Servant Leadership

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“People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – John C. Maxwell.

In a world where leadership has often been synonymous with power and control, a different leadership style has been gaining momentum – one that prioritizes empathy, collaboration, and the growth of individuals. This approach, known as Servant Leadership, turns the traditional hierarchy on its head and places the needs of followers at the forefront.

Servant Leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay published in 1970. Greenleaf believed in the idea of a leader who serves the needs of others, aiming to empower and uplift individuals and teams. At its core, servant leadership is about viewing leadership as a form of service, where the leader’s primary objective is to enhance the well-being and growth of their followers.

Servant leadership theory is a leadership paradigm that prioritizes the needs of followers and places the leader as a servant to their team. This approach emphasizes empathy, trust, and empowerment to create a collaborative and supportive work environment.

Let’s understand servant leadership by exploring its ten key principles.

10 Principles Of Servant Leadership Theory

A servant leader upholds some essential values characterized by empathy, authenticity and a deep commitment to the growth and well-being of those they serve. In embracing these ten principles and taking up free online leadership courses, servant leaders step onto a transformative journey and embark on a path that leads to success and significance. Let’s look at the following ten principles of this leadership style:

principles of servant leadership image 01

1. Listening

In the bustling realm of leadership, the simple act of listening often gets lost in the shuffle. Yet, this seemingly unassuming communication skill takes centre stage within the heart of servant leadership. Imagine a leader who doesn’t just hear words but truly comprehends their meaning and intent. This is the essence of listening – an art that transforms relationships, nurtures trust, and fuels collaboration.

Attentively listening servant leaders build bridges of understanding that connect them with their team members on a deeper level. This fosters a culture of trust and empathy where individuals feel valued and heard. 

2. Empathy

In the realm of leadership, empathy is the glue that binds individuals together, transcending titles and roles. To be empathetic means more than mere sympathy – it entails stepping into a person’s shoes, understanding their natural feelings, and acknowledging their experiences as valid. In the grand tapestry of servant leadership, empathy is the thread that weaves relationships of trust and understanding.

Leaders with higher levels of empathy foster an environment where collaboration and innovation flourish. Consider Mary Kay Ash, the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics. Her leadership philosophy was grounded in kindness and genuine care for her salesforce, leading to a culture of empowerment and success.


3. Healing

Leadership isn’t solely about steering a ship; it’s about tending to the emotional well-being of the crew. Enter the principle of healing – an often overlooked yet indispensable facet of servant leadership. Healing here doesn’t refer solely to physical wounds but extends to emotional wounds that can often fester beneath the surface.

Servant leaders who prioritize emotional healing create an atmosphere where team members feel safe expressing their concerns, knowing they won’t be dismissed. Consider Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland. Her leadership in advocating for human rights and addressing societal issues exemplifies the transformative power of healing in leadership.

4. Self-awareness

The journey of leadership commences not outwardly but inwardly. Self-awareness – the ability to recognise and understand one’s own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and values – is the compass that guides influential leaders through uncharted waters. This principle is the foundation upon which authentic and impactful leadership is built.

This principle’s transformational power is embodied in the story of Steve Jobs. His evolution from an overly confident innovator to a more humble and collaborative servant leader showcases the profound changes that arise from introspection and self-awareness. This transformation fueled the resurgence of Apple and solidified Jobs’ legacy as an iconic leader.

5. Persuasion

Servant leadership is not about wielding power; it’s about exerting influence. Persuasion is the vehicle through which servant leaders drive change, rooted in authenticity and shared values. Rather than issuing orders, they engage in conversations that inspire commitment and ownership. Servant leaders employ persuasive communication skills for building relationships and working towards organizational success. 

A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior underscores the potency of persuasion in leadership. Leaders who embrace this principle create an environment of trust and mutual respect. An example of persuasive leadership is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education. Malala’s unwavering commitment to girls’ education and her ability to inspire change through her words showcase the profound impact of influencing hearts and minds.

6. Conceptualization

Servant leadership is as much about the present as it is about the future. The ability to conceptualise and articulate a compelling vision is a hallmark of servant leadership. This skill involves transcending the immediate challenges and envisioning a brighter, more purposeful tomorrow.

