“Servant leadership” sounds, at first, like a contradiction in terms. Don’t “servant” and “leader” describe opposite roles? The term was coined back in 1970 and refers to a leadership style experiencing a resurgence in today’s business climate.
As workplace diversity becomes more and more of a target for improvement, servant leadership principles and practices can guide healthy business development. Here’s a nutshell review of the servant leadership style definition and how it applies now.
What is Servant Leadership?
The leadership style most of us are familiar with involves a hierarchy with power consolidated at the top. The owner or CEO dictates tasks, and those on the lower rungs of the ladder seek to carry out commands. It’s a style often dominated by fear and intimidation. If someone doesn’t follow orders, they could lose their job.
In traditional leadership structures, the emphasis is on the leader’s accumulation of power. They rise to a leadership role based on ambition and personal opportunity. This style is flawed because it often leads to resentment and devaluation.
If that’s the traditional leadership model, then what is servant leadership, and how is it different? The servant leadership style focuses less on individual power and more on community support. The concept is that the organization as a whole is better served if people at all levels are supported.
What is Servant Leadership Based On?
The first person to talk about servant leadership was Robert K. Greenleaf, who served as the Director of Management Development at AT&T for nearly four decades. He introduced the world to his concept in a 1970 essay titled “The Servant As Leader.”
Greenleaf talked about his father as being the inspiration for his leadership ideas. He was also guided by his faith and principles of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) to which he belonged. After he retired from AT&T, he became a teacher and consultant.
Servant Leadership is based on a series of guiding principles driven by ethics and a holistic approach to workplace wellbeing. The servant leadership principles and practices have evolved some in the past 50 years. However, they’re still deeply rooted in Greenleaf’s concept.
Greanleaf’s Servant Leadership Principles
The Greenleaf principles of servant leadership conveyed by the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, are “…service to others, holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community, and the sharing of power in decision making.”
Rather than a set of concrete steps or stages, Greenleaf wrote about these concepts as guiding principles. Since his 1970 essay, leadership experts have refined his ideas into a list of ten existing principles of servant leadership.
Principles of Servant Leadership Today
- Listening – The first response to any problem should be listening. Listening is an opportunity to gather information. Only by taking the time to get an accurate picture of the situation can one solve it.
- Empathy – Following listening, an effort to empathize with the other person can help a leader gain perspective. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and circumstances of others.
- Healing – Everyone feels like they lack something in life. A good leader identifies where they can support a sense of wholeness in other people. They recognize this goal as a common desire.
- Self-Awareness – Leaders should have the ability to take a realistic look at themselves and their behavior. Self-awareness can lead to an improvement in weaker areas. People who don’t recognize their deficits can never grow from them.
- Persuasion – Rather than using the power of a leadership position to coerce others into action, the servant leadership style of influence focuses on clarity and support. Instead of saying, “do this,” a leader changes the narrative to be, “here’s what needs to happen. How can I support you?”
- Conceptualization – In other words, imagination. The leader looks into the future to determine which direction the organization should be heading. The focus here is on the long-term perspective instead of daily operations.
- Foresight – Using lessons from past experiences can help leaders anticipate future scenarios. Remembering which approaches worked and which didn’t will inform actions in the future.
- Stewardship – Stewardship is being held accountable for responsibilities given to us by others. It involves trust and ethical management of community resources. These can be the organization’s funds, property, and equipment.
- Commitment to Growth – Part of what makes a team work well is diversity. If a business had 20 accountants but no sales, marketing, or human resources personnel, it wouldn’t get very far. Recognizing each individual’s contribution to the group and supporting the growth that they’re working toward exemplifies this principle.
- Building Community – This can be especially important for teams that work from home. It has to be more than a monthly business meeting to share agendas and profit projections. Building in fun activities that let people show who they are helps them form bonds with other team members.
What is Servant Leadership in Business?
Leadership styles, servant or traditional, are most often applied in the business arena. The servant leadership style can help guide those who are new to leadership roles and those who want to improve their leadership skills.
Utilizing servant leadership principles in the workplace can transform a stagnant operation into an innovative collaborative. The more employees feel their supervisors are just as hard-working as they are, the more investment they’re likely to have in their roles within the company.
For the servant leadership styles of business to operate, personnel at all levels must interact. If the company’s CEO is always unreachable, they can’t engage in the first two principles of listening and empathy.
A leader can implement the style in various ways; clarify expectations, provide sufficient resources, provide comprehensive training, provide tools for professional growth, and share relevant information.
