The Power of Servant Leadership

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Written By Kevin

The insights I gained over the years help me lead and motivate teams to achieve business and operational goals. Allow me to share my learnings with you.

In the realm of leadership, there are numerous styles and approaches that leaders can adopt to guide their teams towards success. One such style that has garnered significant attention in recent years is servant leadership. 

This leadership approach, characterized by a focus on serving others, has proven to be a powerful tool in fostering a positive and productive work environment. 

In this article, we will delve into the concept of servant leadership, its benefits, and how you can implement it in your own business leadership practice.

TL:DR

Servant leadership prioritizes the needs of the team over the leader’s own interests. This style of leadership has significant benefits in the business context, including employee empowerment, trust-building, improved morale, development of future leaders, and fostering innovation. Servant leadership also presents challenges, such as potential for exploitation and resistance to change. Despite these challenges, the benefits of servant leadership often outweigh the potential difficulties, making it a powerful approach for modern businesses.

What is Servant Leadership?

The term ‘servant leadership’ was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 in his book ‘The Servant as Leader‘. 

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, and they don’t prioritize their own objectives. 

Servant leaders work at two levels. 

On one hand, they provide direction from the top-down, such as defining the strategic vision for the company and communicating that down to the team. 

On the other hand, they empower people from the bottom-up by building team confidence, sharing decision-making processes, and fostering a collaborative environment that allows everyone to feel safe to take risks and be creative.

Servant leadership seeks to achieve their vision by providing strong support to employees, allowing them to learn and grow while bringing their own expertise and vision to the table.

Servant leaders therefore focus on setting the strategic vision for the company and communicating that down to the team level. They encourage their team to take ownership, but at the same time they extend their own support to the team, ensuring that the team has the required resources, budget, skills, and attention to make an impact. 

What is important to clarify here is that they provide a framework within which their team can flourish, rather than prescribing specific directions for each of their duties.

The Principles and Characteristics of Servant Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf established ten principles of servant leadership, which include listening, empathy, healing, self-awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. Let’s dive a bit deeper in each of these principles to understand how they apply to servant leadership within business.

Listening

In a business setting, servant leaders prioritize active listening to understand their team members’ ideas, concerns, and feedback. 

This helps to foster an environment where everyone feels their input is valued, leading to increased creativity and innovation.

Empathy

Empathy (aka emotional intelligence) is a very important characteristics in today’s business leaders. Servant leaders in business strive to understand and share the feelings of their team members. 

This helps to create a supportive work environment where employees feel understood and appreciated, which can lead to increased job satisfaction and productivity.

Healing

Servant leaders in business have the ability to help their team members overcome professional obstacles. They can facilitate conflict resolution and help employees navigate challenges, which can lead to a more harmonious and productive work environment.

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness refers to a leader’s understanding of their own abilities, behaviors, and emotions. It’s about knowing what they’re good at, where they might struggle, and how they react in different situations. 

This understanding is crucial for effective leadership because it influences how leaders perceive themselves and how others perceive them.

In the context of servant leadership, self-awareness takes on an even more significant role, because servant leaders are not just leading to achieve their own goals, or to exert their power and influence. Instead, they’re leading to serve their team and their organization. 

To do this effectively, they need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

When servant leaders are aware of their strengths, they can use them to better serve their team. For example, if a leader knows they’re particularly good at strategic thinking, they can use this strength to guide their team towards the organization’s goals. 

On the other hand, being aware of their weaknesses allows servant leaders to seek development in these areas. For instance, if a leader knows they struggle with time management, they can seek training or tools to improve in this area. 

This not only helps them become a more effective leader, but it also sets a positive example for their team about the importance of continuous learning and development.

By being open about their weaknesses, servant leaders can create an environment where it’s okay to be imperfect and make mistakes. This can foster a culture of trust and authenticity, where team members feel safe to take risks and share their own challenges.

There is another aspect of self-awareness that is linked with emotional intelligence, which is another key characteristic of servant leaders. 

By understanding their own emotions, servant leaders can better manage their reactions to different situations. They can also develop empathy, allowing them to understand and share the feelings of their team members. 

This emotional understanding can lead to stronger, more genuine relationships within the team, which is a key aspect of servant leadership.

Persuasion

Rather than relying on their authority to achieve business objectives, servant leaders use persuasion. They build consensus within their teams and encourage individuals to take action because they believe in the business vision, not because they are ordered to do so.

