Servant Leadership: Everything You Need To Know

CoachHub · 4 October 2022 · 6 min read

What is servant leadership?

A servant leadership style favors service to others above all else. A servant leader is someone who aims to serve the well-being of others before serving their personal needs and ambitions. Such a leader is not driven by acquiring power or material belongings, instead, they are motivated by the contribution they can have to the betterment of others.

A servant leader has strong emotional intelligence, is deeply empathetic, has excellent listening skills and is committed to service. They are secure enough in themselves to share power with others while helping others develop their own leadership qualities.

The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. Greenleaf attests to the power of servant leadership and claims it has the potential to bring more equality and love into our society. Greenleaf poses servant leadership as a “regenerative force” for good. A force that grows when leaders are willing to put their individual motivations and desires aside to serve the growth of others.

Examples of servant leadership

Examples of servant leaders are common in philanthropy and in the fight for human rights. Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln are excellent examples. The concept is slowly finding its way into the corporate world with companies adopting a more human approach to business. This has been seen in recent years with the increased focus on workplace wellbeing and sustainable business practices. Companies are also aligning their brand with the intentions of a servant leader, such as FedEx whose slogan is “People-Service-Profit”.

The following are examples of how a servant leader would think:

  • How can I uplift those who are underrepresented in my company?
  • How can I help those from a lower economic standing gain better opportunities?
  • How can I facilitate the career development of my peers?
  • What care can I give others before I seek more power and control?
servant leadership

Pros and cons of servant leadership

Pros

  • Creates a workplace culture of service
  • Enables genuine relationships to form
  • Increases growth and performance through knowledge sharing
  • Less controlling management
  • Employees feel a genuine sense of support from the organization

Cons

  • May not function in industries that require an authoritative leadership style such as the military
  • Company culture must fit this leadership style
  • Few managers have experience in this style
  • Slows down decision making processes
  • Employees may be given more responsibility than they can handle
  • Relies on leaders having strongly developed ethics

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How does servant leadership compare?

Servant leadership reflects a decentralized organizational structure where leaders collaborate with employees to make decisions. A culture of service and cooperation is at the heart of this style where we see leadership prioritize the needs of their employees before their own, which is not the norm compared to other types of leadership:

Traditional Leadership

  • A top-down approach
  • Managers give orders and employees follow
  • ‘Authoritarian’ culture
  • Reliance on competencies of managers

Transformational Leadership

  • Leaders are driven by a vision and mission statement for change
  • Focus on improving behavior and efficiency
  • Most beneficial when facing big organizational changes
  • Also driven by leaders who want to serve the growth of their employees

Democratic Leadership

  • Also a decentralized organizational structure
  • All employees are involved in the decision-making process
  • Culture of feedback and collaboration
  • Leaves room for too many opinions and may cause less efficient decision making

Laissez-Faire Leadership

  • Minimal leadership interference
  • Employees make their own decisions
  • Culture of autonomy
  • Perhaps too much freedom given to employees

Ethical Leadership

  • Leaders follow a particular code of ethics
  • All employees must follow given ethics
  • Also a culture of service and fairness
  • May become over-identified with ethics

Empathetic Leadership

  • Leaders also have strong traits of compassion and sympathy
  • Emphasis is also on building trust between leadership and employees
  • A lot of pressure to build strong trust

Effects of servant leadership

Performance

Servant leadership considers the opinions of all employees which encourages idea sharing and improves innovation. Employees are also enabled to grow faster and develop new skills, allowing them to advance professionally. Art Barter, founder and CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute promises “performance goes through the roof” under a servant leadership style. Such a supportive environment is conducive to growth and development which will naturally improve performance.

Mindset

Servant leadership encourages the belief that your presence is an instrument of service to others. This has a positive effect on the mindset of everyone who comes into contact with a servant leader. Such a perspective is contagious and can create a chain reaction of employees wanting to represent the same values. Servant leadership improves the mindset of employees and helps them become less concerned with their own needs and more motivated to help others.

Culture

Leaders impact culture more than anyone in an organization. Leaders inform employees about the nature of company culture through their actions and their values. A servant leader communicates the values of service and cooperation and contributes to creating a positive culture of knowledge sharing and concern for others.

Relationships

Through a servant leadership style, a shift in the traditional manager-employee dynamic occurs. The relationship is less defined by controlling activities and giving direct commands. A synergistic relationship between leadership and employees forms as trust and encouragement is now at the heart of the dynamic. “Trust is one of the means to achieve servant leadership, and it is also an end that is achieved by servant leadership”, says Stephen M.R. Covey, former CEO of the Covey Leadership Center. This allows more genuine relationships to form in the workplace while reducing the divide between leaders and employees.

The role of coaching

Coaching can enable leaders to develop the characteristics of servant leaders. Servant leaders must have enough internal fulfillment to put their professional advancement and acquisition of power aside. Working with a coach can help improve individuals’ sense of worth and prepare them for a role of service.

Servant leadership demands leaders to have unconventional priorities. They must be willing to prioritize the growth of others and derive their sense of success from how they can serve their employees. Working with a coach can help leaders to develop a sense of purpose that stems from serving a cause beyond their own needs and desires, a core principle of servant leadership.

Aside from the values and motivations of servant leaders, there are also certain skills one must acquire to be an effective servant. Such skills include listening, self-awareness, empathy and the ability to create a sense of community. A coach can not only work with leaders to develop the right values but also to work on the skills that will evolve their leadership style to reflect that of a servant leader.

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In conclusion

There are many obvious benefits to encouraging servant leadership in your organization. Culture, performance and engagement will undoubtedly be improved with the values of a servant leader. The success of such leadership comes when the leader is truly ready to step into the shoes of a servant. This requires highly developed ethics and an existing sense of fulfillment. Working with a coach can help individuals refine their values and harness the skills needed to embody the principles of servant leadership. It may take more work and sacrifice to practice this leadership style but there are few leadership styles that have the potential to make such a positive impact in the workplace.

Cathy Stapleton
Cathy is an Irish writer based in Berlin, Germany who is passionate about using words to inspire growth. As a certified mindfulness facilitator and performance coach, Cathy aims to create work that helps people connect with themselves and heighten their awareness. When she is not writing she is usually running in nature, meditating or contemplating an existential crisis.

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