Difference Between Traditional and Servant Leadership Principles

By: | Updated: Sep-22, 2023
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The path to leadership is an intimidating one. Leading groups of people to a goal can be frightening, but the good part about being a leader is that you can decide how you want to guide your employees.

There are many different ways to be a leader and many examples throughout history that have shown the results of both successful and unsuccessful leadership. The best way to learn from the examples of the world is to study them and see which ones fit best for you. In this article we will discuss two of the most popular leadership styles today and what makes them different in their implementation.

Difference Between Traditional and Servant Leadership Principles

What Makes A Good Leader?

A good leader looks different to everybody and changes depending on context. In a business setting, there are many people who rely on leaders in order to run a smooth ship. A good leader should rely on both themself and their employees if they expect any work to get accomplished. 

Depending on the situation, a leader may need to adapt to change in order to stay connected to their team and find success. According to the Atlanta-based public speaker Kurt Uhlir, good leadership comes from adopting a servant mentality. This means choosing to interact with and learn about your inferiors and treat them with dignity and respect by serving them as well as yourself.

Aspects of this kind of servant leadership can be found all over the world and all throughout history, so let’s take a look at the difference between a traditional approach to leadership and a servant approach. In this next section, we will examine the top principles of traditional leadership and character traits that are associated with a traditional leader and then compare those with the principles and character traits associated with a servant leader. 

What is Traditional Leadership?

Traditional leadership is characterized by three things: hierarchy, productivity, and respect for authority. Companies that follow these rules usually see projects done quickly and lots of money made, but they also see employee burnout and frustration over time. Below are a few descriptions of these methods and how they affect individual employees. 


When you think of a traditional leadership setting, think of a pyramid. There is a CEO at the top who is in charge of a small group of lesser leaders, and then each of those leaders is in charge of their own group of even lesser leaders. This trickles down until we get to basic employees who only listen to and follow the orders of their leaders.

Hardly ever will you see a CEO of a big corporation have any kind of interaction with entry-level employees or anyone below the team that he or she is directly in charge of. This is a common atmosphere in a company where much of the work is project-based and offices are sectioned off by areas or even different floors. 

The chain of command allows for separation between the higher-ups and the average employee while also managing to accomplish a task by passing information down from multiple parties. In some cases, this is just the easiest way to do things and it is the way that many companies have done things for years if not decades.     


The goal of a traditional leader is to create an environment in which projects get completed the way that they want them to be done and in a timely manner. This goes back to the point above about hierarchy. The person at the top has an idea to generate lots of money and they want the task to get done as soon as possible, no matter the personal cost to the employees. 

In traditional leadership settings, little time is spent on the well-being of individuals because the daily, weekly, and monthly goal of the company is prioritized over anything else. A traditional leader is characterized by how productive they can force their teams to be.  

Respect For Authority

This aspect of traditional leadership is justified in many sectors of life such as education. Young people are still learning how to function in the world, so having an authority figure like a teacher in the classroom or a principal of the school is a necessary part of maintaining order. But with respect for authority comes a certain element of fear as well and this can carry on into adulthood for many people. 

If a young person graduates college and enters a company at the bottom, they immediately expect that they will be under the authority of someone older and wiser because that is all that they have ever known. They may work many years in a company without speaking up or having original thoughts because they are too afraid to question what they are being told. This could cause repression of original thought and may even hinder a company from adapting to the changing world and learning from younger minds.

A healthy respect for authority is essential to keep companies organized, but can sometimes, in cases of traditional authoritarian leadership structures, turn into a fear of authority. A leader who makes decisions and expects all employees to unquestioningly fall in line could end up with angry or frustrated employees who have no freedom of thought. This is one feature of traditional leadership that servant leaders try to address and pivot from in order to have a better relationship with their employees. 

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership starts with getting to know your employees on a personal level and understanding what they need in order to perform their best in the workplace. There are many behaviors that servant leaders adopt and improve in order to achieve this kind of leadership and we will discuss them below. 

Active Listening

The first thing a boss can do if they are trying to become a better servant leader is to sit down and talk with their employees. This could look like small team meetings with an open call for questions or leaving your office door open so that employees know that you are always there to listen to their questions or needs. 

