followership traits

Servant Leadership vs. Followership: What Leaders Need To Know

Many companies are struggling with remote teams and an increasing pull by top performers for fully remote work options due to outdated leadership styles. 

Do you aspire to be a leader who influences, empowers, and inspires others to achieve high levels of greatness? To be successful in doing this, you must have the drive to serve others while being insightful to their needs and desires and of course while focused on cash flow and net revenue. If you stay diligent in your mission and implement what is in the guides on this site, you will discover that followers will naturally begin to follow.

Servant leadership approaches and followership have been labeled as two different leadership styles. While they are, they have so many philosophies in common that they are like natural elements to success and perhaps, in need of one another to succeed.

In this article, we’ll take a detailed look at both of these concepts, and then you can decide.

followership traits

Servant Leadership 

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is considered a newer philosophy of leading, and it truly embodies the method of leading by example. In this style, the servant leader has deep consideration for the people under them and listens to their needs and ideas – both related to their role with the business and them as individuals. This kind of leadership provides more attention to every “corporate cog” in the wheel of the entire company, knowing that every person in every department is essential and add value – often in unexpected ways. This result in employees feeling more valuable and excited about helping the leader and the company reach their desired outcomes.

We all like to feel that we are doing something significant and receive validation for our hard work. Servant leadership focuses on providing that and more for its employees. By using this tactic, a servant leader believes they are helping employees to reach their highest potential.

Origins of Servant Leadership 

Even though servant leadership is a buzzword or a recently trending concept for leaders, it has been around for several decades as a term and millennium as a style of leadership.

Robert K. Greenleaf was the founder of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership and the servant leader movement. After studying the traditional and ever-so-popular authoritarian leadership style for over forty years, Greenleaf concluded it wasn’t working. He retired from corporate life and started the Center for Applied Ethics, which later became the Greenleaf Center.

In 1970, Greenleaf published The Servant As A Leader. Since his death in 1990, Greenleaf’s teachings have been cited in many other publications as gospel when it comes to gaining loyal and happy employees.

What Is the Role of a Servant Leader?

  • Being a Servant.
    • Greenleaf says that being a servant is, first and foremost, the key to being a Servant Leader. For who to serve keep reading.
  • Make an intentional choice to lead.
  • Make sure employees’ needs are being met, which requires understanding both what they verbally express and others.
  • Help employees reach their fullest potential.
  • Make sure leadership actions benefit all of the employees while helping employees take controlled risks and overcome their fears.
Video conference. online meeting. Intelligent business man sits at work desk at home, looks at the computer screen, communicates by video call with his partners, discuss a strategy

Dimensions of an Effective Servant Leader

A good leader knows how to turn any quality into an advantage in the right situation, but these are the most sought out dimensions of servant leadership.

Empathy

Effective servant leaders practice empathy with their employees. Everyone has personal issues, and a servant leader knows that it is crucial to be capable of showing genuine compassion towards their employees. It’s no surprise that personal lives can affect a person’s level of success, especially when a person feels overwhelmed or alone in a situation. Plus, there are many highs and lows in every job, and it helps to be aware of these. A great leader will be understanding while reassuring employees of their value and how to add additional value as circumstances change.

Selfless and Attuned to the Needs of Others

A servant leader understands the responsibility and power of selflessness and helping others. Selflessness does not mean passive or able to be run over. It means a shift to an outward focus over an inward one. Bringing solutions and fixing problems is an important trait when being a servant leader. It’s vital to resolve issues before moving on to the next project, and a servant leader does not let issues pile up or allow problems to be swept under the corporate carpet because they know that isn’t going to help them or their team succeed. They understand and cultivate healthy conflict.

Empowerment and Mentorship

Efficient servant leaders uphold the responsibility of being a leader and encourage their employees. They will lead by example when it comes to working effectively. Leaders are reliable in all they do and express core values to their employees in hopes of rallying the team and empowering them to rise up with confidence. An excellent leader will offer ways to improve the business, but as an inspirational mentor, they will also encourage suggestions.