Conceptualization

A business leader who embraces the servant mentality is able to conceptualize their organization’s goals and strategies. They can see the big picture and guide their teams towards these larger objectives, while also managing the day-to-day operations.

Foresight

Foresight involves the ability to predict future business trends based on past data. Servant leaders use their foresight to make strategic decisions and guide their teams towards success.

Stewardship

Servant leaders see themselves as stewards, entrusted with the care of their team members and the organization. 

They are committed to serving the needs of others and to the ethical and responsible management of business resources.

Commitment to the Growth of People

Servant leaders are deeply committed to the personal and professional growth of each member of their team. 

In this aspect, they provide opportunities for learning and development, and they encourage individuals to reach their full potential, which can lead to increased employee retention and business success.

Building Community

Servant leaders in business strive to build a strong sense of community within their teams. They foster a culture of mutual respect and collaboration, where everyone feels a sense of belonging and purpose. 

This can lead to increased team cohesion and productivity.

These principles form the foundation of servant leadership in a business context, guiding leaders in their interactions with their teams and shaping the culture of their organizations. 

By embodying these principles, servant leaders can create a positive and productive work environment where everyone feels valued and empowered, leading to increased business success.

Benefits of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership has numerous benefits that can significantly enhance the performance and productivity of a team. In the next section we will dive deeper into each of the benefits.

Here is a table summarizing the benefits and explaining each one in short.

Employee empowerment

Servant leadership empowers employees by giving them ownership and control. This can lead to increased motivation and creativity, as employees feel more valued and appreciated in the workplace.

Employee empowerment is a key aspect of servant leadership and plays a crucial role in the success of a business. Employee empowerment refers to the practice of giving employees the authority, resources, and freedom to make decisions and take actions that impact their work. 

This can involve a range of practices, from allowing employees to set their own goals and manage their own time, to involving them in decision-making processes that affect their work or the organization as a whole.

By giving employees ownership and control over their work, servant leaders foster a sense of responsibility and commitment among their team members. Employees who feel that they have a real stake in their work are more likely to take initiative, go the extra mile, and strive for excellence in what they do. This can lead to increased productivity and quality of work.

Empowerment can also lead to increased motivation and creativity. When employees feel that their ideas and contributions are valued, they are more likely to feel motivated to perform at their best. 

They are also more likely to think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to problems, as they feel that they have the freedom to think outside the box and that their ideas will be taken seriously.

Empowerment also contributes to a positive work environment where employees feel valued and appreciated. When employees are given the authority to make decisions and take actions that impact their work, it sends a clear message that they are trusted and that their contributions are important. 

This can lead to increased job satisfaction, better employee morale, and lower turnover rates.

The role of the servant leader in employee empowerment is to provide the necessary support and resources for employees to succeed. This can involve providing training and development opportunities, ensuring that employees have the resources they need, and creating an open and supportive environment where employees feel comfortable taking risks and making decisions.

Builds Trust

By serving the needs of the team first, servant leaders build deeper, trust-based relationships. This trust can lead to increased cooperation and collaboration within the team.

Trust is a fundamental component of servant leadership and plays a crucial role in team dynamics and performance. It is the foundation of any successful relationship, and this is particularly true in the context of a team. 

When team members trust their leader, they are more likely to feel secure, take risks, and invest their best efforts in their work. Servant leaders build trust by consistently putting the needs of their team first. 

They demonstrate through their actions that they are committed to their team’s success and well-being, rather than their own personal gain.

Servant leaders show their commitment to their team by actively serving their needs. This can involve a range of actions, from providing resources and support to help team members succeed, to taking the time to listen to and address their concerns. 

By prioritizing the needs of the team, servant leaders show that they value and respect their team members, which helps to build trust.

Trust is not built overnight, however, it requires time and consistent actions. By consistently serving the needs of their team and demonstrating their commitment to their team’s success, servant leaders can deepen their relationships with their team members. 

Over time, this can lead to a strong, trust-based relationship where team members feel valued and respected.

Eventually the trust that is built with the team can significantly enhance cooperation and collaboration

When team members trust their leader, they are more likely to feel comfortable sharing their ideas, taking risks, and working closely with their colleagues. This can lead to increased creativity, innovation, and productivity within the team.

The role of the servant leader in building trust is to consistently demonstrate their commitment to their team. This involves not only serving the needs of the team but also acting with integrity, being transparent, and showing respect for all team members.