Servant leaders see that the success of individuals leads to overall success for the business. A leader doesn’t get far without their team. In recognition of that fact, the servant leader commits the time and resources it takes to bolster individual members.
Discovering team members’ needs can be done in several ways. Surveys, assessments, and simple conversations can produce actionable results. A leader can allocate resources where they’re needed the most. Choosing to give appropriately to support the team will bring results down the line.
What Does Servant Leadership Mean to You?
If you’re looking to improve your management style, it pays to look into servant style leadership as a philosophy. It would be best if you started with an assessment of your current style. How do you resolve conflict in the workplace? Is your overall approach deterrent-based or incentive-based?
Next, think about how you relate to your team and how they relate to one another. How well do the members of your team know each other? Do you facilitate team-building activities? How much time do you spend giving one-on-one attention?
You can also think of servant leadership from the opposite angle. Is the person you report to using a servant leadership style? If so, what have you seen that you can apply to your own leadership practices? If not, how would you do things differently?
If you’re asking yourself these questions, congratulations! You’re already applying one of the principles of servant leadership – self-awareness. This principle is one that many professionals struggle with because it can be hard to be objective about oneself.
Case Studies in Servant Leadership
Researchers study servant leadership to compare it with other styles of leadership. Being able to put actual numbers behind various styles helps us see the quantitative difference between them. Now that we have a solid definition of servant leadership let’s look at a few examples.
See if you can determine which of the following leaders reflect the key aspects of servant leadership.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin
In a study that examined cultural leadership and its impact on sports organizations, the author looked at two Vancouver Canucks hockey players. Daniel and Henrik Sedin played lead roles as winger and captain/center, respectively.
Both brothers had successful careers in the NHL and were described positively by management and teammates. The organization as a whole during their tenure received several awards.
The brothers have a reputation for having a strong work ethic on and off the ice. They donated their game winnings to a children’s hospital and the team’s training staff in at least two instances.
As team members, they were frequently the players who spoke to the media after a game loss. This action was viewed as accountability by one of the media contacts interviewed for the study.
Trevor Linden, operations manager for the team, is quoted in the study as saying this about the Sedins:
“I could go on for hours about all the things they do without looking for attention, without asking for it, without looking for credit. They just do it because that’s who they are.”
In a parting message from outgoing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, he mentions the principles he considers essential, “balancing profitability and social conscience, compassion and rigor, love and responsibility.”
Schultz also highlights some of the groundbreaking programs the company implemented. Healthcare benefits for all employees, stock buying options for employees, and free college tuition are ways the company supports its workforce.
In the community at large, Starbucks implemented charitable programs like ethical sourcing practices, volunteering, and investing in emergency response preparedness programs. These are just a few examples.
It’s easy to see, just from the prevalence of Starbucks Coffee locations worldwide (there are 31,000 of them), that the company is successful. One has to assume that this success, in part, is due to the company’s leadership style.
Mother Mary Theresa Bojaxhiu
She is well-known as Mother Theresa, a Catholic nun and saint who performed acts of charity in India. Although she earned numerous prestigious awards – not least of which is the Nobel Peace Prize – she did not take credit for her achievements.
Mother Theresa is a controversial historical figure but certainly regarded as a leader. However, she earned this reputation not because she sought a rise to power. Her actions toward those she saw as suffering were what lead to her reputation.
“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you,” is one of the quotes attributed to Mother Theresa. It exemplifies her focus on support for individuals to boost the health of the overall organization of the Church.
These three examples show leaders in three separate fields who have all garnered accolades for their leadership. Their public statements and reputations are evidence of their leadership philosophies. It should be easy to identify at least one element of servant leadership’s ten principles in each one.
Suppose you are interested in changing or learning your own management style to follow the servant leadership model. In that case, you should remember that progress is not instantaneous. If your first efforts fail, it does not mean you can’t be an effective servant leader.
You will need a way to quantify your level of success. One way is to start a list of goals and decide how you’ll measure effectiveness. Take note of what progress has been made so far and where there’s stagnation. Then, implement your plan and observe the results using your measurement matrix.
You also don’t have to implement all ten principles right away. You can start with a few variables first to see if they’re a good fit for you and your team. Once you have those down, pull in a few more principles to incorporate.
The business world is rife with examples of companies that have implemented servant leadership styles with great success. Howard Schultz is one of many examples of corporate leaders who serve. Like any management style, servant leadership is not flawless. It has its proponents and detractors. Although the style is applicable in many scenarios, it isn’t the answer to every business problem.