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Servant leadership: a powerful, people-first leader style

a man and woman practicing servant leadership in the workplace

Imagine a workplace where employees' development, needs, and concerns always come first.

In environments like these, servant leadership means a manager does everything in her power to keep everyone content and foster a sense of community within the company. Ultimately, the growth of team members is more important than the growth of the business.

Here, the human element is the foundation on which all other goals and values are developed. It's a leadership style that's slowly gaining ground, making its way into more and more work environments. Why? Even if it's not directly focused on organizational success, this model drives better results than traditional leadership models. Here are the essential servant leadership principles you need to know.

Table of contents
What is servant leadership?
What are the principles of servant leadership?
Why is servant leadership important?
What are the 10 servant-leadership attributes?
What are the benefits of servant leadership?
What are the disadvantages of servant leadership?
Examples of servant leadership
How to become a servant leader

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a relatively new leadership model which puts serving others as the number one priority. The framework of servant leadership as we know it was first laid out by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay he wrote in 1970.

According to Greenleaf, 'the great leader is seen as servant first'. This core idea is the bottom line that drives every decision a leader makes. The effective servant leader motivates and inspires team members, providing them with all the resources, budget, skills, and attention they need to be successful. As a result, employees feel supported and empowered. They're given plenty of freedom to explore their own creative ideas, collaborate, and learn from their mistakes.

The traditional leadership model places the leader at the center of the team. Servant leadership, on the other hand, sees the team as the most integral part of the equation. The servant leadership approach means a good leader acts not as a boss but as a mentor whose purpose is to bring the team together and guide them to success.

What are the principles of servant leadership?

In his essay, Greenleaf outlines four central tenets that define the servant-leadership framework:

Service to others

In most work environments, long-standing power structures dictate a very narrow-minded management style. The leader's self-interested actions are guided by a similar leadership approach, rooted in the exercise of power.

The servant leadership theory can only work if those in a position of power are willing to put others before their own needs. Drawing inspiration from Hermann Hesse's Journey to the East, Greenleaf suggests that the servant leader's desire to help others is the key to effective leadership.

A holistic approach to work

Although some dismissed Greenleaf's propositions as too idealistic, he continued to develop his framework throughout his life. In his 1996 book, Greenleaf writes: The work exists for the person as much as the person exists for the work.

By challenging the relationships between employees, leaders, organizations, and society as a whole, Greenleaf emphasizes the importance of work-life balance and personal growth. Servant-leaders acknowledge individuals for who they truly are, knowing that employees' well-being and organizational success go hand in hand.

Leadership skills like these are super useful for preventing burnout and employees getting overwhelmed at work.

Fostering a sense of community

In his original 1970 essay, Greenleaf calls community "the lost knowledge of these times." He explains how many modern institutions meant to help us build a better society fail to achieve their goals (e.g., schools, prisons, foster homes, retirement homes).

Rigid institutions and organizations cannot provide the same sense of community as groups of individuals who are jointly liable for each other. Servant-leadership questions the organization's ability to provide team members with the help and support they need to achieve their personal goals. A joint sense of community, which can only arise from the actions of servant-leaders, is the only way to instill a sense of purpose, selflessness, and camaraderie within the walls of the company.

Sharing power in decision-making processes

Perhaps the most telling sign of a servant-leadership style is the cultivation of servant-leadership philosophy in others. Leaders shouldn't just put the needs of their team members first. They should promote an empowering working culture in which all members and colleagues have the opportunity to participate in important events, hone their talents, and remain motivated by being able to freely express themselves.

For this reason, the servant-leadership model is often described as an inverted pyramid. Employees, clients, and stakeholders find themselves at the top of the pyramid, while leaders oversee things with a keen eye at the bottom. They don't use their power to force subordinates into submission. Instead, they create healthy, cooperative working environments where delegated organizational structures and mutual trust are the norm.

It's otherwise known as a low power distance organization: one that has a short 'distance' between the most powerful and least powerful people. These are mostly present in collaborative, open, trusting company cultures – rather than hierarchical, authoritarian ones.

