The servant leadership style is based on the philosophy that the leader should serve the greater good. It is a form of leadership advocated by religions and promoted by religious leaders like Jesus, the Pope, and the Dalai Lama.
For a servant leader, the team and the organization they work for are top priority. The focus is always on others and helping them excel as much as possible.
This means putting aside personal objectives and making sacrifices when necessary. By being completely devoted to their team, the company will become more successful and everyone will benefit.
This philosophy means helping members of the team develop their skills by providing additional training and resources when needed. Servant leaders will allow others to attend valued training instead of themselves, or even work through a vacation if an important deadline is approaching.
Definition of Servant Leadership
Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. Although he did not invent the concept himself, he often gets credit for popularizing it in the modern era.
Applying the concept in business settings has been slow to catch on, but can be found more frequently as the needs and priorities of workers change.
There have been many examples in history of great leaders that one could consider to be servant leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, and Abraham Lincoln.
Going back much further in history, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians can find references to serving the greater good in their sacred texts.
Servant Leadership Characteristics
1. Servant Leaders Listen First and Speak Last
The servant leader has many characteristics that overlap with other leadership styles, such as participative leadership. When a servant leader conducts a meeting, they practice the principle of “listen first, speak last”. They want to hear the opinions of their team.
Like democratic leaders, servant leaders value those opinions and they know from experience that a great idea can come from anyone at any time.
Contrast that with the leader that controls the meeting from start to finish. They speak 95% of the time. When opinions are elicited, the leader might actually fear someone other than themself having a good idea. They feel threatened in that situation.
The servant leader however, welcomes those moments. When the team flourishes, the company benefits. Putting aside one’s ego and sense of pride is step one to becoming a servant leader.
2. Servant Leaders have a Plan for their Team
Having a clearly defined plan is extremely helpful in keeping you on track and focused. It involves setting milestones that are achievable and realistic.
A good 5-year plan will also include identifying specific types of training you will need to strengthen your skills and build your resume.
But for the servant leader, that career plan is for the people on their team. The servant leader will set-up a yearly meeting which each person to discuss their career path and check their progress.
This is what it means to put your team first. Everyone is busy, so setting aside an hour for each person on the team to focus on their aspirations is just one example of the servant leader style.
As Jack Welch once said: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”
3. Servant Leaders Put Employees First
Servant leaders can be individuals or they can encompass an entire organization. Starbucks is one company that is often highlighted as an example of a company that represents the servant philosophy.
The executives at Starbucks have instilled a culture of openness and putting employees first. They truly believe that by creating a warm and friendly working environment, the people that serve the customers will be warm and friendly.
Perhaps one of the most impressive examples of the company’s servant philosophy are the actual programs the company has implemented, such as healthcare to all of its employees. And in 2014, the company announced free college education as well.
4. Servant Leaders Struggle To Take Time Off
One downside of being a servant leader is that you’ll often find it hard to take some time off. You’ll always feel like you need to serve your team!
There are many people that are completely obsessed with their work. They are so committed to the organization that they are almost afraid to take a day off. If they take a day off, then some tasks will not be completed quickly enough and colleagues might have to wait for a report or some very important data.
They may think to themselves: What will happen if I go a week without replying to all my emails?
The truth is, nothing terrible will happen. If one person in the company takes a week off, the company will survive. Most likely the company has existed for a long time without that one individual, and will continue to exist long after they are gone.
However, this is the mindset of a servant leader. The organization comes first, always.
5. Servant Leaders Help Those That Don’t Thrive
The servant leader is not only committed to helping the productive members of the team, but also those that are underperforming. As Gary Ridge, CEO of WD40 stated: “we are not here to mark your paper, we are here to help you get an A.”
This philosophy can manifest itself in a variety of ways. For example, expending company resources to help an underperforming employee strengthen their skills. Or, it might involve the leader taking time to provide a one-on-one class on how to use the new software the company has installed.
The goal is for each member of the team to thrive. If that means a little extra help here and there, then that is what will be done. This has the added benefit of creating a culture of trust and openness. Employees feel valued and respected, which in turn makes them more motivated and loyal to the company.
6. Servant Leaders Take One for the Team
We have all heard this saying before. It means enduring some grueling punishment so that the team will benefit. Usually, this is the kind of thing that happens in sports or among friends.
But what if the situation is at work and “taking one for the team” means looking bad in front of top management? Will you do that?
Maybe your team has worked incredibly hard on a report, but something went terribly wrong in the end. Perhaps the wrong data were input into the spreadsheet or someone accidentally deleted several pages.
But if there’s no time to turn in the document, then somebody has to take the hit. For a servant leader, the solution is easy: tell the executives that you are responsible. Since you are already established in your career, the damage will be minimal. But for the person that actually made the mistake, the consequences could be quite severe.