Honesty and Transparency

As a great servant leader, you will understand the importance of honesty and transparency. A leader will be empathetic and encourage employees to have a better work-life balance – to understand that “balance” is a verb and not noun. While doing this, a servant leader knows to be accountable and remain humble to create a thriving work environment. They will also urge employee feedback so an open and truthful working relationship can develop and grow for both. 

Communication and Listening Skills 

As a servant leader, it is imperative to know how to listen. Allowing employees to feel open to express thoughts and ideas can be crucial to success. Everyone has a strength, but a lousy leader won’t recognize someone else’s strengths or will use it and take credit. A servant leader knows to leave the ego at the door, allowing employees to speak without being interrupted or shamed – and yes, we all have shame triggers to be aware of and navigate. Open communication will inspire more brilliant ideas to generate, which can lead to future growth.

What Do Leaders Need to Know?

Servant leaders should know several factors when choosing to lead this way. Trust-building is a significant factor in this method of leading. This method might not be for every leader, but this way of leadership has been very successful for some major corporations, like Starbucks, Nordstrom, Disney (back in the day), Chick-fil-A, Herschend Family Entertainment, and Aflac, to name a few.

A servant leader needs to know the traits and qualities they possess to be successful at this leading method. We lead with our strengths, being aware of our weaknesses. Leaders must have a sense of a few or all of these traits.

  • Vision
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Active Listener
  • The Gift of Persuasion
  • The Gift of Influence

A servant leader is still aware of the chain of command but uses this leadership style to increase employee development, success, partnerships, loyalty, and productivity. 

Not everyone is used to this kind of leadership and may have doubts about the process. Some of the biggest hurdles I’ve had is hiring team leaders that claim to be servant leaders but in fact have only led from authority, keeping themselves at the center of key processes, and/or micromanaging. They’ve often been led by similar leaders and it may take 9 – 18 months for them to find their stride in the new environment – with a lot of coaching along the way. However, servant leaders continue to encourage and lead by example.

Pros

Servant leadership has many benefits. Here are just a few to consider.

  • Improves both overall growth and net margins.
  • Improves productivity.
  • Boosts team spirit and loyalty.
  • Employees feel valued and thus will contribute more.
  • Leaders show empathy in work-life balance, which has a positive outcome in the workplace, especially for hiring.
  • Employees will grow and develop within the company, which results in more significant plans for advancement instead of high company turnover.

Cons

There are a few cons when it comes to Servant Leadership. Here are some to keep in mind.

  • Not many leaders have learned this philosophy through schooling or previous experience, so it may be an adjustment when transitioning into Servant Leadership.
  • Since everyone has a voice under this leadership, company decisions might take longer.
  • Staff might not be used to this leadership style and have difficulty adapting.
  • It requires more transparency and standard operating procedures.

Servant Leadership Examples

There are several philosophies regarding servant leadership and being a great leader. Here are two of the top examples leaders follow.

Abundance Mentality 

Abundance Mentality is when leaders remind the employees that there is enough success for everyone. It says that growth and overcoming issues is rarely a resource issue. Believing in this philosophy means that your success is coming or that a different approach needs to be taken.

Creative Tension

Creative Tension is where the leader is more of a voice of reason and a facilitator for their employees. Tensions will happen in the workforce, and a servant leader is still head of command, but they allow employees to debate and hash out issues while keeping things objective before making a final decision.

Followership

Followership is an essential part of teamwork and a similar style of leadership.

What Is Followership?

Followership is the talent to follow a leader enthusiastically and well. It is the ability to take direction well, to complete assigned tasks, to look for ways to make the leaders more successful, to support initiatives, and to be self-motivated. Followership is the flip side of leadership.

Being labeled a “follower” can be a backhanded compliment, but good leadership and high team performance cannot happen without those that believe in and implement followership. 

Most outlets discuss leadership, but followership is much more important than people give it credit. Previously, the secret to corporate longevity has been based on followership and growth of its employees to accomplish the work to be done.

Origins of Followership

The origin of followership started back in the 1500s but was later studied by Mary Parker Follett, a Philosopher, and Social Worker, who believed every individual deserved respect and recognition. Many successful companies have built their legacy on the style of followership. 

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

-US Army General George S. Patton, Jr

What Is the Role of a Follower?