Why is servant leadership important?

Why should you care about this type of leadership? The answer is simple: it promotes the growth of people and creates happier, more productive teams. If your goal is to create a healthy company culture where traditional leadership roles are challenged and the needs of others are put first, servant leadership might be the answer.

What does that mean for you as a leader? The most challenging aspect of servant leadership is giving up some of your power and allowing your subordinates to experiment and discover novel solutions to common problems.

This style of leadership sounds risky at first, but it pays off in the end. The more you show others that you trust and value them, the more trust and loyalty you'll receive in return.

What are the 10 servant-leadership attributes?

Unlike other leadership models, Greenleaf's servant leadership theory is deeply rooted in the analysis of leader motivation. The theory emphasizes strong leader ethics, values, and principles. It makes sense then that personal characteristics and beliefs come before specific leadership techniques.

Greenleaf didn't come up with these characteristics himself. Behavioral theorists and experts from the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership have managed to identify 10 major leadership attributes by closely analyzing the principles that permeate his work:

  • Listening: One of the most important communication tools servant-leaders have at their disposal. Advanced listening skills will give you plenty of time to understand where others come from, helping you make better and more informed decisions as a result.
  • Empathy: Being able to put yourself into someone else's shoes is a sign of high emotional intelligence. According to Greenleaf, men and women grow taller (metaphorically) when those who lead them empathize, and when they are accepted for who they are. This skill also go hand in hand with humility and generosity.
  • Healing: Greenleaf realized that the best teams comprise people who feel happy and complete. True leadership acknowledges the human desire to find wholeness in oneself and supports others in their quest for fulfillment.
  • Awareness: Remaining vigilant and knowing what's happening around you is another sign of outstanding leadership. Greenleaf believed that without awareness, we miss leadership opportunities.
  • Persuasion: Having the ability to influence others and achieve organizational objectives is important in all business environments. The servant leader builds group consensus not by exerting power but by making the most of the complex and unique dynamics that define the workplace.
  • Conceptualization: The servant-leader can quickly come up with practical solutions to unexpected problems. They see the bigger picture and know how to turn things around by taking advantage of their team's strengths.
  • Foresight: Anticipating certain events, situations, and outcomes comes with knowledge and experience. This foresight, as Greenleaf puts it, is better than any average guess about when something's going to happen in the future.
  • Stewardship: This attribute can be traced back to Aristotle's timeless adage: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The members of an organization should support each other and try to work together as one. Once all the parts are in place and function properly, the whole system operates better.
  • Commitment to the growth of people: Leaders shouldn't just see people as tools or a means to an end. They should be invested in-and support-the individual growth of every team member.
  • Building community: Large institutions tend to play down the importance of community within the workplace. Greenleaf believed that a single charismatic servant leader has the ability to create a ripple effect: inspire people to serve others, improving communication and bringing even more servant leaders to the surface.

What are the benefits of servant leadership?

Leaders have many different leadership styles at their disposal, and servant leadership comes with many key benefits. Here are some of the most important:

Inclusive and diverse work environment: The servant leader focuses on making sure everyone's voice is heard. She encourages team members to speak up, even if their opinions don't perfectly align with everyone else's. This allows teams to discover how others think, what their unique perspectives are, and where they're coming from.

Loyal and happy employees: Not only does the servant leader act in ways that benefit the team as a whole, but they also encourage employees to partake in the decision-making process. Because everyone's contribution is appreciated, there's naturally more trust within the organization, and retention rates are high. Professional development is as important as maintaining a healthy work-life balance-the "wholeness" and happiness of each individual are key ingredients to better employee engagement.

Increased productivity: This is a direct result of a happy and otherwise fulfilled active workforce. It's no surprise that productivity soars when employees are surrounded by supportive colleagues who deeply care about each other. A study run by the University of Oxford tracked 1,800 workers weekly over a period of six months and found that happy workers were 13% more productive.

