Servant leaders are not born, they are made. They are leaders who are willing to serve others first and go above and beyond to help others succeed.
A lot of people talk about servant leadership, but few fully understand what it means. In this article, we’ll take a detailed look at servant leadership, the qualities of a successful servant leader, and the benefits and criticisms of this leadership style.
What Is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership begins with the idea that managerial authority should flow from empathy and understanding. A servant leader bases their decisions on their knowledge of both employees and customers, improving retention and finding growth by building community, trust, and rapport.
In a broader sense, public consciousness learned the seed of this idea and understood its impact on leadership philosophy and future leaders a long time ago.
The notion of noblesse oblige, or “nobility obliges,” is a French expression that dates back to an era when English nobility spoke French. The implication is that nobility and privilege demand a degree of inherent responsibility.
However, literary examples of leading from the front lines go back much farther. The burden of effective, high-achieving leaders with a strong sense of service has been a hotly debated topic for centuries. Some even credit Jesus Christ as one of the earliest servant leaders in history because of his track record of meeting people where they were and guiding them, and the community, to what was possible.
Why Is Servant Leadership Important?
When workers are happier and coached, they are less likely to leave and are able to add more value to the company. Taking care of workers and a management culture of trust are ways to avoid high turnover rates, which reduces the costs of training and orientation. It also reduces the costs associated with higher stress levels, such as productivity lost to mental health issues and sick days.
As word of mouth spreads that the work environment is a positive one that enables individuals to add value and feel valued, new workers will flock to the company. In today’s more difficult hiring environment, a leadership team that truly follows a high-achieving servant leadership style is critical to hiring and retaining top talent. For those of us in high-growth or tech companies, the shift (almost a requirement) from top talent requiring the ability to work from anywhere (or work remote), the almost “gravitational force” of a high-achieving servant leadership team is even more important to company growth.
The idea that people do not want to work anymore is not true. People want to work in an environment for employees that doesn’t drain them for every last drop. Instead of being an authority figure, the servant leader encourages active listening and one-on-one communication, which draws workers in.
Happy workers make for more engaged workers. Aside from the increase in productivity that comes with a more encouraging workplace, employee perceptions that the company they work for is promoting a culture of employee engagement are more likely to believe in the product or service.
But the benefits are not limited solely to how such a leadership style affects workers.
Although free market capitalism has been the most creative form of social cooperation and human progress ever devised, it has been misinterpreted and played a negative role in society. Many companies, leaderships, and business owners believe in the integration of beliefs in capitalism, systems of improvement, personal & business advancement, and social & environmental impact. Servant leadership acknowledges that these are important to those employeed by companies as well, as well as the dual priorities of work and family.
Servant Leadership Origins
Modern proponents of servant leadership agreed with the ideas of Robert Greenleaf, who first popularized the term in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”
According to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership CEO, Larry Spears, Greenleaf arrived at his conclusions after reading the 1932 book Journey to the East. The novella rejects the idea of centralized leadership being an effective method.
The novella revolves around the central character of Leo, a servant among servants, who makes the conscious choice to act as the core of their group. When he leaves, the group realizes as things fall apart around them that Leo was not just a friend – he was their leader.
From that point onward, Greenleaf realized that for a leader to earn the trust and respect of their followers, they must treat those followers as peers. They must be able to see to the needs of those around them, and internalize the idea that other people are more than just a potential avenue for profits. This is the essence of servant leadership.
To Greenleaf, a servant can only become a leader if a leader remains a servant. To remain a servant while leading means that leaders must remember to be servants above all else.
What Are the Four Main Principles of Servant Leadership?
A servant leadership role envisions four main principles and key elements: empathy, trustworthiness, selflessness, and stewardship.
Servant leadership responsibility means that the leader has to remain empathetic to the people they serve. They have to be able to feel for and with the people that they work with. They must also practice a degree of mindfulness of their own feelings and be a compassionate collaborator.
But most importantly, they need to be able to do all of this without being judementalon anyone. To judge someone because of their choices, beliefs, or any other aspect of their lives guarantees that they will be more guarded and closed off around the person judging them.
Keep in mind, this is not sympathy. According to Merriam-Webster, “Sympathy (which comes from the Greek sym, meaning “together,” and pathos, referring to feelings or emotion) is used when one person shares the feelings of another; an example is when one experiences sadness when someone close is experiencing grief or loss. Empathy is also related to pathos. It differs from sympathy in carrying an implication of greater emotional distance. With empathy, you can imagine or understand how someone might feel, without necessarily having those feelings yourself.”
Listening and Trustworthiness
Building trust with one’s peers begins with listening to them, and learning how to listen to people respectfully is a challenge that can become an obstacle.
To listen to direct reports, a servant leader has to do more than smile and nod. Having true listening skills means paying attention, and then showing that in a way that does not come across as railroading. A good rule of thumb is to be supportive of personal choices while avoiding commenting on things outside of someone’s control.
Above all, the goal is never to take control of the conversation. Servant leaders should always strive to build peer relationships with their fellow employees. If workers feel listened to, they will be more likely to listen when it counts.
