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That said, the best style of leadership depends on what your goals are. If you have a desire to work toward the greater good or inspire your employees to make an impact, servant leadership might be right for you.
Let’s define servant leadership and discuss the model’s main principles and pros and cons. We’ll also dive into some examples of how this type of leadership can be used to effectively motivate and inspire your team.
What is servant leadership?
The servant leadership style is based on the idea that leaders prioritize serving the greater good. Leaders with this style serve their team and organization first. They don’t prioritize their own objectives.
Employees in a servant leadership environment are more likely to feel that their voices are heard. This makes them 4.6 times more likely to work to the best of their abilities. So what is servant leadership?
The term “servant leader” was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 in the essay “The Servant as Leader.” Basically, the servant leadership style was based on the idea that leaders prioritize serving the greater good. Leaders with this style serve their team and organization first. They don’t prioritize their own objectives.
Servant leadership seeks to achieve a vision by providing strong support to employees. In turn, this allows employees to learn and grow while bringing their own expertise and vision to the table. This hinges on building influence and authority rather than using control and toxic leadership tactics.
In servant leadership, employees are empowered. But the leader doesn’t just disappear.
The servant leader focuses on:
- Setting the strategic vision for the company and communicating that down to the team level
- Encouraging ownership and extending supported trust to the team
- Making sure that the team has the required resources, budget, skills, and attention to make an impact
- Providing a framework within which their team can flourish (instead of prescribing them specific directions on each of their duties)
- Bottom-up empowerment, which means building their team members’ self-confidence, decision-making abilities, and collaboration skills
10 principles of servant leadership
Robert K. Greenleaf established 10 principles of servant leadership. The former president of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, Larry C. Spears, breaks down these 10 principles as follows.
- Listening: It’s important to fully listen to members of the team without interrupting.
- Empathy: It’s important to get to know your team so that you can use empathetic leadership to help them grow.
- Healing: Members of your team may have trauma from previous toxic work experiences. Help others to create a healthy work-life balance to give them the space to heal.
- Self-awareness: A servant leader must also recognize their own strengths and weaknesses. This is to understand how they fit within the overall team.
- Persuasion: Servant leaders can use persuasion and influence instead of just power to get team members to be on the same page.
- Conceptualization: Servant leaders need to be able to use big-picture thinking. With this, they can conceptualize plans for their team and their organization.
- Foresight: It’s important to use what you and your team learn to improve in the future.
- Stewardship: Lead by example so that your team can do what you do, not just do what you say.
- Commitment to the growth of people: You need to allocate time and resources to help people and teams grow. Tools like organizational training, development programs, and growth and transformation coaching can help.
- Building community: Servant leadership requires building relationships between co-workers. As a result, team members learn to trust each other and become more productive.
7 characteristics of servant leadership
Servant leadership is about empowering your team and helping create a positive work environment. But what does it actually look like? Let’s break down the seven characteristics of servant leadership.
- Teamwork: The team needs to come first.
- Employee satisfaction: Employee satisfaction and cooperation turn the wheel.
- Adaptability: Servant leadership varies from revenue-focused sales environments to non-profit organizations that set out to promote social good.
- Motivation: Servant leaders provide high levels of support to employees, fueling motivation and engagement.
- Transparent communication: The team trusts a leader who can provide clarity, even in complex, changing situations.
- Authenticity: Servant leaders need to genuinely care about individual and team development. Leadership much embrace authenticity.
- Accountability: Ownership activates commitment and purpose. Employees work toward goals they’ve set for themselves and take responsibility for the results.
Servant leadership vs. traditional leadership
“Servant first” leadership represents the opposite of the traditional leadership model. Traditional leadership is defined as a model of leadership where the leader is seen as the central point of the team. Employees are there to support the leader’s efforts to meet company goals.
In contrast, servant leadership puts the needs of others at the forefront. Under this leadership philosophy, the more you invest in serving as a "scaffold" for your employees, the more productive your team becomes.
Here are three more ways that servant leadership is different from traditional leadership:
- More inclusive: A servant leader must foster an inclusive culture in their team. Inclusive teams allow every person to build a sense of belonging. This gives them a chance to thrive.
- Focused on the team, more than the customer: Servant leaders focus on their team’s needs, but this doesn’t mean that customers don’t benefit. Servant leaders focus on the growth and well-being of the team. As such, they can create high-performing professionals who can serve customers better.