The role of a follower is to follow the instructions of a leader and achieve the tasks asked of them. Followers are influential in their work and support team morale. A good follower knows when to speak up or question something when it doesn’t feel right. A faithful follower will have the courage to give accurate feedback.

Followership is critical to accomplishing the goals of the organization and leader. Followership requires holding yourself to a high standard of personal performance to contribute to the overall benefit of the leader and organization. A great follower understand both the value of their role and how it contributes to the success of the organization. The ability of individuals to follow well may be more important to the success of the enterprise than the ability of those in authority to lead well.

Judson Green, former Chairman of Walt Disney Attractions and CFO of the Walt Disney Co, was one of my former leaders and later my mentor. He used to say that the was successful in his career thanks to his ability to hear the needs and instructions from those above him in a way that allowed him to follow them and overdeliver on his leader’s desired outcomes.

I have frequently taken flak for spending time with the front desk staff (when we had offices), the facilities crew, and those newest (and often lower level) employees, but are these people not critical to the success of the organization. At Vitrue, a woman named Laura not only ran our front desk, break rooms, and so much more but did so tirelessly and in a way that took so much off our plate as leaders. Her ability to and desire to follow well gave us confidence that things would taken care of allowing others to fulfill their individual roles.

When you have good leaders, you have a natural feeling of wanting to support them in accomplishing their goals.

Qualities of an Effective Follower

An effective follower can have many qualities, but these are the most sought after.

Competence

Teamwork is essential to followership, but as a follower, you must also be able to show independence when it comes to completing tasks. A good follower can use their skills to predict what is next after receiving a job and solid advice from a leader. This includes identifying areas they need to grow and doing the work to learn those new skills ahead of time.

Responsibility and Self-Management

A follower knows how to handle responsibility. They do not need their hands held to get the job done. They also are expected to check their egos at the door. Doing a well-done job is what’s best for the company, and a follower doesn’t always get validation when it comes to completing the task at hand.

Work Ethic

Work ethic is an important quality to have when doing a good job, and followers should have an excellent work ethic. It always helps a project when the leader and employees are excited about the job, so followers will dig in and commit to the task at hand. 

There are several things a follower can do to show how serious they are about their work ethic.

  • Remove all distractions when working.
  • Ask for input from team members on how to improve on a project.
  • Prioritize the tasks by importance and time.
  • Find focus and motivation.
  • Learn proper time management.

Teamwork

Teamwork is how a job gets done correctly. In followership, teamwork is a skill that will help motivate and inspire others. Keeping up morale will help properly execute projects while allowing members to take on objectives with a positive mindset. Followers know they are not an island and will be there for one another when someone needs help.

In both Antecedents of team potency and team effectiveness: An examination of goal and process clarity and servant leadership and Antecedents and consequences of team potency in software development projects, they found the behavior in organizations that led to psychological empowerment, consideration of personal values, and that understand that work is a social exchange had positive correlations with better organizational success.

Time Management 

Time management is part of a proper work ethic for a follower. Being aware of time and how long a task can take is essential when executing a project. It is a conscious choice to make sure you are using your time effectively for the company that is paying for it. Deadlines are in place for a reason. However, things and life can happen, so a follower must be able to communicate with a leader on accurate expectations while remaining a reliable resource for the leader.  

Flexibility and Adaptability

As society tries to force everyone into boxes, a follower understands that being flexible and adaptable is an important skill. Being able to jump in with any task and give a helping hand is a remarkable talent. Leaders can depend on followers that can step up, and having this skill, will encourage team members to take greater risks on better projects. One of my favorite traits to look for in people is their willingness to say “can I help you with that”?

Reasoning and Critical Thinking

Critical thinking and reasoning can promote better judgment in followers and team members. Being able to give critical input to leaders and team members will help build better projects, better communication, and better judgment along the way to ensure success. 

followership vs servant leadership

What Do Followers Need to Know?

When working with a followership style mentality, leaders must create an engaging and inspirational environment for followers. Followers should know and understand company projects through all elements, including knowing what the project is, why it is important (e.g. desired outcomes), and how it should be completed.