This is not to say that a servant leader does not coach, decide on what the team or individual needs to do, or offer strong opinions. It’s a matter of how these things are done and conveyed.
The servant leadership model includes ways to create an ethical climate and prioritize the needs of others while meeting, or exceeding, the needs of the business. The essence and main focus of the servant leader are treating fellow employees respectfully and guiding them in their growth.
The company and the potential for career advancement are secondary concerns to a servant leader. A good servant leader will be able to achieve personal growth and have it come with the territory in time.
And when meeting the workers’ needs, this role model servant leader will understand that the benefits tend to reach well beyond an immediate potential for profits.
Does this mean that a servant leaders does not care about growing the business? Not at all. Anyone that has ever owned a business or lead a large team knows growth comes from 1) years of hard work by many individuals and 2) small things done consistently. When coaching executives I often say something along the lines of “you’re not looking for employees to do a job today or just this week, you’re looking for people to go to war along side you. Growing this business will be hard, and you need people that get better every week and that WANT to be here helping you. Treat them right and they will go above and beyond for you, knowing you’re doing the same for them.”
Stewardship and Community
Servant leaders are stewards in the workplace. They allow others to achieve their goals, providing a backbone from which the rest of the organization can build with huge impact. The idea of workplace-as-community is nothing new; it’s one of the building blocks of unionization.
But with fully realized servant leadership and coaching business practices, the need for unionization is negated. There will already be a sense of community.
The Servant Leadership Management Style
For a servant leader, the team always comes first. The concerns of the company are not the priority of the leader because the servant leader knows that the company cannot exist without the team and individuals in it.
However, this does not turn servant leaders into doormats. If anything, it takes more confidence to stand up to the company on behalf of other workers. Bullying workers on behalf of the company is easy if the approach to leadership is that “they are only doing their job.”
To frequently have I heard authoritative leaders say something along the lines of “that’s just how you have to talk to them to get things done”. Needless to say, those leaders may get things done in the short-term but generally fail in the long term, and they leave a wake of destruction behind them.
But it does not come without its perks. Instead of having power and lording it over fellow employees, a servant leader builds a circle of influence based on trust. Good servant leaders earn the support of their fellow workers through empathy and communication skills. No need to put one’s foot down occurs in such an environment.
Putting the needs of employees ahead of the needs of investors can be a difficult task by itself. This has been increasingly felt by companies and teams with the increased shift to remote work. Leading fully-remote teams well take significantly stronger leaders that in the office, and it’s one of the reasons proven servant leaders are in such high demand.
Qualities and Skills of a Successful Servant Leader
Effective servant leadership requires the executive leader to develop and apply certain leadership qualities. These servant leadership practices are closely related to the four main principles described above.
The first thing that a servant leader must learn to do is listen. Active listening and knowing how to listen to others is a good skill to have in any context and one of the characteristics of success as a servant leader.
Empathy does not come naturally to everyone, but to achieve continued success, leaders can work on it. Good servant leaders will either possess empathy naturally or they will be the type of people who care enough to learn it. They assume the best of other people and try to understand their feelings. They are often viewed as having high EQ (Emotional intelligence).
Self-awareness and awareness, in general, come in handy for a servant leader, allowing them to think about their actions before taking them. Acting intentionally improves an individual’s ability to do things sincerely, aiding authentic leadership.
Dedicating Time to Others
Being both willing and emotionally able to spend time with other people is at the core of being a servant leader. A little of time can go a long way in making others feel validated and listened to, strengthening bonds within the community, and shaping follower behavior. It also leads to the growth of people.
A servant leader should always look for ways to provide others with the tools to help them become better, rather than doing all the work for them. Empowerment helps employees work through the learned helplessness that many other jobs may have bestowed on them, and it allows them to grow. Empowered employees, in turn, have a positive impact on their peers and on organizational goals, as they feel motivated. They trust themselves and their manager, leading to higher job performance.
Removal of Obstacles
Sometimes, improving workflow is as simple as a single disability aid. A servant leader learns to spot these things and deal with them quickly rather than letting workers suffer in silence.
Hierarchical leadership models tend to focus on leaders making decisions, while servants focus on removing obstacles – and realize that sometimes as the leader, you are sometimes the bottleneck.
The obvious tenet of servant leadership can be one of the most challenging. Weighing the needs of a person’s peers can seem opposed to getting things done, but in actuality, it empowers them to get things done faster and more effectively.
It allows the leader to better understand the needs of the lives of individuals (e.g. sick child, a spouse’s health diagnosis, eldercare flexibility, a rescheduled night-class, etc.) and consider those in light of their medium and longer-term contribution to the team and business. And when things do not work out, the servant leader still looks for ways to serve.
Coercion is never the answer. Instead, a servant leader seeks to convince and coach. And when a fellow employee needs help with something, a servant leader will happily pitch in.
Authenticity is at the center of contemporary leadership. Good servant leaders know that they have to be open and honest with their team. This is not only for the sake of reaching good outcomes; it also helps reach those outcomes ethically.
I often coach, “If your spouse or children one day knew everything about this situation and how you responded, would you be okay with that?”. You may not always make the best decision, but you will build a level of trust and build momentum.