A good servant leader not only listens to their employees but also takes note of their concerns and actively tries to improve the work environment. A leader must make a conscious choice to change the work environment in this way because many leaders choose to maintain distance between themselves and their employees. The action of serving your employees by truly listening to their needs and improving their work lives is what makes this method of leadership effective.  


It’s one thing to hear out your employees when they are having issues and feel sympathy for their problems, but it is another thing to truly empathize and work with them to improve their quality of life. This is one of the most important traits of a servant leader and it transcends the workplace. 

Servant leaders who show empathy are able to put themselves in the shoes of their employees and see the tasks and projects from their point of view. They can also understand when an employee is having personal problems that may be hindering their ability to perform at their best. Having empathy coupled with active listening allows a servant leader to listen and understand that each employee is a human being, not just a cog in a machine. 

Collaborative Creation

Unlike the techniques of a traditional leader, who comes up with a task and gives an order to their inferiors and expects it to get done exactly how they want it, a leader who demonstrates servant leadership shows a willingness to ask questions of their teams and get feedback. They want the input of younger employees and more seasoned employees alike because a mix of viewpoints can lead to the birth of great ideas.

The use of collaboration in the workplace makes employees feel less individual and alone in tasks and helps them to feel less pressure to perform beyond their abilities. If a leader is asking questions and seeking new ideas, their employees will feel more comfortable with asking questions in return. A collaborative effort gleans high-quality results. 

Difference Between Traditional and Servant Leadership Principles

Servant Leadership at Work

Now that we know what it takes to be a servant leader, it is important to see how these principles and traits translate into daily tasks and activities. The following activities will start to happen once servant leadership is enacted in the workplace.

One-On-One Interactions

Instead of one superior group sending initiatives down to another inferior group, bosses, and employees have one-on-one conversations where active listening and empathy play a role in improving the work lives of each employee. Quality of life on an individual level leads to a more harmonious work environment.  


A servant leadership style in a workplace allows for better team building and productivity from different teams in the company. This is because the boss is listening to the ideas of their employees and integrating them into projects that benefit the whole company. 

By opening doors and breaking down barriers between bosses and employees, teamwork begins to be the norm. There are fewer pointless meetings to discuss projects because there is continuous communication between teams where people check in on each other throughout the day. The work environment becomes a connected web of teams instead of a sectioned-off pyramid.  

Learning and Growth In Personal Life

The great part about servant leadership is that it can translate to other aspects of a person’s life. Once someone learns how to be a servant leader at work, they will begin to see those personality traits reflected in their home life and other communities that they are a part of outside of work. 

If a boss is practicing servant leadership with their employees, the employees will begin to see how it is improving the work lives of everyone around them. This change in behavior could change the way that employees interact with others in their own personal lives as well. Servant leadership causes a chain reaction of treating others better.  

Traditional Leadership Results Vs. Servant Leadership Results

If you or your company are considering a change in leadership techniques in order to improve your work environment, consider how traditional leadership techniques versus servant leadership techniques last in the long term. 

In a traditional work environment, employees may get burned out because they are constantly working on tasks that have been delegated to them with little to no input of their own. After many months or years of this kind of work, employees may leave the company to find a better work environment. 

With a servant leadership strategy in place, employees feel like they are listened to and are important. Hanging purpose and input makes employees feel more at home in their workplace, so longevity in a company is more likely.   

How Can You Become A Servant Leader?

Be Yourself

If you are going to come into the office every day and interact with your employees, you cannot put on a facade. If you show them your true self, then they will feel free to show you their true selves. 

Be OK With Making Mistakes

Show your employees that you are human just like everyone else. Admit to mistakes and be willing to ask for help if a task or project needs input from others in order to be successful. Stubbornness leads to a lack of creativity and collaboration. 

Develop A Rapport With Your Team

Building a relationship with your employees is an essential step if you expect to have success as a servant leader. You should know things about your employees like birthdays, family, likes, and dislikes because that will help you to have regular conversations with them and check in on their wellbeing. 

Difference Between Traditional and Servant Leadership Principles

Although traditional leadership principles are still the norm in big companies and corporations, servant leadership principles are growing in popularity and becoming increasingly appealing to employees everywhere. Adopting a servant leadership lifestyle not only improves the workplace but also the personal lives of every worker involved. 

It is not a technique that is adopted immediately, but if leaders can slowly start to integrate this leadership technique into their businesses, they will see a happier workforce and a more productive team that is more likely to stick around.

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