Many successful companies are based on the followership style, which includes the longest-running US company known as our military. Anyone that has served in or around the Army, Marines, etc. is trained in the benefits and traits of followership. Increasingly, military leaders know that positional power and coercive power are not legitimate power and are not the best ways to increase team effectiveness.

Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way.

-US Army General George S. Patton, Jr

Army Leaders specifically are teaching that the power pyramid and positional power are critical but are greatly enhances with leaders that are fluent in other types of power. 

As the son of an Air Force veteran, I remember hearing about the need to “lead myself well” and “follow those in leadership” from the earliest ages. 

Business leaders are learning what any that has served as a platoon leader knows: there is formal power and informal power. The power in organizations comes from agile leaders that are able to focus personal power on the task at hand and a bold mission. Modern-day companies include Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple.

Pros

There are several pros when it comes to the followership theory. 

  • Agile leaders are able to use formal power and informal power to better manage remote teams.
  • Less stress within the work environment.
  • The organization/company can achieve its strategy faster.
  • Less effort to accomplish a task since team members help each other complete projects.
  • Learning to trust yourself and your ideas.
  • Being able to clock out.

Cons

There are also a few cons that come along with followership.

  • Rely on others to make the big decisions. 
  • Don’t always get credit for everything you do.
  • People that do not understand leadership and followership may make negative comments.

Followership Examples

There are several philosophies and active behaviors for Followership. Here are two major traits when being a great follower.

Spreading Enthusiasm 

Spreading enthusiasm in the office and to co-workers is an imperative behavior of all followers. It keeps up morale while spreading a good mindset. Attitudes can be contagious, so keeping up a good attitude can be one of the most important jobs of the day.

Take Initiative 

A great follower knows when to take the initiative. Use the opportunity to take charge of a task when you can foresee the direction it should go when the project hits a wall or a speed bump. A follower knows when to use this skill to enhance a project for everyone involved.

agile product management and project management

Servant Leadership vs. Followership: How Do They Compare?

Servant leadership and followership styles have many things in common, yet they have their differences. 

Meaning and Role

It has been said that all leaders must follow, but not all followers are destined to lead. Both styles of leadership have their roles and their purpose. Only when combined can a larger organization see the hypergrowth possible with authentic leadership.

Qualities Needed to Succeed 

As you know by now, servant leadership is when a leader is a servant first but also knows the importance of success for themselves, the company, and the team. Servant leaders want their team to grow and achieve excellence.  

Followership is more of a pyramid structure, and each level helps create success for their peers and those above them. Followers are encouraged to take the initiative but are also expected to vigorously implement the leader and company’s plan.

Example of Servant Leadership & Followership

A servant leader will overlook their own needs in the moment, so they can help a team member reach their highest potential.

On the other hand, a follower is charged with tasks and given the freedom to make it work to reach the organizational goals. In my experience, excellent followership requires follower empowerment to unlock the power in organizations.

How Are Servant Leadership and Followership Interlinked?

In a perfect world, servant leadership and followership work well in tandem. Although some companies find these to be two very different styles of leading, servant leadership methods ensure that great leaders can only be excellent at what they do when they have wonderful followership. In return, followers can work more diligently when they feel understood and appreciated, as well as have room for growth within a work-life balance.

The benefits and tactics to cultivate both high-achieving servant leadership and followership has increasingly been the topic people bring me in as a keynote speaker or podcast guest. I both love this topic and seeing the results in companies that embrace the combination.

Time and time again, as I’ve been brought into companies, I’ve seen the convergent validity confirm that servant leadership theory and followership are in fact related. In the future, I hope to release future studies and lists articles documenting the effects when business leaders, individual teams, and an entire larger organization embrace both of these. 

Conclusion

Many leaders in the corporate world are finally grasping that servant leadership methods can create a culture and work environment where everyone feels valued and respected. This may be the only style that truly works with remote teams, whether fully remote teams or those with only some remote team members. 

Leaders who are that open to the concept will empower their employees to take responsibility, effectively follow, share diverse opinions, and reach achievement levels not otherwise attainable. Servant leadership reminds followers that there is enough success to go around for everyone and that the best way to reach outcomes is to support their leader – or find a new role. 

If you’d like to learn more about transforming your leadership style and company culture, check out this podcast, where I share some helpful tips. 

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