can also lead to success for the company. Zappos is still around today, but now it is owned by Amazon. Even though it is part of a big company now, Zappos still tries to keep its own special culture. Zappos and Amazon have some things in common, like both companies care a lot about their customers. But Zappos still has some things that are unique to them. They still have their "servant leadership" philosophy and they still try to make their employees happy. Some people think that Zappos has had to change a little bit since being bought by Amazon, but overall they still have a good culture and are a successful company.

Background on Southwest Airlines and its leadership philosophy

Southwest Airlines is a special airline because they do things differently than other airlines. They have a leadership philosophy called "servant leadership," which means they focus on making their employees happy and successful. This has helped Southwest Airlines be very successful as a company because happy employees mean happy customers. Southwest Airlines also has a program called "The Southwest Spirit," which is a set of values they live by, like having fun and putting people first.

The concept of moving decision making (where its both safe to do so and prudent because the employee is in direct interface with the data) to where the information originates is one of the progressive techniques for creating an en empowered workforce. Giving their employees a lot of freedom to make decisions on their own is also known as decentralized decision making.. These unique practices have helped Southwest Airlines become the largest domestic airline in the United States, which means they fly more people than any other airline that only flies within the United States!

Specific examples of how Southwest Airlines implements servant leadership

What follows below are specific strategic and/or incentives that serve the company as a whole because they target the needs of the people do the work or the consumers themselves. Chief among them are:
  1. Low-Cost Business Model: Southwest Airlines is known for its low-cost business model. They keep their costs low by operating only one type of airplane (the Boeing 737) and using a point-to-point system (instead of a hub-and-spoke system). This helps them save money on maintenance and reduce the time planes spend on the ground.
  2. Fast Turnaround Times: Southwest Airlines has some of the fastest turnaround times in the industry. This means they are able to get planes in and out of the airport quickly, which helps them maximize the number of flights they can offer each day.
  3. Employee Ownership: Southwest Airlines offers its employees a chance to own a piece of the company through a profit-sharing program. This helps to align employees' interests with the success of the company, and it also helps to create a sense of ownership and pride among employees.
  4. Focus on Customer Service: Southwest Airlines has a reputation for providing exceptional customer service. They empower their employees to go above and beyond to help customers, and they have a policy of no hidden fees or charges. This has helped to create a loyal customer base that chooses to fly with Southwest Airlines again and again.
Overall, these management techniques, combined with a focus on employee satisfaction and unique leadership philosophy, have helped Southwest Airlines become one of the most successful and profitable airlines in the industry.

Results of Southwest Airlines' use of servant leadership

Southwest Airlines is still thriving in today’s volatile economic and geopolitical environment. The challenges they have faced recently include the lockdowns and logistics of operating in during a COVID-19 pandemic. Because people have been traveling less, airlines have had fewer passengers and less money. But Southwest Airlines is still trying to maintain its unique culture and take care of its employees. They have even offered to pay their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. This shows that Southwest Airlines still cares about its employees and wants to keep them safe. While the airline industry can be challenging because of low margins and other difficulties, Southwest Airlines is still one of the most successful airlines in the United States.

Southwest Airlines has been very successful because of their use of servant leadership. They have won many awards for being a great place to work, and their employees are very happy. Southwest Airlines is also very successful as a company. In fact, they are the largest domestic airline in the United States, which means they fly more people than any other airline that only flies within the United States! This shows that when leaders focus on making their employees happy and successful, it can also lead to success for the company.

Background on Patagonia and its leadership philosophy

Patagonia is a company that makes outdoor clothing and gear for people who love nature. But what makes it special is how they care about the environment. Patagonia has a leadership philosophy that focuses on doing what's right for the planet, even if it means making less money. They believe that if they take care of the planet, then people will be able to enjoy it for generations to come.

Specific examples of how Patagonia implements servant leadership

As Patagonia became more and more successful, the friction dissonance between profits and serving the environment came to the forefront.

