Servant leadership is a philosophy and leadership framework that prioritises growth, well-being and the empowerment of employees and co-workers, essentially flipping the traditional pyramid hierarchy on its head.
Servant leadership seeks to coach and encourage both employees and management to grow their knowledge, skills and overall development of self, leading to more innovation, authority, trust and inclusiveness in the workplace.
There are many types of leadership, ranging from traditional to transformational which we’ll touch on later. For starters though, let’s look at servant leadership, its unique attributes and the philosophy behind it.
Where does ‘servant leadership’ come from?
Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase ‘servant leadership’ in his essay first published in 1970. Here’s an excerpt from Greenleaf’s essay:
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
What Greenleaf alludes to here is the notion that servant leadership is not concerned with traditional motivations such as power or material wealth but rather with the betterment of themselves and those around them.
Greenleaf’s ideology was birthed from the book Journey To The East, which centred around the main character Leo, a servant who suddenly departed from his team causing the productivity and effectiveness of the team to dwindle. This emptiness felt by his team leads to the realisation that Leo was in fact a leader, not a servant as he was portrayed.
What Are the Attributes of Servant Leadership?
As Greenleaf’s leadership philosophy developed over the years, several management experts weighed in and contributed to servant leadership’s integrity, helping to build a more robust framework that could be more easily conveyed and transplanted into organisations.
Namely, Larry Spears, CEO and president of the Larry C.Spears Centre for Servant Leadership Inc. and former president and CEO of the Robert K.Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership.
Spears described these 10 attributes as the foundation of servant leadership:
“Servant leaders seek out the will of the group and help to clarify that will.”
What sounds simple enough in theory becomes much more skilful when you try to intensely focus on what you’re hearing.
More than just allowing a person to vent, active listening is the practice of absorbing what is being said, acknowledging it, paraphrasing it to show understanding and engagement whilst reserving judgement and advice.
90% of communication is non-verbal so listening applies to not only the words being spoken but the ones that aren’t and a person’s body language.
“One assumes the good intentions of co-workers and colleagues and does not reject them as people, even when one may be forced to refuse to accept certain behaviours or performance.”
To elicit empathy, leaders must be willing to delve into the thoughts and feelings of their peers rather than shy away. Empathy helps leaders understand the unique conflicts and circumstances that are the drivers of undesirable (and desirable) behaviours. This deep understanding allows servant leaders to adapt and better serve their teams, organisation and the public.
“The healing of relationships is a powerful force for transformation and integration. One of the greatest strengths of servant leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and one’s relationship to others.”
Servant leadership places focus on the well-being of others and that’s what this attribute typifies. Helping co-workers to alleviate their pains and pressures and be made “whole”. Healing is a reciprocal practice whereby a leader’s strife is somewhat lightened through the acceptance of another’s.
Promoting a healthy work-life balance is a leading factor in helping to create a peaceful and emotionally stable work environment.
“Awareness helps one in understanding issues involving ethics, power and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position.”
Self-awareness is the practice of looking internally to identify our strengths, weaknesses and shortcomings so that we can learn to develop them and better serve ourselves and those around us.
By probing into ourselves, we may not come up with all of the answers but having this curious mindset opens us up to see how we are contributing and what opportunities are being missed within the role of our teams and organisation as a whole.
“The servant leader seeks to convince others, rather coerce compliance. This particular element offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant leadership."
Servant leaders gain the consensus of their teams through persuasive techniques rather than position and authority. Getting teams to collectively agree on objectives or workplace matters makes for a more cohesive and productive group.
“The ability to look at a problem or an organisation from a conceptualising perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities.”
Perhaps the most difficult element of this big-picture thinking is the discipline required in walking the tightrope between ambitious visions for an organisation's future and grounding them in the daily realities of the workplace.
Communicating conceptualised solutions to problems or arising issues with a team calls for the pairing of active listening and persuasion techniques.
“Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant leader to understand the lessons of the past, the realities of the present and the likely consequence of a decision for the future.”
To see what will likely work in the future, servant leaders will look to their past projects and performances. Through analysis, they can filter best practices and trends that will indicate which strategies will bear the best results. Spreading this practice among teams leads to better decision-making and innovation.
“Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others. It also emphasises the use of openness and persuasion, rather than control.”
Stewardship refers to accountability. That leaders accept responsibility for the actions and performance of their teams under their guidance and direction. This entrusted responsibility and oversight stretches from the team to the organisation, to its impact on society as a whole.
Commitment to Growth
“The servant leader recognises the tremendous responsibility to do everything in his or her power to nurture the personal and professional growth of employees and colleagues.”
Great leaders want to see their peers and co-workers succeed and create harmony in the workplace. To do this in the context of an organisation, it’s important for leaders to catalyse the professional development of their teams by allocating funding for training and alleviating personal barriers by making resources available and accessible.
“The servant leader senses that much has been lost in human history as a result of the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives.”
This awareness causes the servant leader to seek out solutions for building community in the workplace. Much of this can be achieved through employing the principles laid out here, namely in how leaders show empathy, listen and encourage acceptance and tolerance between their team members, fostering a community of trust and synergy.
How Does Servant Leadership Compare to Other Styles?
Servant leadership is not the only effective style, there are a handful of popular frameworks each with its own focus which we’ll compare now:
This is the top-down model most companies have used for decades. The people higher up pass down orders to the people below them. Nowadays this model is viewed as authoritarian and more organisations are changing their approach to leadership.
Democratic leadership seeks to involve multiple people in decision-making processes for a fair and inclusive workplace. The obvious challenges for this style taking on so many opinions and potentially slowing down decisions because of how many people are involved.
From the French for “let it be” this leadership style puts the decision-making power in the hands of the employees. The idea is to give autonomy to teams with minimal interference to enhance creativity and encourage leadership values.
Transformational leadership focuses on getting employees to want to change behaviours, improve and be led to help productivity and efficiency throughout an organisation. There are four factors in transformational leadership, referred to as the “four I’s”: Idealised influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individual consideration.
Transnational leadership is focused on metrics such as performance and productivity. These leaders bring teams together to collaborate on common goals and the performance is either rewarded for success or punished for failure.
Which Style Depends on the Organisation and Objectives
Servant leadership has grown more popular in recent years in an effort to redefine the typical hierarchies of old and meet the demands of modern-day emotional and mental stresses.
The communal aspect of servant leadership fosters trust, loyalty, collaboration and empowers employees to make decisions. These traits carry over to the treatment of the customers too, not just the internal teams.
But that’s not to say that any leadership style is right or wrong, it wholly depends on the infrastructure of the organisation and its goals.
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