Encourages Innovation

Servant leadership encourages innovation and creativity by creating a safe environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their ideas and taking risks.

Innovation and creativity are crucial for the success of any organization, particularly in today’s fast-paced and competitive business environment. Servant leaders understand this and actively encourage their team members to think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to problems. 

They value the diverse perspectives and ideas of their team members and see them as a source of innovation and competitive advantage.

One of the ways that servant leaders encourage innovation and creativity is by creating a safe environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their ideas and taking risks. This involves fostering a culture of psychological safety, where employees feel that they can speak up, make mistakes, and take risks without fear of punishment or criticism. 

When employees feel safe, they are more likely to share their ideas and contribute to innovative solutions.

Servant leaders also encourage innovation and creativity by giving employees the autonomy and resources they need to explore new ideas and take initiative.

So, in essence, the role of the servant leader in encouraging innovation and creativity is to create a supportive and empowering environment by providing the necessary resources and autonomy, but also fostering a culture of psychological safety and respect for diverse ideas. 

In this way the servant leader can unlock the creative potential of their team members and drive innovation in their organization.

Improves Morale

Servant leadership can boost morale across teams, as leaders earn respect from team members and employees feel more valued and appreciated in the workplace.

Morale refers to the overall mood, attitude, and satisfaction of employees within a workplace. High morale is often associated with positive work environments where employees feel engaged, appreciated, and motivated to perform at their best. 

Servant leadership can significantly boost morale by creating such a positive and supportive work environment.

One of the ways that servant leaders boost morale is by earning the respect of their team members. They do this by consistently putting the needs of the team first, acting with integrity, and demonstrating a genuine concern for their team members’ well-being and success. 

When leaders act in this way, they earn the respect of their team members, which can lead to increased morale.

Servant leaders also boost morale by making their team members feel valued and appreciated. They recognize and acknowledge the contributions of each team member, provide constructive feedback, and show appreciation for their hard work. 

The boost in morale that comes from servant leadership can have a significant impact on the workplace. Teams with high morale are often more productive, creative, and collaborative. They are also more likely to have lower turnover rates, as employees are more satisfied with their jobs and feel a stronger sense of loyalty to their team and organization.

Develops Future Leaders

By focusing on the growth and development of employees, servant leadership helps to develop future leaders. This can lead to long-term success for the organization.

Servant leaders place a high priority on the personal and professional growth of their team members. They provide opportunities for learning and development, such as training programs, mentorship, and challenging assignments. 

They also encourage their team members to continuously learn and improve, fostering a culture of lifelong learning within the team.

By focusing on the growth and development of their team members, servant leaders help to cultivate the leaders of tomorrow

They help their team members to develop the skills, knowledge, and experience they need to take on leadership roles in the future. This can involve coaching and mentoring, providing constructive feedback, and giving team members opportunities to lead projects or initiatives.

The development of future leaders is crucial for the long-term success of any organization. Leaders play a key role in setting the direction of the organization, making strategic decisions, and inspiring and motivating their teams. 

By developing future leaders, servant leaders help to ensure that the organization will continue to have strong leadership in the future. This can lead to sustained success and growth for the organization.

Implementing Servant Leadership

Implementing servant leadership requires a shift in mindset and a commitment to serving others. 

Here are some steps you can take to become a servant leader:

Build Strong Communication Skills: Clear communication is crucial in servant leadership. Leaders need to be able to communicate organizational objectives and missions clearly so that employees are properly equipped to make wise decisions.

Improve Your Listening Skills: Servant leadership is all about hearing your team members’ points of view. Practice active listening skills to understand their decision-making process.

Empathy: Empathy is a key trait of a servant leader. It allows you to understand and share the feelings of your team members, which can lead to stronger relationships and a more cohesive team.

Promote a Culture of Service: Encourage a culture of service within your team. This can be done by modeling servant leadership behaviors and encouraging team members to do the same.

Foster a Collaborative Environment: Servant leadership thrives in a collaborative environment. Encourage team members to share their ideas and work together to achieve common goals.

Servant Leadership in Action

Many successful companies have adopted servant leadership, including Google, SAS, Starbucks, FedEx, and Marriott International. These companies have seen significant benefits from this leadership style, including increased employee satisfaction, improved morale, and enhanced productivity.