To better align the oftent times divergent concerns of running a corporation and serving the environment, Patagonia did form a trust to enable them to still fulfill their original mission, even after generating over a billion dollars in revenue. In 1985, Patagonia created the "1% for the Planet" program, which is a trust that donates 1% of Patagonia's annual sales to environmental causes.

The program is not just limited to Patagonia's own products, but also includes sales from other companies that have joined the program. This means that Patagonia has been able to use its success to support environmental causes on a larger scale, beyond just its own business operations.

By creating the 1% for the Planet program, Patagonia has been able to ensure that its original mission to care for the environment is still a top priority, even as the company has grown and become more successful. This demonstrates the company's commitment to servant leadership and its belief that doing what's right for the planet is just as important as generating profits.

In addition, Yvon Chouinard and Malinda Pennoyer, used a unique structure to decouple corporate profits with their mission for serving the environment.

In 2002, Chouinard and Pennoyer established Patagonia as a Benefit Corporation, also known as a B Corp. A B Corp is a special type of company that is legally required to consider the impact of its decisions not only on its shareholders, but also on its employees, customers, community, and the environment.

This means that Patagonia's mission to do what's right for the planet is legally protected, even if it means making less money. In fact, Patagonia is required to report on its social and environmental impact each year, and it is subject to rigorous third-party assessments to ensure that it is living up to its mission.

By using a B Corp structure, Chouinard and Pennoyer have decoupled corporate profits from their mission to serve the environment. This means that even if the company makes less money by doing what's right for the planet, they are still fulfilling their legal obligation to consider the impact of their decisions on the environment and society. This unique structure aligns with Patagonia's servant leadership philosophy, which prioritizes doing what's right over maximizing profits.

Results of Patagonia's use of servant leadership

Patagonia has been very successful in making a positive impact on the environment and the world. They have won many awards for their environmental efforts and their commitment to social responsibility. Even though they sometimes make less money by doing what's right for the planet, they have loyal customers who appreciate their values and are willing to pay more for their products. This shows that when leaders focus on doing what's right for the planet and the people, it can also lead to success for the company.

Common themes across the case studies

  1. A Culture of Altruism: As I have often emphasized the significance of empathy and compassion in the human experience, it is gratifying to observe a similar thread running through the organizational fabric of these three companies. By fostering an environment that prioritizes the well-being and growth of employees, a potent, symbiotic relationship is established between the individual and the collective.
  2. Empowerment and Autonomy: In a manner reminiscent of the thoughts of John Stuart Mill, these companies advocate for the empowerment of their employees, affording them the autonomy to exercise their faculties and develop their skills. This not only cultivates a sense of responsibility but also engenders an environment wherein creativity and innovation may flourish.
  3. Open Communication and Transparency: The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant once posited that the enlightened individual is one who dares to think for himself. In a similar vein, these organizations encourage open communication and transparency, fostering an environment in which employees feel free to express their ideas and concerns, allowing for the collective pursuit of truth and progress.
  4. Service-Oriented Approach: As the name 'servant leadership' suggests, a focus on service to others is a cornerstone of this philosophy. The leaders of Patagonia, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos demonstrate an unwavering commitment to serving their customers, employees, and communities. By placing the needs of others at the forefront of their decision-making processes, they cultivate a culture of service that transcends the boundaries of their respective organizations.
  5. Long-term Vision and Sustainability: Rather than seeking immediate gratification, these companies exhibit a far-sightedness in their approach, with a focus on sustainable growth and development. By investing in their employees and the environment, they create a stable foundation for long-term success, both for their businesses and the broader community.