Visionaries inspire their teams to push boundaries and strive for excellence. Ginni Rometty, former CEO of IBM, embodies this principle by conceptualising artificial intelligence’s potential and technology’s future. Rometty’s visionary leadership transformed IBM’s direction and positioned the company for a new era of innovation.

7. Foresight

In the turbulent landscape of leadership, foresight is the lighthouse that guides the ship through tumultuous waters. This principle entails anticipating challenges and opportunities and empowering leaders to make informed decisions that steer their teams toward a positive work environment.

A study titled “Foresight in the Game of Leadership” underscores the value of foresight in effective leadership. Leaders who can foresee potential obstacles are better equipped to navigate uncertainties. Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, personifies this principle. Her journey from an engineering intern to the helm of Xerox showcases her strategic thinking and ability to navigate the evolving technological landscape.

8. Stewardship

Stewardship embodies the philosophy of responsible resource management style. It refers to managing and overseeing the resources and assets of an organisation, ensuring their efficient use and maximising their impact. In servant leadership, this principle extends beyond financial resources to ensure team members’ well-being and growth.

Leaders who prioritize the well-being of their team foster a culture of trust and engagement. Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and microfinance pioneer, embodies this principle through his commitment to alleviating poverty and empowering communities. Yunus’ approach to social entrepreneurship showcases the transformative potential of leadership focused on holistic well-being.

9. Nurturing Potential

Community servant leaders view their role not as authorities but as mentors, dedicated to creating a supportive environment and nurturing the growth of their team members. This commitment extends beyond professional development to encompass holistic personal and professional growth where employees feel valued.

Engaged teams are the fruit of leaders who invest in their development. Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox, exemplifies this principle. Her leadership role during a challenging period for Xerox showcased her dedication to nurturing potential and leading with a people-first approach.

10. Fostering Community

At the heart of servant leadership lies a commitment to community-building. Leaders who foster relationships within their teams create an environment of trust, collaboration, and mutual support. Building relationships with co-workers is a vital skill for an effective leader.

John Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco Systems, embodies this principle by emphasizing building a culture of innovation and collaboration. Chambers’ leadership created a community where ideas are valued, and employees contribute their best. Leaders who prioritise relationships inspire loyalty and commitment, resulting in being transformative servant leaders. 

Still wondering if you are a servant leader or not? Continue reading to understand the different servant leadership characteristics and decide for yourself!

7 Characteristics Of Servant Leadership Style

While the principles of a servant leader pertain to the fundamental values and beliefs guiding their leadership approach, it is also essential to know the individual qualities that make up a servant leader. Following are the seven essential characteristics of the servant leadership model:7 Characteristics Of Servant Leadership 1

1. Teamwork

Teamwork is like bees working together in a hive, each with their job, creating something incredible. In servant leadership, building community and collaborating means more than giving tasks in group projects – it’s about seeing each person’s unique skills and ensuring they work well together for a common goal. 

Good servant leaders know that when people with different ideas work together, they can create new and great things. You’re a servant leader if you’re good at finding what people are best at and giving them the right jobs.

2. Employee Satisfaction

Picture a garden where flowers bloom with vibrant colors and strong stems. Such is the workplace nurtured by servant leaders who prioritize employee satisfaction. This servant leadership characteristic isn’t about simply making the workspace comfortable; it’s about making optimal effort to acknowledge employees as valued contributors and ensure their well-being while keeping the organizational objectives in mind.

Data from Gallup’s “State of the Global Workplace” report highlights that highly engaged teams exhibit 21% greater profitability. Servant leaders recognize that content employees are likelier to go the extra mile, boosting innovation and overall productivity.

3. Adaptability

Servant leaders embody adaptability, like a chameleon adapting its colors to its surroundings. In a dynamic landscape, they steer their teams through turbulence with resilience and a willingness to embrace change.

Servant leaders foster a culture of learning and experimentation, encouraging their teams to view challenges as opportunities for growth. Just as a river finds new paths during a storm, organizations with adaptable leaders navigate uncharted waters with innovation and grace.

4. Motivation

Motivation isn’t a mere fuel; the fire drives individuals to reach their full potential. Servant leaders are master stokers of this fire, tapping into the intrinsic motivations of their team members to ignite their passion and drive.

