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Published April 22, 2021
Great leaders have a vision, a strong sense of what their organization seeks to achieve, and what their team needs to become to realize that vision.
Of course, leaders are people, after all, and so each has different ways of interacting with their team members to put this vision into practice.
Though these different leadership styles aim to inspire trust and motivate action, commitment, and results from their teams, this intention isn’t always met.
Becoming a great leader is a lifelong journey that involves embracing and absorbing new skills and methodologies at every turn.
One such methodology is the concept of servant leadership.
In this article, we will define servant leadership and discuss the concept’s pros and cons, benefits, and characteristics. Then, we’ll dive into some examples of how servant leadership can be used effectively to motivate and inspire your team and achieve organizational objectives.
Let’s start with a broad definition.
What is "servant leadership"?
The servant leadership style is based on the idea that leaders prioritize serving a larger good. That is their team and organization, as opposed to looking out for their own objectives, primarily.
Servant leadership seeks to achieve a vision by providing strong support to employees, allowing them to learn and grow while bringing their own expertise and vision to the table. This hinges on building authority and influence rather than control and intimidation.
Employees in a servant leadership environment are more likely to feel that their voice is heard, which in turn makes them 4.6 times more likely to work to the best of their abilities.
This style represents the opposite of the traditional leadership model, where the leader is seen as the center point of the team, and employees support them to meet company goals.
Instead, servant leadership puts the employees and their needs as the main actors. Under this leadership philosophy, the more you invest in serving as a "scaffold" for your team, the more productive your team becomes.
Where did servant leadership come from?
Servant leadership isn’t some new-age, modern idea.
Far from it.
The term “servant leader” was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 in the essay “The Servant as Leader.” Subsequent leadership experts have attempted to define and modernize the concept in the context of today’s organizations.
Servant leadership has enjoyed a resurgence of attention, as leaders focus intently on building team resilience, skill sets, engagement, and general well-being.
Rapid change, unpredictability, and the need for agility have further highlighted the need for leaders to support and empower an innovative, adaptable workforce.
How does it work?
Servant leadership works at two levels: it is an artful balance of top-down direction and bottom-up empowerment.
The servant leader still leads in critical ways.
The aspect of top-down direction involves setting the strategic vision for the company, communicating that down to the team level by providing priorities, expectations, and limitations, as well as clarity on overall direction and company values.
In essence, the servant leader provides a framework within which their team can flourish, rather than prescribing them specific direction on each of their duties.
Within the frame set by those leadership decisions, the servant leader places themselves in service to their people, with a focus on setting the employees up to succeed at achieving the vision.
This is where the bottom-up empowerment aspect comes into play.
This involves building up their teams’ confidence, decision-making ability, creativity, risk-taking, and collaboration skills. The leader motivates and inspires by encouraging ownership and extending supported trust. They’ll also ensure that the team has the needed resources, budget, skills, and attention to make an impact.
In servant leadership, employees are empowered, but the leader doesn’t just disappear.
Rather, the servant leader understands how much and what type of support to give when facilitating growth. They know when to get involved and when to let their team steer the ship. More importantly, they know when to let their employees fail if there is a powerful lesson to be learned.
7 benefits of servant leadership
The servant leadership style offers several compelling benefits and advantages for organizations.
1. Better collaboration, stronger teams
Seeing their leader as a role model, employees often embrace the value of service to teammates. As a result, they drop unproductive behaviors motivated by politics or jockeying for attention and work together more harmoniously.
2. Positive work environment
Workplace interactions tend to be more constructive when a leader is supportive and builds others toward a shared goal, rather than pitting them against each other for the leader’s benefit.
3. Employee commitment, trust, and loyalty
Empowering employees under the servant leadership model promotes alignment between their own sense of purpose and the company's overarching mission.
Employees feel better able to realize their own potential and creativity when the leader values diverse, individual strengths. This leads to improved employee engagement.
Employee engagement has a huge impact on operating margins. Companies boasting high sustainable engagement levels have up to 3 times higher margins than competitors without a culture of employee engagement.
4. Greater organizational agility
Supporting employees and teams at lower levels to make decisions, have more responsibility, and have both the skills and tools to do their jobs means they can quickly respond and adapt when conditions or needs change.
5. Supports a culture of belonging
Employees feel appreciated, recognized, and valued when a leader sees them as individuals and emphasizes the importance of their contribution to the work.
6. Accelerates learning and development
Employees learn more effectively and have greater opportunities to develop their strengths when the leader makes it a priority to develop and empower the team.