Good servant leaders have strong personal goals and do not give up at the first sign of conflict or difficulty, and they will not let their teams give up either. They problem-solve, troubleshoot, and work with their teams to fix things.
You don’t get to choose not to pay a price, you only get to choose which price you pay. It’s important to foster a corporate culture that encourages people to choose the “best yes” and make it happen.
Click here to see an infographic with 10 servant leadership characteristics.
Servant Leadership vs. Path-Goal Theory
Robert House first developed the path-goal theory in 1971, then revised it in 1996. It states that a leader’s behavior is contingent on the satisfaction, performance, and motivation of the subordinates. It encourages flexibility in leadership. Different styles are appropriate for different situations, and the end goal is to help workers achieve their own goals.
While not mutually exclusive to a servant leadership style, it does require a different mindset that is more about the work itself than meeting the needs of employees.
Servant Leadership vs. Followership
Followership takes the focus off of other employees and puts it instead on respecting authority. Though there is still a measure of mindfulness involved, a follower would never put the needs of workers over the needs of the company. It can seem attractive to investors but negatively affects the bottom line if implemented as a leadership style.
Now, an individual following the concept of followership can make them a better servant and make the team function better. That’s one of the reasons military leadership teaches it. The concept of followership is to support others, following instructions, completing assigned tasks, supporting initiatives and being self-motivated. Good “followers” are constantly looking for how to help others, their boss, and the company achieve their vision. Sounds a lot like someone trying to serve doesn’t it?
Examples of Servant Leadership
There are plenty of people throughout history that could have been servant leaders if the theoretical framework for this type of leadership existed at the time.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Doctor King is such an iconic example of a servant leader that some scholars consider it odd that he was not included in the original essays on the topic. A common theme with historical servant leaders is that they were considered radicals during their time, eschewing traditional authority in favor of being decent people.
Another common theme is that true servant leaders are often seen as threatening figures by those who hold power in other areas. In fact, his assassination is something that King has in common with another prominent historical example.
While at the time the Confederate States may have disagreed with the idea, Abraham Lincoln was always looking out for the people’s interests. He even kept his bearded look at the behest of citizens. He may not have started as an abolitionist, but eventually, he thought it was important enough to go to war over. He knew the cost it would take on the country to deliver on the promise made to each person. His writings also provide a small glimpse into the high personal cost this path took on him, even before his assassination, but he knew it was the correct path and was willing to pay the cost.
I cover other examples in The Definitive Guide to Servant Leadership.
Criticisms of Servant Leadership
The criticisms of servant leadership are numerous, ranging from jabs at the movement’s founder to gripes about a lack of control over workers. Here are a few that tend to stick out in the context of business.
Many who disapprove of servant leadership think that it makes leaders seem weaker and less competent. However, it is becoming clearer by the day that strongman leaders who rule with an iron fist are deeply unpopular with both consumers and workers. Union-busting is turning into more of a necessary hassle for authoritarian workplaces and weak leaders.
Good servant leaders know that ethical business practices and a focus on high-achieving servant leadership make many business hassles disappear.
Additional Time Spent on Decision-Making
Servant leadership lends itself well to a more democratic and republic-style workplace, but this has the seeming downside of multiple people having to weigh every decision. Fans of authoritarian leadership styles will say that this increases the bureaucracy involved.
Leadership experts then point out that without team members fully being “bought-in” only leads to division, counterproductive behavior, slower long-term results, and a lower chance at continued success.
Loss of Team Motivation
Individuals who think that crunch time is where most of the work gets done on a project find servant leadership threatening. Conventional wisdom for those people would state that without a boot heel poised to grind them down, workers would never do their job.
Authoritative leaders and autocratic leadership (and companies) always have higher burnout and employee churn. They also tend to have higher amounts of sick leave taken. There are push periods where individuals and the team may need to be heavily focused and working at near 100% capacity, but the average person cannot hold that pace for even the medium-term.
Experienced servant leaders have teams that consistently WANT to come to work, as opposed to have to come to work. Those on my teams over the past will frequently be heard saying “I get to work at ______”, “I can’t wait to see you all on Monday”, etc. When your company gets servant leadership right, motivation is driving force unto itself, not a concern.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
If you have more questions about the characteristics of servant leadership and how to ensure an effective approach to leadership, I’ve got the answers.
What is a servant leader?
A servant leader is a type of leader who puts the needs of others above their own while acting in a leadership capacity. They are legitimized as leaders almost solely through the communities that get built around the work they do.
What is the opposite of a servant leader?
The polar opposite of a servant leader would be an authoritarian leader or someone who espouses those same top-down views on leadership.
Why is servant leadership effective?
Trust as a core component of leadership goes back centuries. The notion of a General being a father to his men is rooted in the same ideals as servant leadership. Even Judaism teaches that humans should be stewards of the world God has given them, including the other people living there.
Today, we live in an era where leaders need to lead, not just manage. The CEO of a company is no longer just responsible for merely running a business; they must also be able to inspire employees, motivate them, and encourage them to perform well.
Through empathy, empowerment, and service, which are at the heart of servant leadership, a leader can achieve these goals.
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