Research by Daniel Pink in his book “Drive” reveals that traditional carrot-and-stick approaches to motivation fall short. Instead, autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the key drivers of intrinsic motivation. Servant leadership understands this concept, empowering their team members to take ownership of their work and providing opportunities for skill development and growth.

5. Transparent Communication

Transparent communication isn’t just about sharing information; it’s about fostering an environment where open dialogue and diverse viewpoints are welcomed, creating a stronger, more resilient team.

Servant leaders like Lincoln understand that strong communication skills build a culture of trust and collaboration, allowing team members to align their efforts toward common goals. Edelman’s Trust Barometer found that 81% of employees believe “open and honest communication” is the most critical leadership quality. 

6. Authenticity

Authenticity in leadership is like a sturdy bridge built on genuine emotions and shared experiences. Servant leaders focus on creating a culture of openness where team members learn to be more engaged and committed. This characteristic involves being true to oneself, sharing vulnerabilities, and creating a sense of genuine connection.

Researcher Brené Brown’s work highlights that vulnerability fosters trust and connection, critical components of effective leadership. Servant leaders understand that demonstrating authenticity creates an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns.

7. Accountability

Accountability fosters a culture where team members take ownership of their actions and decisions. Servant leaders understand that accountability is not about blame; it’s about taking responsibility to improve and excel.

Servant leaders don’t just hold their team members accountable; they lead by example, taking ownership of their own actions and decisions. They understand their leadership responsibility to foster a culture of excellence, where individuals are driven to deliver their best work, knowing that their contributions matter.

The various characteristics of servant leadership are instrumental in understanding servant leadership philosophy, but how might it differ from the traditional leadership we experience daily? Continue reading to know more!

Servant Leadership vs Traditional Leadership

Servant leadership stands in stark contrast to traditional leadership models. Three key differences exemplify this paradigm shift:Servant Leadership vs Traditional Leadership 1

Focus on Others

Traditional leadership revolves around the leader’s authority and objectives. Such leaders tend to assign tasks without considering individual team members’ unique strengths and capabilities. Their approach might hinder personal growth and skill development, leading to a less engaged workforce. 

In contrast, servant leaders prioritize the well-being and advancement of their team members. They tailor assignments to leverage each individual’s strengths, encouraging skill enhancement and personal development. By recognizing and nurturing the potential of team members, servant leaders create an environment where everyone can flourish.

Leadership Approach

In traditional leadership, decisions are often top-down, with leaders making choices independently. This approach can sometimes overlook valuable input from team members and hinder a sense of shared ownership.

Servant leadership approach, on the other hand, involves collaboration and inclusivity. Instead of focusing on their own goals, servant leaders actively engage their team in decision-making, considering diverse perspectives and aligning choices with the group’s values and goals. This participatory approach leads to better decisions and cultivates team members’ sense of belonging and commitment.

Power Dynamics

Traditional leadership models establish rigid hierarchies that can stifle employee engagement and creativity. Employees may feel detached and reluctant to contribute beyond their assigned roles. 

In contrast, servant leadership relies on empowerment. Servant leader shares power and creates an atmosphere where team members are encouraged to take initiative and responsibility. By distributing power and encouraging active involvement, servant leadership fosters a culture of collaboration and innovation, resulting in higher employee satisfaction and a stronger sense of purpose within the team.

Servant leadership can be a helpful tool to foster better relationships at your organization and deliver authentic results compared to other leadership styles. However, every coin has two sides, and so does servant leadership. Let’s examine how servant leadership is a boon and bane to navigate it. 

Pros Of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership, with its profound focus on empathy and growth, offers various advantages that resonate throughout an organization.Pros Of Servant Leadership 1

1. Enhanced Employee Engagement

By placing people at the heart of leadership, servant leaders create an atmosphere where individuals feel valued, respected, and understood. This appreciation fosters a deep sense of loyalty and commitment among team members. When employees are genuinely heard and their aspirations are acknowledged, they become more emotionally invested in their work, resulting in higher productivity and reduced turnover rates. Additionally, research from various feminist scholars have found that servant leadership is one of the most gender-integrative leadership styles.

2. Cultivating An Innovative Culture

Servant leaders understand that the best ideas often arise from collaboration and shared experiences. By nurturing an environment of trust and open communication, they empower their teams to collaborate, exchange ideas, and think creatively. This collaborative atmosphere becomes a breeding ground for innovation, where diverse perspectives come together to solve complex problems. When employees feel safe to voice their opinions and contribute their insights, they become active contributors to the organisation’s growth and success.