7. Fosters leadership everywhere
Empowering employees to have ownership and responsibility accelerates individuals’ leadership capabilities. The accessibility of the leader makes it easier for individuals to model off their behavior.
7 characteristics of servant leadership
The team needs to come first.
The leader’s number one priority is to help their team execute their goals and decisions and achieve their potential.
2. Employee satisfaction
Employee satisfaction and cooperation turn the wheel. The real value comes over time as capable; empowered employees drive better performance.
Servant leadership can work in many different settings, from revenue-focused sales environments to non-profit organizations set out to promote social good.
This methodology’s values are transferable across domains and can even be applied to personal situations, such as parenting.
Servant leaders provide high levels of support to employees, which fuels motivation and engagement.
The idea is not to be a cheerleader but to recognize opportunities for genuine praise and giving team members free rein to execute their ideas.
5. Transparent communication
The team trusts a leader who can provide clarity, even in complex, changing situations.
Genuine care about individual and team development rather than micro-managing creates a safe space to grow and promotes employees to develop their own authenticity.
Ownership activates commitment and purpose. Work feels more meaningful as employees are working toward goals they’ve set themselves, rather than strictly under the dictate of a manager.
Servant leader examples
Successful servant leaders have a genuine desire to serve employees. They are also effective decision-makers and clear in setting expectations.
Here are six strategies specific to this leadership style, together with the underlying values:
Preach by example - humility, authenticity, and trust.
"Respect is neither imposed nor begged. It's earned and offered."
Humility must be the foundation of your leadership. If you speak out of superiority and power, your subordinates will do what you say out of fear.
Instead, make your actions and words a credible and genuine model to follow.
An authentic message creates a trust bond and inspires a pure and genuine interest in the company and its work.
Show why their work is essential - awareness and purpose.
In the mechanism of a clock, each part is crucial.
The same goes for any team; each employee is essential to the team’s operation.
In a sometimes messy, fast-changing environment, making sure this message reaches them can increase their motivation and enhance their performance.
One way to do this is by talking explicitly about the downstream impact of their work, inside the company and out.
Talk less about numbers and metrics and more about the person or people who will use and build on what they’ve done. Always link their specific achievements to wider organization goals, which fosters a deeper connection to the company mission.
Most importantly, recognize the good work they are doing. 37% of your workers consider recognition of their achievements to be the most important aspect of a role.
Encouraging collaboration - community-building and commitment.
As a servant leader, you are the engine that generates a sense of community and teamwork.
Increase collaboration by encouraging employee commitment to each other, delegating responsibility, and involving team members in decision-making processes.
For example, ask them what they would like to do in that new project or how they think they can add value to their work.
Supporting the team's growth and development - foresight and resourcefulness.
Identifying and anticipating the needs of employees is a major aspect of the servant leader’s role.
For example, when assigning project duties to each team member, make sure you provide the resources or the ability to procure them.
To care, personally, for the members of the team - empathy and compassion.
Similarly, the servant leader will cultivate a friendly environment in which employees feel comfortable and not threatened by expressing specific complaints or asking questions.
In this context, it seems especially important to favor empathy and understanding.
That is, the servant leader tries to get in the other's shoes.
This can provide you with valuable information that will help you, as a leader, to improve the quality of your performance.
Compassion serves to be your employee's best ally, in good times and bad, validating the difficulties they may encounter and serving as a support to overcome handicaps and grow.
Asking for feedback - listening skills.
Promote a sufficient level of relationship with the employee that favors active and close listening.
Avoid technology distractions like checking your phone while a team member is talking. A servant leader asks open-ended and follow-up questions as a matter of course, not just when something is wrong.
This methodology activates deeper thinking on the part of the employee and inspires them to reach their own conclusions rather than seeking answers from the leader.
Pros and cons of servant leadership
By giving ownership and some control to employees, the servant leadership style can amp up an employee’s motivation and courage to be more creative and innovative. This can strengthen the corporate culture, decrease voluntary turnover, and draw out more engagement and commitment from employees.
On the other hand, getting it right takes time, energy, and skill.
Getting to really know people, their motivations, and areas of growth takes time. Translating a vision into clear objectives and priorities to communicate clearly and engage and motivate a team takes time. The results don’t happen overnight. It’s not easy.
Let’s examine the main pros and cons of this leadership style.
