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The Power of Selfless Leadership: Building a Culture of Service and Sacrifice

Leadership is powerful and transformative, with the ability to shape organizations and their impact on both employees and customers. Research shows that selfless leadership through service and sacrifice leads to high employee engagement, increased customer satisfaction, and overall organizational success.

Today we will explore how we can go about supporting selfless leadership through concepts like servant leadership and organizational culture.

Servant Leadership: Research Foundation

The concept of servant leadership was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, emphasizing that true leadership emerges from a desire to serve first, not a desire for power or influence (Greenleaf, 1970). Research since then has validated how servant leadership positively correlates with employee engagement and trust in leadership (Van Dierendonck, 2011). Servant leaders exhibit behaviors like empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth of people, and building community (Spears, 2010). These behaviors align with major leadership theories suggesting effective leaders empower and develop followers through individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, and inspirational motivation (Bass & Riggio, 2006).

Servant leaders are externally focused on how they can support their employees and customers, rather than internally focused on their own status and power within the organization. Placing others' interests ahead of their own personal agenda allows servant leaders to earn trust and buy-in from both internal and external stakeholders (Cater & Beal, 2015). This trust and loyalty manifests itself in higher performance outcomes as employees are motivated to work for leaders exemplifying care, competence and community-building (Liden, 2008).

Organizational Culture: Outward Mindset

The culture set by leadership within an organization represents shared values, assumptions, interpretations and approaches that influence employee behaviors and impact customers (Schein, 2010). Leadership plays a crucial role in shaping organizational culture through embodiment of attitudes and behaviors they want emulated throughout the company. Research finds that developing an outward mindset focused on serving external stakeholders leads to a culture where employees exhibit service behaviors and go above and beyond for customers (Babakus et al., 2017).

An outward mindset reframes problems by emphasizing customers' perspectives to find novel solutions (Kim & Mauborgne, 2017). Rather than an internal focus on increasing productivity or reducing costs, leaders with an outward mindset focus resources on customer jobs, issues and experiences. This moves beyond simply satisfying customers to delighting and engaging them through personalized experiences. Employees taking an outward view in all their interactions mirrors the selfless leadership approach setting the tone from the top.

Practical Application

The following brief case examples illustrate how outward-focused servant leadership cultivates organizational cultures of service and sacrifice, driving exceptional performance outcomes:

Nordstrom - Known for legendary customer service, Nordstrom maintains a culture where employees are empowered to solve any customer issues, even if it means refunding or exchanging items years later with no receipt. The leadership philosophy emphasizes putting customers first no matter the cost. This focus on delighting customers through service rather than rigid policies has earned Nordstrom loyalty for life from many patrons (Peters & Waterman, 1982).

Southwest Airlines - Led by servant leader Herb Kelleher, Southwest prioritizes employees as their number one asset. The culture focuses on bringing out the best in people through fun, teamwork and servant leadership behaviors like being present, available and putting employees first. Empowered employees then infuse customer interactions with warmth, humor and heart, driving Southwest's reputation as the low-cost leader with heart (Kelleher & Lynch, 1991).

Vanguard - With an outward focus on helpfulness, Vanguard builds long term relationships through low fees that deliver value to customers rather than short term profits. Leadership emphasizes stewardship, putting clients' interests ahead of their own, and making investment decisions with customers' multi-decade horizons in mind. This culture of service has allowed Vanguard to amass over $5 trillion in assets under management by keeping clients' needs front and center.


Research shows that selfless leadership through concepts like servant leadership and developing an outward organizational mindset yields thriving cultures where employees are inspired to provide outstanding service. When leaders focus on empowering, developing and serving others above personal agendas, it empowers employees and delights customers. The practical examples provided reinforce how industries like retail, airlines and finance have succeeded by embedding a philosophy of putting external stakeholders' interests and experiences ahead of internal goals. Overall, leadership must prioritize service over self through humility, presence and empowering others to truly transform organizations and communities through people. A culture grounded in serving external customers and internal employees will sustain long term growth and impact.


  • Babakus, E., Yavas, U., & Ashill, N. J. (2017). The role of customer orientation as a moderator of the influence of leadership styles on frontline employee commitment to service quality. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 38, 1-10.

  • Bass, B. M., & Riggio, R. E. (2006). Transformational leadership (2nd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

  • Cater, J. J., & Beal, B. D. (2015). Servant leadership in multigenerational family firms. Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 20(4), 25-48.

  • Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The servant as leader. The Greenleaf Center.

  • Kelleher, H., & Lynch, P. J. (1991). Heart, sweat and standards: Building value in the service culture. Great Southwest Corporation.

  • Kim, W. C., & Mauborgne, R. (2017). Blue ocean strategy, expanded edition: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. Harvard Business Review Press.

  • Liden, R. C. (2008). Servant leadership: A survey of constructs and empirical studies. In J. Barling & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organizational behavior (Vol. 1, pp. 455–472). SAGE.

  • Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America's best-run companies. Harper & Row.

  • Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (4th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

  • Spears, L. C. (2010). Character and servant leadership: Ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders. The Journal of Virtues & Leadership, 1(1), 25-30.

  • Van Dierendonck, D. (2011). Servant leadership: A review and synthesis. Journal of Management, 37(4), 1228-1261.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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