Let’s look at three of these real life servant leadership style companies.

Google has achieved unprecedented levels of employee satisfaction increase as high as 37%. Furthermore, Google concluded that happy employees are 12% more productive than unhappy ones.

Southwest Airlines is often cited as another example of a company that successfully employs servant leadership. The company’s former CEO, Herb Kelleher, was known for his servant leadership style. He prioritized the needs of his employees, believing that happy employees would lead to happy customers. This approach has been credited with fostering a strong company culture and high levels of customer satisfaction.

The Container Store is another company known for its servant leadership approach. Co-founder Kip Tindell has spoken about how he believes in taking care of his employees first. The company has been recognized for its employee-first culture and has regularly appeared on lists of the best companies to work for.

Obviously the success of these companies cannot be attributed to servant leadership alone, as there are many factors that contribute to a company’s success, however, the servant leadership approach adopted by these companies has been recognized as a significant positive factor.

Overcoming Challenges in Servant Leadership

While servant leadership has many benefits, it also has its challenges. 

One of the main challenges is the time it takes to make decisions. Because servant leadership encourages a collaborative decision-making process, decisions can take longer to be made, which can slow down some processes.

Let’s look at some other challenges that servant leadership style faces.

Misinterpretation of Servant Leadership 

There can be a misunderstanding that servant leadership equates to a lack of authority or a laissez-faire leadership style. 

This can lead to confusion and lack of direction within the team if not properly communicated and implemented.

Striking the right balance between serving employees and maintaining the authority necessary to make tough decisions can be challenging. There’s a risk that too much emphasis on service might undermine a leader’s authority.

Resistance to Change 

If an organization is used to a more traditional, top-down leadership style, there might be resistance to the shift towards servant leadership. 

This resistance can come from both leaders who are asked to change their leadership style and team members who are not used to having more autonomy and involvement in decision-making.

Additionally, when a company or project starts with a different leadership style, it will take time and adjustment to transition to the servant leadership style. 

Potential for Exploitation

The servant leadership style involves putting the interests of the team before the leader’s own interests, and empowering them to take on responsibilities and make decisions. While this approach can foster a positive and collaborative work environment, there is a risk that some individuals might take advantage of the leader’s service-oriented approach.

For example, some team members might see the leader’s willingness to serve as an opportunity to shirk their own responsibilities, knowing that the leader will step in to pick up the slack. Others might take advantage of the leader’s supportive nature to demand more of their time and resources than is reasonable or fair.

This exploitation can lead to an imbalance in the workplace, where the servant leader becomes overburdened with tasks and responsibilities that should be shared among the team. 

This can lead to burnout for the leader and can also undermine the effectiveness of the team, as team members become overly reliant on the leader and less capable of working independently, which in a way defeats some of the main purposes of servant leadership, ie, delegating authority and creating future leaders.

To prevent this exploitation, it’s important for servant leaders to set clear boundaries and expectations. While they should be willing to serve and support their team, they should also ensure that team members are taking responsibility for their own roles and tasks. 

Difficulty Measuring Success 

The success of servant leadership is often seen in improved team morale, increased trust, and long-term organizational success. These outcomes are all difficult to measure and may not be immediately visible, which can make it challenging to assess the effectiveness of a servant leader.

Despite these challenges, many organizations find that the benefits of servant leadership outweigh the potential difficulties. To ensure a smoother transition and give this leadership style a better chance of success it’s important for any organization considering this approach to be aware of these challenges and to provide the necessary training and support for leaders to successfully adopt a servant leadership style.

Conclusion

Servant leadership is a powerful leadership style that puts the needs of the team first. It fosters a positive work environment, encourages innovation, and leads to increased productivity and employee satisfaction. 

By implementing servant leadership in your own practice, you can empower your team, build trust, and achieve long-term success for your organization. It’s important to have the right people that are willing to take on the challenges of more responsibility and that are eager to grow professionally.

I am a big proponent of this style of leadership myself. I believe that the servant leadership mentality is more than just a leadership style. It’s a lifestyle. In fact I practice it in my work life but also in my private life with family and friends. Not only does it get results but it also makes me feel good about myself.

It requires a commitment to serving others and a willingness to put the needs of your team before your own. By embracing this approach, you can become a more effective leader and make a positive impact on your team and organization.

Servant Leadership is one for the 6 types of leadership styles you can adopt. Is this style of leadership the best approach for your situation?

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