Pros of servant leadership
- The characteristics of success are well-defined
- Builds deeper, trust-based relationships
- Encourages greater ownership and responsibility
- Encourages innovation, curiosity, and creativity
- Develops a people-focused culture
- Delivers significant positive impact on company performance
- A strong method for ensuring decisions are made in the best interests of the company
- By serving the employees of a company, you are serving the customer
- A high level of internal staff growth
- Develops future leaders
- Boosts morale across teams
- Leaders earn respect from team members
- Employees feel more valued and appreciated in the workplace
- Improves pride of work
Cons of servant leadership
- The concept can be difficult to communicate
- It can be more time-consuming for leaders
- Can be difficult to attain — it’s a constant journey rather than an end goal
- Requires a high level of authenticity that can be difficult to achieve
- Retraining existing leaders as servant leaders can be tough and time-consuming
- Some may perceive servant leaders as weak or ineffective
- The formal authority of the leader may be diminished
- Team members are expected to make a decision, but they might not have a strong understanding of the big picture
- Different leadership styles across teams can cause confusion
- Employees may not have a skill set of confidence to take charge and drive the business forward
- The initial speed of decision-making is slower due to high team involvement
- Potential for misalignment among team
- It may be out of sync with corporate performance management and incentive systems
- Decreased motivation and resourcefulness if leader “rescues”
How you can be effective at servant leadership
Servant leadership is a transformational leadership style, but it takes some practice.
Here’s where you can focus your efforts to embody servant leadership characteristics.
1. Build strong communication skills
Servant leadership theory is built around getting the most out of your team. To do that, you’re going to need to be able to communicate organizational objectives and missions clearly so that they are properly equipped to make wise decisions.
Working on communication skills such as concision, body language, and clarity will help you to achieve this.
2. Improve your listening skills
Communication isn’t all about what you say, though.
This management style is all about hearing your team members’ points of view, so practice your active listening skills to really understand their decision-making process.
3. Develop empathy
Empathy is crucial in a leadership role, and it’s especially important for servant leadership.
Empathy means being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to be able to see things from their perspective.
This is a vital skill to practice if you’re looking to become a transformational leader.
4. Work on your self-awareness
Charismatic leaders may be charming and great at communicating their ideas, but it’s important that they are also strongly aware of their own limitations.
Developing your self-awareness means noticing how you act and what you say, and the impact it has on those around you. Part of this is also recognizing where your actions don’t align with your ideal vision of yourself and determining a clear path to rectifying this.
5. Grow your persuasive skills
Persuasion is a part of being a good leader, and it means being able to convince others that your thinking is the right path.
Though this skill might be seen as a slightly different leadership style from servant leadership, there is a place for persuasion as a servant leader.
For example, if your team is divided on an issue, you may need to bring your skills of persuasion into play to land on a unanimous decision.
6. Work on your selflessness
An autocratic leader is one who looks out for themselves primarily. That is the opposite of the servant leadership model.
To be an effective leader, it’s important to develop your selflessness, meaning you look out for the goals and well-being of others before you think about your own.
Of course, there is a line, and you still need to look after your own well-being, but the point is not to prioritize your own agenda.
Doing so will improve employee engagement, which is a factor known to increase employee performance by as much as 73%.
7. Keep the organization’s goals in mind
While prioritizing team engagement, the servant leadership approach still centers around achieving an organizational goal or goals.
As such, it’s important to keep these goals in mind and not to let the interests of any individual move the needle to a point where you are no longer following these objectives.
Your job as the leader is to guide the team toward a decision that makes sense with the company’s vision in mind.
8. Learn how to develop others holistically
In other leadership styles (such as democratic leadership or autocratic leadership), the primary goal when developing others is improving their efficiency and productivity as an employee.
Though this is still important under the servant leadership model, it’s just as crucial to foster the development of each team members’ decision-making skills, communication skills, and big-picture thinking.
Developing your subordinates more holistically will improve team capabilities as well as employee engagement.
Engagement is great, not only from their perspective (as they feel more fulfilled by their work) but also from the viewpoint of the company. Businesses simply measuring employee engagement have been shown to increase profits by as much as 24%.
Servant leader at any level
It is not necessary to have a high influence role in your company to start practicing the servant leadership style, but it’s a practice that has a huge impact on employee well-being and engagement.
Lead projects by supporting the rest of your colleagues, addressing their needs, and providing resources and support that could show successful and positive results at any level.
Practice your communication skills, develop empathy, work on your self-awareness, and be sure to focus on developing your employees more holistically. Do this, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a capable and effective servant leader.
Need someone to speak with about your servant leadership journey? Let’s talk.
BetterUp Care Coach, MSc Clinical Psychology and Researcher
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