Key takeaways and best practices for implementing servant leadership in practice

To sum it up, Servant leadership is a way of managing a company where leaders focus on helping others and creating a positive work environment. Three businesses—Patagonia, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos—have used this approach to create a great culture. Here are five key takeaways and best practices from their experience:
  1. A Culture of Caring: These companies make sure that the well-being and growth of their employees come first. When employees feel cared for, they're more likely to work together and help the company succeed.
  2. Empowerment and Freedom: Patagonia, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos give their employees the power to make decisions and learn new skills. This helps people feel responsible for their work and encourages them to come up with new ideas.
  3. Open Communication and Honesty: In these companies, employees can openly share their thoughts and concerns. This creates a place where everyone can learn from each other and make better decisions together.
  4. Focus on Service: The leaders of these businesses are dedicated to helping their customers, employees, and communities. By always thinking about how they can serve others, they create a positive culture that goes beyond their own company.
  5. Long-term Thinking and Sustainability: Instead of just trying to make a quick profit, these companies plan for the future. They invest in their employees and the environment to create a strong foundation for success that will last for years to come.
  6. In short, Patagonia, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos have used servant leadership to build a culture that cares about people, gives them power, encourages open communication, focuses on service, and plans for the future. These practices can help other companies create a better work environment and achieve long-term success.
In the realm of servant leadership, certain patterns and anti-patterns emerge that can either foster or undermine the development of a servant-based culture. Discerning these patterns allows us to better understand the nuances of this leadership style, as well as identify potential pitfalls and challenges that might arise.


  1. Listening and Empathy: A servant leader demonstrates a genuine interest in understanding the needs, concerns, and aspirations of others. Through active listening and empathetic engagement, leaders establish trust and a foundation for meaningful collaboration.
  2. Stewardship and Responsibility: Servant leaders embrace the concept of stewardship, accepting responsibility for the well-being and growth of their organization and its members. This sense of accountability extends not only to the team but also to society and the environment.
  3. Humility and Self-awareness: A key characteristic of servant leaders is the recognition of their own limitations, fostering a sense of humility and self-awareness. This introspection allows leaders to grow, adapt, and better serve their constituents.


  1. Authoritarianism and Control: A leadership style that relies on rigid control and hierarchy is antithetical to servant leadership. Such an approach stifles individual creativity, undermines trust, and hampers the development of a servant-based culture.
  2. Self-serving Motives: Leaders who prioritize their own interests over the needs of their team and organization ultimately undermine the principles of servant leadership. This self-serving behavior can lead to disengagement, low morale, and decreased performance.
  3. Inauthenticity and Manipulation: Inauthenticity in a leader is a significant barrier to establishing trust and fostering a servant-based culture. Manipulative tactics, such as feigning interest in others or using them as a means to an end, are antithetical to the tenets of servant leadership.

Summary of the importance and benefits of servant leadership

  • Servant leadership, as an ethical and people-centric approach, carries profound importance and benefits for organizations and society at large. Among its myriad advantages are:
  • Enhanced Team Performance: By fostering an environment of trust, collaboration, and empowerment, servant leadership enhances team performance and productivity.
  • Personal and Professional Growth: By prioritizing individual development, servant leaders facilitate personal and professional growth, leading to a more skilled and engaged workforce.
  • Increased Job Satisfaction and Retention: The focus on employee well-being and the creation of a supportive work environment contribute to increased job satisfaction and employee retention.
  • Ethical Decision-Making: Servant leadership encourages leaders to make decisions grounded in ethical principles and the greater good, promoting responsible and sustainable business practices.
  • Positive Societal Impact: The extension of servant leadership principles to the broader community and environment results in a positive societal impact, fostering social responsibility and ecological stewardship.

Call to action for readers to implement servant leadership in their own organizations

As aspiring leaders and practitioners, I implore you to consider the merits of servant leadership and endeavor to integrate its principles into your own organizations. To embark on this transformative journey, consider the following steps:
  • Cultivate Self-awareness: Engage in regular self-reflection to better understand your strengths, weaknesses, and biases, and seek feedback from others to foster humility and growth.
  • Prioritize Listening and Empathy: Hone your listening skills and empathize with the experiences of others, fostering deeper connections and trust within your organization.
  • Encourage Collaboration and Empowerment: Promote a collaborative environment where individuals feel empowered to contribute their ideas, take ownership of their work, and pursue their professional growth.
  • Act as a Steward and Mentor: Embrace your role as a steward of your organization, taking responsibility for its well-being and the development of its members.