The term “servant leadership” has been around for decades, referring to a “philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world,” according to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
When first introduced, servant leadership was a revolutionary concept, as most people followed the more traditional command-and-control leadership model.
Instead of telling people what to do, the role of servant leaders is to make sure that their team’s needs are being met. They focus on helping individuals make better decisions and be more innovative.
View our infographic on servant leadership here.
Characteristics of Servant Leaders
While traditional leadership is focused on helping an organization thrive, servant leaders put the needs of their employees first. They focus on developing individuals who perform their best. Examples of servant leaders are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa. So, what do these leaders have in common that make them prime examples of servant leaders?
Good listening skills
Often leaders are valued by their power, decisiveness, and communication skills. But active listening is more important to a servant leader. They understand the needs of the overall group and listen more than they talk.
This is a key part of connecting with others. Servant leaders can consider a situation from others’ points of view. They truly feel and understand the impact something is having, and this drives the decisions and actions that they make.
This kind of leader is tuned in to what’s going on around them. They’re situationally aware, in terms of understanding issues involving ethics and values, and strategically aware of how individual actions affect the big picture. They’re also more self-aware, from an emotional intelligence (EQ) standpoint, and understand their own strengths and weaknesses.
Servant leaders put others first because they realize it’s not about their agenda and how they look, but instead about leading other people succeed. If others succeed, then the whole company is successful.
It is important to understand that people are more likely to perform better if they are led by someone that is nurturing and encouraging. Praise and encouragement can go a long way and are far more effective than punishment and negative feedback.
Openness to new ideas
A servant leader values different opinions and don’t punish people for disagreeing or sharing their opinion. They encourage everyone to be candid and focus on what people are saying and then they evaluate that.
Servant Leadership in the Workplace
Now that we’ve looked at the characteristics that successful servant leaders possess, let’s look at how to best apply servant leadership at an organization.
Leading by example
Servant leaders don’t think of themselves as bosses, instead they see their roles as stewards. They are guiding the ship and focusing on the well-being of their people, including the resources teams need to be successful. They’re also not afraid to get in the trenches and do the work along side their employees. They take responsibility for things that happen within the company.
A servant leader leads by example by demonstrating the values and behaviors that they want to see in others and speak to those that are not aligned to those values.
What makes open communication work in a company being run by servant leaders is that there’s a strong trust built between everyone. Trust means that a leader’s actions will be based on servant principles and be the same every time.
Servant leaders are great at making their teams feel like they matter. Encouraging their teams to work together, innovate, and share their opinions shows them that they are heard and appreciated. This can motivate teams to put their best effort, and often results in higher quality work.
Sitting down with small focus groups of employees from across the company and listening to their ideas is a great way to facilitate feedback and allow all teams to be heard and feel like they are making a collective difference.
A servant leader is a forward thinker. They look at what they have learned in the past and how it has affected the present and could affect the future. Thinking long term helps look at what the company can become and allows decision-making about changes for the future.
Traditional leaders believe that they are only accountable to their superiors, if they even think they are accountable at all. Servant leaders, on the other hand, are accountable to everyone in the organization. They welcome feedback on their performance and want to improve their leadership.
Servant leaders are committed to the growth of every employee. They want what is best for them and this includes developing other servant leaders. They hold employees accountable (in a caring way) for their performance and development.
Typical leaders assume that people automatically know how to do their job once they are hired. Servant leaders view people as an important resource to be invested in and they equip people with the knowledge, skills, and tools to be effective and fulfill their potential. Training and continuous learning are key parts of that. And they take it a step further and often help employees with issues outside of the workplace.
The Importance of Servant Leadership
Servant leadership is important because it creates a nurturing environment where workers feel like they are head, appreciated and respected. It can help businesses build stronger work cultures with high employee morale and engagement.
By following the traditional model of leading, the result will likely be compliance and nothing more. Employees won’t want to go above and beyond. But by being compassionate, empathetic, humble, and serving employees, business can grow, and employees will feel empowered. This in turn enables greater growth across the company.
Servant Leadership Training
As organizations change and adapt to meet the needs of employees, managers should be versed in what it takes to be a servant leader.
One thing to focus on would be EQ. Emotional intelligence is defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Sound familiar? See how emotional intelligence fits into the modern workplace with an episode of our podcast, “Emotional Intelligence in the Modern Workplace.”
Also spend time developing the skills necessary to be a manager and leader among the team. A big part of servant leadership is focusing on developing others, so consider helping employees learn what it takes to step into those larger roles.