“The goal of many leaders is to get people to think more highly of the leader. The goal of a great leader is to help people to think more highly of themselves.” — J. Carla Northcutt
When most people think of leadership, they think in terms of “commanding,” “being in charge,” or “giving orders.” But there’s another way to lead that has gained traction in recent years: Servant Leadership.
Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term servant-leadership in a 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” The servant-leader concept has had lasting influence over the past three decades on many modern leadership ideas and practices.
There are many reasons businesses would consider adopting this type of leadership, but under what conditions? And when does it make sense for a company to implement it? Let’s take a look.
What is the Servant Leadership style?
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”— Lao Tzu.
The servant leadership style is based on the idea that leaders prioritize serving the greater good ahead of other objectives. Servant leaders aim to help employees and the organization first and place their personal goals second.
According to a 2002 study conducted by Sen Sendjaya and James C Sarros, servant leadership is being practiced by some of the top-ranking global companies. Further research confirms that servant leaders lead others to go beyond the call of duty.
Servant leaders have faith that those serving under them are qualified and able to produce high-quality work efficiently. As a result, the primary outcomes of servant leadership are higher employee satisfaction and inter-organizational collaboration.
Traits of a Servant Leader
“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.”― Robert K. Greenleaf.
Servant leaders feel responsible for helping their people to grow and develop their abilities and careers. For them, it’s not about self-gratification; it is about the people working for them and the clients they serve. Hence, servant leaders often inspire individuals who feel obligated to do noble things and lead people toward noble achievements.
Five prominent traits of servant leaders:
- Value humility
- Good Listeners
The premise of servant leadership is to lead by putting the needs of the team first, and in doing so, they will take care of the organization and its objectives.
- Work toward empowering subordinates through workplace autonomy
- Encourage the development and growth of peers and coworkers
- Receptive to the needs of their followers
- Holding themselves and others accountable for their words and actions.
- Support their team with actions and resources
When is servant leadership effective?
The servant leadership style is appropriate for many types of businesses because it creates a work environment where employees at all levels feel respected, supported, and valued. Thus, servant leadership in organizations composed of highly skilled employees, service-oriented businesses, high-stress environments, or companies that have undertaken significant restructuring and reorganization.
- A study conducted by the Journals of Problems and Perspectives in Management found that servant leadership positively influences job satisfaction by 85%.
The key is servant leaders drawing on employees’ strengths, allowing them to do what they do best without direct interference. The leader takes equal responsibility for successes and failures and is willing to step aside when their performance lags if necessary.
Who are examples of servant leaders?
Servant leadership focuses on the betterment and support of employees, peers, coworkers, and managers by seeking to meet the interests, needs, and ambitions of the team first and the leader second. This can be exhibited in many ways, as demonstrated by Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Howard Schultz.
Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example of the effectiveness of servant leadership in pursuing radical change. In the case of King, he offered an inclusive vision, listened carefully to his supporters and detractors, and persuaded millions of people to heal divisions while building a national community through reason.
As one of his supporters recalls, in a room where others compete for attention, servant leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. listen to people many considered unimportant at the time. Moreover, when faced with a problem, they look to people like King for solutions that benefit everyone. And, when something goes wrong, servant leaders take the blame. (Huffington Post)
Mother Theresa was a selfless servant leader who dedicated her life to helping the sick, poor and disenfranchised. She inspired thousands through her servant-leader actions; many would follow her lead and contribute to charity work. However, Mother Teresa insisted that her followers live under the same poverty-stricken conditions as the people they served to understand them better.
Mother Teresa’s life is an example of servant leadership. She demonstrated the role of a servant leader through her actions and example. Her version of servant leadership can be characterized by empathy, self-awareness, persuasion, and commitment to the growth of people and building a community.
Gandhi was a servant leader who hoped to persuade people by changing their hearts and minds and by advocating non-violence. He supported the concerns of his followers and pressured the British to protect the civil rights of Indians.
Gandhi committed his life to the cause of Indian freedom and independence from Britain through the principles of non-violence and holding onto truth. These servant leadership ideals applied in practice and eventually forced the British to declare independence from India.
Howard Schultz’s application of servant Leadership at Starbucks has been admired and analyzed by scholars and business enthusiasts. As a successful corporation’s chief executive officer (CEO), he applied servant Leadership efficiently to empower peers, stakeholders, employees, and customers. The practice resulted in a positive culture that continues to thrive and drive Starbuck’s success internationally.
The Howard Schultz example demonstrates that companies that adopt servant leadership principles can attain numerous benefits. For instance, servant-Leadership can facilitate a business culture conducive to the following:
- Attracting employees from diverse backgrounds.
- Focusing on the changing needs of their customers
- Encourages competitiveness and profitability versus competitors
In short, the servant leadership model results in increased customer satisfaction and profitability.
What is the opposite of Servant Leadership?
To better understand servant leadership, reviewing the opposite form of leadership is helpful. Autocratic leadership is the polar opposite of servant leadership. It is a leadership or management style wherein one person makes all the decisions and accepts little input from peers or team members.
There are four key traits of autocratic leaders:
- Accept limited to no input.
- Makes the majority of decisions
- Impose a rigid organizational structure, rules, and processes
- Direct the team’s methods and procedures.
Successful companies that embrace Servant Leadership
Coca-Cola thrives on servant leadership because it positively impacts the company, its customers, and the communities the company serves. The company follows three principles from servant leadership: help your team grow, act ethically and create value for the community the company serves.
Starbucks service to its employees has become the industry standard. Apart from offering many non-standard benefits, Starbucks recently indicated that it would begin to help employees pay for college tuition. CEO Howard Schultz believes a great company can only be built by linking shareholder value to value for employees.
The company maintains a loyal client base due to its customer-centric business culture. In addition, the company bases its leadership model on the “inverted pyramid” organizational model that puts sales and floor staff at the highest level and senior managers at the bottom. Thus, the role of management is to ensure the team has everything it needs to succeed.
“Servant leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, they don’t work for you; you work for them.” – Ken Blanchard
Servant leadership is a style that can be beneficial to both the employees and the organization as a whole. When leaders prioritize serving those under them, it allows employees to feel appreciated and heard while also drawing on their strengths. This collaborative environment encourages inter-organizational teamwork, leading to greater success for all involved. If you’re looking for ways to increase employee satisfaction and collaboration within your organization, consider implementing servant leadership principles today.
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