7. Servant Leaders Eliminate the Fear of Failure
Working in an environment where you get the sense that the boss is always looking for your mistakes is very unpleasant. This is referred to as a fear of failure. It puts everyone on edge and lowers morale and job satisfaction.
Fear of failure also creates a climate where people tend to shy away from risk-taking or creativity. Those are key attributes that companies need today more than ever.
The servant leader recognizes the many drawbacks of focusing on mistakes. Instead, they strive to create an atmosphere where errors are not deemed the end of the world. Mistakes are actually learning opportunities and a chance to make something better.
When employees work in this kind of environment they thrive. They make suggestions, become enthusiastic about their job, and develop loyalty to the company. These are the characteristics of a healthy organizational culture in the 21st century.
8. Servant Leaders Create a “Tribe” Culture
A tribe is a group of people that share values and goals. The people in the tribe work together for the benefit and survival of the collective group. They are part of the same culture and help each other in times of need.
Creating a tribe culture of work is just one facet of the servant philosophy. By instilling a feeling of community and shared objectives, team members will develop a sense of belonging and form relationships with others that involve close emotional connections.
This helps people see their colleagues as part of the same team, instead of an enemy competing for company resources.
9. Servant Leaders Put Others First
Think about this scenario for a second: a person on your team needs to take a day off for a medical appointment in a town several hours away. Unfortunately, their car is in the shop and they have been taking the bus to work all week.
If you are the manager, what would you do?
For the servant leader, the decision is easy: cancel all appointments for the day and drive your team member to the hospital yourself.
How many times have you seen a manager take a day off to help someone on their team? It doesn’t happen often. But in some cases, this is exactly what a servant leader will do. They put aside their own needs and put the needs of someone on their team first.
10. Servant Leaders Do the Best for Others – Even when it’s not Best for the Leader
So, does servant leadership stop when an employee decides to leave? This is an interesting question. On the one hand, the employee has made a decision, for whatever reason, and they will be looking for employment elsewhere, perhaps even with a competitor.
On the other hand, a true servant philosophy even extends to those that don’t fit the culture. So, the leader may do many things to try to help that individual.
They may make a few phone calls to contacts they have in the industry. They might write them a very good letter of recommendation.
Or, maybe they will have a meeting with them to offer some professional advice on how they could have had a better experience at the company.
Helping those on your team is one thing, but helping those that are leaving the team is a real sign of caring.
Real-Life Examples of Servant Leadership
- Jesus Christ – Whether you believe he was the son of God or not, his message was one of service. In fact, it’s said he would wash the feet of his followers to demonstrate that he was their servant, not the other way around.
- Mother Theresa – Following in Jesus’s mission, Mother Theresa set up orphanages in India and worked in service of the poor throughout her life.
- Abraham Lincoln – Lincoln preserved the union of the United States while waging a just war in order to end slavery,
- Martin Luther King Jr. – During the civil rights era, Martin Luther King Jr. put his life on the line to liberate his people.
- Volodymyr Zelensky – During Russia’s unjust invasion of the democracy of Ukraine, Zelensky stood firm and stared down Putin, showing his people that he wouldn’t ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.
- Mahatma Gandhi – Gandhi agitated for the freedom of people from colonized lands, including India and South Africa.
- Nelson Mandela – Like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela served his people against colonizers. He served much of his life in prison in order to take a stand for his own movement for democracy.
- Winston Churchill – Churchill led the allies in WWII and is credited as being the inspirational leader who put everything he had into defeating Germany.
- Dalai Lama – Like Jesus, the Dalai Lama positions himself as a humble profit who embraces a humble life and leads by example.
- Moses the Bible – Moses led, but also served, his people as they fled from slavery. He put his trust in God and committed himself to leading his people.
- Noah from the Bible – Noah is told by God to build an arc and gather animals for the preservation of the world. His life was in service to mankind and his God.
- John F. Kennedy – President Kennedy said the famous words of a servant leader: “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”
- Pope John Paul II – One of the most beloved popes of all time, John Paul II embodied servant leadership by dedicating himself to the modernization of the Church so it could continue to serve the congregation into the 20th and 21st Centuries.
- Che Guevara – While he may have been integral to the rise of the destructive ideology of communism in Cuba, his writings reveal a genuine commitment to equality and humankind.
- Susan B. Anthony – Susan B. Anthony dedicated her life to universal suffrage, women’s rights, and fair pay for fair work.
The servant leader is a truly unique individual. In contrast to our usual stereotypes of leaders as being tough and strict, the servant leader is patient and empathic. They genuinely strive to create environments where their team can flourish and prosper. The most important consideration they bring to work every day, is how to make other people better.
This can involve making personal sacrifices for the betterment of the team, taking valuable time to help others map-out their career paths, or arrange for underperforming employees to receive extra training.
The days are gone when companies just view their employees as cogs in a machine. People today expect to be valued and want to work in a place that will allow them to excel, not just survive.
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