- Greater emphasis on ethics: Servant leadership has ethical implications that aren’t as prominent in traditional leadership. Servant leaders who behave in an unethical way may cause issues within their team, such as decreased motivation and growth.
What does servant leadership look like in practice?
Successful servant leaders have a genuine desire to serve employees. They’re also effective, charismatic decision-makers and clear when they set expectations.
Here are some concrete examples of servant leadership.
1. Being an example — humility, authenticity, and trust
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, your actions and words should be a credible and genuine model to follow.
2. Showing why the 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.
Making sure this message reaches employees can increase their motivation. It can also enhance their performance.
One way to do this is by talking explicitly about the downstream impact of their work. You can show them the impact both inside the company and out.
Talk less about numbers and metrics and more about the person or people who’ll use and build on what they’ve done. Always link their specific achievements to wider organizational goals. This fosters a deeper connection to the company’s mission.
Most importantly, recognize the good work they are doing. Many workers consider recognition of their achievements to be the most important aspect of a role.
3. Encouraging collaboration — community-building and commitment
As a servant leader, you’re the engine that generates a sense of community and teamwork.
Increase collaboration by encouraging employee commitment to each other. You can also encourage them to delegate responsibility. Finally, you can involve team members in decision-making processes.
For example, ask them what they’d like to do on that new project or how they think they can add value to their work. The key here is to be patient and take the time to do this. It can be so tempting in today’s busy world to just get through the day without caring for your employees and their needs — but servant leaders are different.
4. 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. Act from a service-first mindset, and you’ll truly empower them to accomplish their tasks.
5. Caring for the members of the team — empathy and compassion
Similarly, the servant leader will cultivate a friendly environment. In this environment, employees should feel comfortable. They shouldn’t feel threatened by expressing specific complaints or asking questions.
In this context, it seems especially important to favor empathy and understanding. For example, when your employee comes to you with a complaint about a coworker, you don’t dismiss it because you’re busy. You take the time to help them work through the conflict and ultimately resolve it. You’re compassionate.
6. Asking for feedback — listening skills
Promote a sufficient level of relationship with the employee that favors active and close listening. A servant leader asks open-ended and follow-up questions as a matter of course, not just when something’s wrong. They’re receptive to feedback — they don’t just give it.
Pros and cons of servant leadership
The servant leadership style can amp up an employee’s motivation and courage to be more creative and innovative. This is because leaders give ownership and some control to employees. Doing this can:
- Strengthen the corporate culture
- Decrease voluntary turnover
- 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. It takes time to translate a vision into clear objectives and priorities. It also takes time to communicate this vision clearly to the team. 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 a 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 in work
Cons of servant leadership
- The concept can be difficult to communicate
- 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 the necessary 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 when the leader intervenes to fix issues for the team
How to become a “servant first” leader
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. This is so that they are properly equipped to make wise decisions.
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. Practice your active listening skills to really understand their decision-making process.
3. Develop empathy
Empathy is crucial in a leadership role. It’s especially important for servant leadership. Empathy means being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes. It allows you 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 rectify this.
5. Learn to use your influence for good
Persuasion is a part of being a good leader. It means being able to convince others that your thinking is the right path.
This skill might be seen as a slightly different leadership style from servant leadership. But there’s a place for persuasion as a servant leader.
Here’s an example. If your team is divided on an issue, you may need to bring your skills of persuasion and influence into play to land on a unanimous decision.
6. Start putting others first
An autocratic leader is one who looks out for themselves primarily. That’s the opposite of the servant leadership model.
To be an effective leader, it’s important to develop your selflessness. This means you look out for the goals and well-being of others before you think about your own goals.
Of course, there’s a line to respect. You still need to look after your own well-being. But the point is to deprioritize 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
The servant leadership approach still centers around achieving organizational goals. This is true even while prioritizing team engagement.
As such, it’s important to keep these goals in mind. Don’t 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
Other leadership styles have different approaches to developing employees. Usually, the goal is to improve employee efficiency and productivity. This is true for democratic leadership or autocratic leadership.
Efficiency and productivity are still important under the servant leadership model. But it’s just as crucial to coach each team member so they can develop better:
- Decision-making skills
- Communication skills
- Big-picture thinking
Developing your direct reports more holistically will improve team capabilities. It can also increase 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%.
Employ servant leadership at any level
It’s not necessary to have a highly influential 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. This can create 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 development journey? Request a custom demo to speak with a coach.
BetterUp Care Coach, MSc Clinical Psychology and Researcher