We are currently living in a time when many people’s real life interactions and community are being increasingly replaced by those that occur online. This can be seen both in the workplace and at home.
As we are social creatures, building and maintaining relationships with the people we see every day is incredibly important. Bringing this concept into leadership can take us on the path towards Servant Leadership.
What Is Servant Leadership?
People using this leadership style see themselves explicitly as servants to those who work for them. The individual needs and goals of the employees are placed above all else, potentially including the success of the company.
Servant leaders are altruistic and mainly focused on helping their followers grow and develop as people. This involves a heavy emphasis on communication and demands an honest and open relationship between management and workers.
A famous question that Servant leaders are encouraged to ask themselves is, “do those served grow as people?” These leaders aim to enrich the lives of their employees overall, not just at work.
You can trace the core concepts of Servant leadership far back thousands of years. Some have insisted that Jesus himself was the first person to use this leadership style.
However, for our purposes, the first person to write out a full description of Servant leadership was Robert Greenleaf. In 1970 he published an article titled “The Servant as Leader.” Since then, many people have studied and researched this topic and its effects on a company’s culture.
Servant Leadership Characteristics
According to Greenleaf, there are 10 characteristics that a Servant leader must embody. They are as follows
- Active listening
- Empathy for others
- Commitment to the growth of people
- Building community
A Servant leader must be able to actively listen to their followers. In order to gain a better sense of their needs and goals as individuals, the leader must also possess a high level of empathy. Having these conversations and gaining a thorough understanding of their staff will allow the leader to help them move on from past issues and heal. Having an awareness of these issues, as well as ones that may arise in the future, enables the leader to avoid them in the future.
Since they are not dictating the actions of team members, Servant leaders must be persuasive. By conceptualizing big goals for individuals, as well as the company, they can rally their followers behind them in support. Doing this requires a great deal of foresight, generating an image for the future that people will be driven to move towards in order to take part in the positive outcomes.
In taking on the role of a Servant leader, one must also be a steward. These leaders have to be ready to take responsibility for the needs of their staff. Their commitment to the growth of those around them has to be sincere and demonstrated by their actions. When it is utilized effectively, this style of leadership is excellent at building a sense of community. People will perform at higher levels when they feel like they belong and are valued.
For Servant leadership to be put into practice, a few criteria must be met.
The first is that the leader has the best interest of their employees at heart. In order to properly guide people towards improvement, one must want to genuinely have a desire to see it through. These leaders must set a high standard of ethical and moral behavior.
There is also the assumption that the leader has access to materials, time, and funding to help their followers. Without these things, their promises will be hollow and meaningless. Providing services, opportunities, and support for employees is incredibly important for building a solid relationship of trust.
Since this leadership style requires time, people who plan to use it must be prepared for the commitment. This means taking time for meetings and discussions with team members and working to make sure that they are satisfied in a broader sense. Assisting people in their personal growth does not happen overnight. Servant leaders must be invested for the long term in their employees.
- Increased Morale
When employees feel like they are more than just workers to their managers, morale will always increase. Working for a company that cares about its staff and is willing to invest in them as people is a goal that any person will strive towards. In addition, employees are more likely to stay with a business with a positive work atmosphere.
- Creates future leaders
By setting the example for leadership, Servant leaders are able to inspire others to become better leaders themselves. Through support and encouragement for growth, staff are more likely to enthusiastically step into leadership roles themselves.
Creating a safe environment for new ideas and innovation will increase employee engagement. With a work culture that is built on trust and communication, staff members are more likely to actively work together and feel valued in their position within the organization. This will also increase the feelings of responsibility that employees have, both towards each other and for the company.
- Requires an altruistic mindset
Not every person will be capable of taking on the mindset required by this leadership style. Placing the needs of others before your own or those of the company is a skill that takes a high level of dedication.
- Loss of motivation
Servant leaders will step in to help their employees if something has gone wrong. While this in itself isn’t a bad thing, if it happens too often the workers may lose motivation. Why put in the effort if someone else will come along and do it anyway? Without proper balance, the desire to help staff succeed can result in the leader doing too much.
- It takes time
Putting this style of leadership into practice takes a fair amount of time. There is a strong emphasis on building deep relationships between the leader and their followers. This does not happen overnight and requires significant effort from both parties. Not all companies are able to allow for this amount of time to be spent on individual employees.
How To Implement Servant Leadership
A successful Servant leader must have excellent communication skills. Active listening and empathy are essential components of this leadership style. Taking classes or seminars on how to improve your communication skills can be helpful if that is an area where you are weaker.
Since nobody is perfect, instances may arise in which these leaders respond poorly. It happens to everyone but, making an effort to build a good sense of self awareness can help to keep these scenarios to a minimum. Listening to feedback and using it to grow and self reflect is an important skill to develop.
It is also important for Servant leaders to make sure that they are still remaining aligned with the goals of the organization. There is a possibility with this leadership style that the needs of the employees will go against the company's best interest. A skilled leader should be able to balance these things.
When To Avoid
If the business of a company is mostly dependent on short term objectives, this may not be the most effective style of leadership. Servant leadership has a large focus on helping people to grow as human beings and improve as workers over a long period of time. Investing time and effort into their workforce is not always a main priority of a company.
When encouraging people to adopt this style of leadership it is important to keep historical contexts in mind. Asking a woman or person of color to act as a servant to a man or white person can be highly problematic. Using this leadership style must be a choice and not something that people are pressured into.
Servant Leadership Examples
There are many historical examples of people that embodied Servant leadership. Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela are three of them. While it may be unrealistic to expect such a high level of commitment to others, they can serve as inspiration for how we interact with those that work for us.
This style of leadership is well suited for retail and customer service businesses. Customers are much more likely to return when they have had an outstanding experience. Retaining happy employees that feel good about where they work is crucial for the industry. Employees that bring a positive attitude to their work will always give better customer service.
Companies That Use Servant Leadership
First opened in 1901 by John Nordstrom, the brand has grown to be a retail giant in the United States. As a company, they have created a culture of support and service both for their staff and for their customers. They take the attitude that if the employees are happy and well taken care of, they will be able to give better customer service.
They have been known to use an “inverted pyramid” style of management. This places the customers and lower level employees at the top and the corporate team at the bottom.
- Marriott International
With their first hotel opened in 1957, Marriott has become one of the largest hotel chains in the world. Through the years, they have been recognized for their unique leadership structure.
At their hotels, they employ an attitude of “take care of your employees, and they will take care of the customers.” They also offer training programs and opportunities for advancement in a more open way than is often seen in the hospitality industry. Employees are also incentivized to perform volunteer work within their communities, extending the Servant attitude to the whole staff.
As the largest chain of cafes globally, it cannot be denied that their business model is a successful one. While they are known for having a high quality product, Starbucks is also known for offering excellent customer service.
In 2000, the company was struggling financially and had a high turnover rate. Management realized that in order to keep employees they would have to make them feel valued and supported at work.
After this point, they took a much more active approach to serve the people who worked for them. By assigning roles according to the individual skills of their employees, increasing wages, and offering a variety of other benefits, Starbucks now has one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry.
Although it is contrary to what we would normally think of as an employee-manager relationship, there certainly are benefits to taking a Servant leadership approach.
Not all leaders must be authoritarians in order to be effective. In fact, many people will respond better to communication and empathy than they will to threats of punishment. Adopting more of a Servant mindset creates an environment where staff feel appreciated and supported.
Ensuring that the people who work for you are well taken care of can be the first step towards a company wide attitude shift for the better.