3. Long-Term Organizational Success

While traditional leadership may focus on short-term gains, Servant Leadership takes the long view. By investing in the growth and development of team members, servant leaders build a sustainable foundation for organisational success. Skilled and motivated employees excel in their current roles and form a pipeline of capable future leaders. This approach fosters a culture of continuous improvement and ensures the organization’s prosperity over time.

Cons Of Servant Leadership

While the benefits of Servant Leadership are undeniable, it’s important to acknowledge that adopting this approach comes with certain challenges that leaders must navigate effectively.Cons Of Servant Leadership 1

1. Patience

Servant Leadership thrives on building strong relationships and nurturing personal growth, which requires an investment of time and patience. While traditional leadership might opt for quick decisions to achieve immediate outcomes, servant leaders take the time to understand individual needs, others’ perspectives, and collective aspirations. This focus on building meaningful connections and personal development can slow down decision-making processes, potentially impacting short-term efficiency.

2. Decision-making

Collaborative decision-making is at the heart of Servant Leadership. While this approach leads to well-informed choices reflecting the team’s values and goals, it can also be time-consuming, particularly in larger groups or situations requiring urgency. Involving various viewpoints and achieving consensus might lead to discussions that take longer to reach a conclusion, which could be challenging in fast-paced environments.

3. Power Dynamics

Implementing Servant Leadership in organisations with established hierarchies may pose challenges. Traditional power dynamics, where formal authority is concentrated at the top, can clash with the ethos of empowerment and collaboration. Servant leaders strive to distribute influence and decision-making throughout the team, which may require a significant shift in the organisational structure and how a servant leader’s role is perceived.

Keeping the advantages and disadvantages of servant leadership in mind, continue reading to understand how you can transform into a servant leader!

5 Ways To Become A Servant Leader

Now that we’ve looked at the good and not-so-good sides let’s explore how you can become a great servant leader in real life.

Ways To Become A Servant Leader 1

1. Use Your Influence For Good: As a leader, your influence carries weight. A servant leader uses this influence to empower others and contribute positively to the team’s growth and development. Rather than exerting control, you guide with integrity and fairness and create a positive work environment. By setting an example of ethical behavior and values-driven decision-making, you encourage your team to do the same, fostering a culture of trust and respect that takes your business forward.

2. Start Putting Others First: Servant leadership’s essence lies in prioritizing your team’s growth, well-being, and success. By providing mentorship, support, and opportunities for development, you exhibit an inclusive leadership style and create an environment where each team member flourishes. This selfless approach boosts individual performance and cultivates a culture of collaboration and shared achievement.

Bonus Tip: Active listening involves asking questions and being curious about the other person. Use the 5Ws and 1H questions or the Socratic Questioning technique to do the same. Make sure to be empathetic and genuine in your approach.

3. Keep The Organization’s Goals In Mind: The organization’s mission and goals guide a servant leader’s actions. By aligning your decisions with the organizational objectives, you ensure that your leadership contributes to the organization’s success. Additionally, as a servant leader you communicate the organization’s objectives to foster clarity and motivate your team members to work collectively towards a common purpose.

Pro Tip: When brainstorming ideas, use the mindmap technique to keep the main goal in the centre and ideate around the same. This would ensure you create a credible and genuine model aiming at organizational success and team growth.

4. Learn How To Develop Others Holistically: Servant leaders invest in their team members’ holistic development. This involves providing opportunities for skill enhancement, encouraging personal growth, and supporting their aspirations. By nurturing their talents professionally and personally, you create well-rounded future leaders who contribute meaningfully to the team and organization.

Servant leadership continues to be relevant today. Servant leadership examples stem from various walks of life – be it feminist scholars like Kae Reynolds and Jiying Song, transformational leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, or business tycoons like Warren Buffet and Herb Kelleher. There are a lot of studies, articles, TED Talks, podcasts, and courses that can prepare you to be an effective servant leader. Additionally, The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership provides dedicated training, consulting, and research services to individuals and organizations seeking to adopt servant leadership practices. 

“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace—a soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

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