Innovation and creativity: Just like productivity, innovation and creativity thrive under ideal working conditions. A 2014 study found that servant leadership promotes individual identification and collective affinity with the leader, increasing employee creativity and team innovation.

What are the disadvantages of servant leadership?

Servant leadership is nothing like the traditional top-down leadership models most of us are used to. It works great with some organizations (e.g., non-profit) but not so well with others (e.g., larger corporations). But the truth is that no model – be it transformational leadership or bureaucratic management – is perfect for all teams and businesses.

For one, Greenleaf's theory is difficult to implement in real-life scenarios. Besides the advanced self-awareness and leadership skills required by those in leadership positions, teams need to operate in near-perfect harmony.

When leaders involve employees in decision-making, things tend to slow down. If you're in an industry where fast decisions are required, servant leadership might not work well for you. Imagine advocating collaboration and preaching about empowerment, then abruptly switching to a top-down model when things go south. It's not ideal.

You have to put in extra work to implement a servant leadership model if you've already established a working top-down administration. Connecting with employees and convincing them to participate in decision-making requires a clear plan and serious commitment.

Servant leadership is just one of many leadership styles. Here are ten more that might suit your business better.

Examples of servant leadership

Dan Price is a well-known example of successful servant leadership culture. As CEO of US credit card processing company Gravity Payments, he made headlines in 2015 when announcing he'd be paying all company employees a minimum of $70,000 / year.

He made a conscious choice to forego his own path to significant wealth in favor of his employees, cutting his own annual salary from $1 million to $70,000 too.

Half a decade after the change, employee satisfaction is sky-high, and the company's revenue has tripled. Their employee engagement rate is double the national average, and headcount grew by 70%.

What's more, 70% of employees paid down debt and the number of employees starting families went up by a factor of ten. Putting people's needs first pays off - big time.

There's also the example of Julian Richer, owner of UK electronics retailer Richer Sounds, who handed over 60% of the company to its staff, leading to significant windfalls for its 500+ employees. It sounds like a great place to work:

"His business philosophy, set out in his 2001 management book The Richer Way, champions providing secure, well-paid jobs with a happy workforce as being key to business success over the long term. Richer Sounds, which has 53 stores, refuses to use zero-hours contracts and is one of the 14% of companies with a pay gap that favours women."

For more examples of the servant leadership style, look to companies that treat their staff well, have clear respect for healthy non-work life, and offer employees some form of share in the success of the company.

Certified B Corporations are usually a great example of the servant leadership model because they're structured in a way that legally requires them to serve their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and environment. Due to their stringent certification programs, you're unlikely to find a B Corp that doesn't demonstrate at least some or all of the above values. Any leadership role in a B Corp will require someone who's moral compass is pointed in a certain direction.

How to become a servant leader

Theory's good, but how exactly does one develop their servant leadership qualities? How do you become a successful leader while also helping create better servants in future leaders?

  • Be the leader your team needs. Be honest, transparent, and above all, compassionate and understanding. Lead by example and put in the same amount of work and effort that you expect from others.
  • Empathize. A good servant leader knows how to do business, but they also recognize that their employees are people with feelings first and foremost. They care about the well-being of each team member, and they want to see them succeed and grow within and outside the company. (Here are 5 research-backed exercises you can try to boost your empathy.)
  • Encourage engagement and collaboration. There's no shortcut to agile and well-performing teams. If you want people to achieve more together, you'll have to accept and evaluate everyone's contribution. Employees are more likely to perform well when given enough space to express their opinions and voice their concerns. Extra points if you can somehow demonstrate how their contribution (no matter how small) has positively affected the company's overall success.
  • Ask for feedback. Feedback doesn't always flow both ways in top-down leadership models. But if you want to be a servant-leader and continue to evolve with your team, you should actively seek honest feedback, even when everything seems to be going according to plan.

In short – there aren't many good reasons not to try some servant leadership. The mindset of an effective leader should always point towards getting the best out of their people. If that takes a little humility and extra effort, so be it.

But it seems like in almost every case, a servant leader is a better leader.

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