Servant leadership has been a leadership term that has been around since the 1970s when Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the phrase in his essay “The Servant as a Leader.” It was and remained a simple, elegant but powerful concept that significantly impacts when you live the principles.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Howard Behar. For those of you who may not know him, he was at Starbucks for 21 years, where he helped set the foundation for building the company from a mere 28 stores to a 15,000 store mega-brand spanning five continents. After being at the helm, he served on the Starbucks Board of Directors for 12 years.

Howard is the consummate Servant Leader. If you asked anyone who worked for him, he lived and to this day continues to spread the virtues of being one. So, when I asked him to describe what is a Servant leader, he shared these three insights.

Helping others get what they want

As a leader, he said that if you help people get what they want in life, they will help you get what you want. So as a leader, how much are you thinking about what your people really want, versus just what you want them to do for you? As we know, the more you build your people, the more successful you become.


Give before you receive

As Howard puts it, “it is putting other people first”, and before you can achieve his first point, you have to give before you receive. It is about a way of leading “we are all put on this earth to serve others”, and if you are not a believer of this, it will be tough to be a Servant Leader. It does not matter what your job is – a doctor, a fireman, an architect – you serve people, first.


Understand it is “WE,” not “ME”

It is the easiest concept that we tend to forget in the thick of an issue or problem. If you have a “WE” mindset, your perspective is totally different from being only about you. I am sure we cannot help thinking about “ME” once in a while, but servant leaders have a predominantly “WE” perspective.


When I asked him if there is any Servant Leader who made an impression on him, without hesitation he said Jim Senegal. Jim is one of the co-founders of Costco. In 2021, Costco is ranked #10 on Fortune 500 rankings of the largest US corporations. Howard related when Jim was asked by an analyst why he was paying his people so much, his reply was, “That’s what we need to do to keep our people, and if you don’t like that strategy, maybe you should buy some other companies’ stock.” Costco takes care of its people. Jim stood up for what he believed and truly displayed the virtues of a Servant leader.


So, here are some questions that you should think about if you want to be a true Servant Leader for your people:

  1. Are you helping your people get what they want, or are you focused only on what you want?
  2. Are you putting other people first and giving before thinking about what you will receive?
  3. If I went to your colleagues and asked them if you had a more “WE” versus “ME” attitude – what would they say?

You were put on this earth to serve others – be a Servant Leader and serve.