Have you ever had a manager that genuinely cared about you and your team’s well-being? A leader that focused on empowering their people to do their best? This is servant leadership and can prove powerful for employee growth, development, and overall workplace satisfaction. These practices can result in transformational leadership that has the power to cultivate a positive, healthy, and highly-motivated workforce.
Servant leadership theory prioritizes the needs of employees over self and fosters an environment where others can grow and develop their skills. Our servant leadership definition is a style of leading where the leader’s goal is to serve their people rather than making organizational or personal success their main priority.
What is servant management? Have you ever had a manager that genuinely cared about their team? Who, rather than taking a top-down approach to managing, evened the playing field by actively offering to help others, prioritized communication and relationship building, and likely had some excellent listening skills when you voiced any concerns? These are all qualities of a servant management style, where the empowerment of other team members is considered an essential part of their role.
These leaders maintain an incredible amount of self-awareness: they understand their people deeply and how any of their decisions might impact them. Through self-awareness, they can begin implementing strategies and goals aligned with organizational objectives and the needs of their team. This leadership model is, first and foremost, centered around the well-being and growth of others. Typically, the principles of servant leadership result in a workplace where everyone feels valued, understood, and comfortable to share ideas, thoughts, or concerns.
There are many benefits of servant leadership, as effective as it is. However, as with any other leadership approach, there are servant advantages and disadvantages to consider.
Being a leader isn’t only about being in charge, but being able to shape and build your followers into successes of their own. As a servant leader, the leadership development and growth of others is your primary goal. With an emphasis on employee development, team member training and growth are accelerated, making teams more robust, capable, and skilled.
A servant leader is very aware of the needs of their team, values their opinions and ideas, and is continuously offering support and guidance. Strong communication skills and practices are essential to be this type of leader. By fostering a work environment that is inclusive, supportive, and empowering, employees are more likely to be willing to share, discuss, and engage. With powerful communication comes productive conflict, meaningful connections, innovation, and growth.
When employees feel acknowledged, understood, and valued by their leader, they will feel more committed to their roles and the organization. By constantly engaging with their leader and colleagues in a supportive and healthy workplace, employees will feel connected to the cause and motivated to perform. Servant leadership inspires higher morale amongst teams because people are more enthusiastic and happy when they know their leader cares about them and values their contribution.
Due to this leadership style's collaborative and serving nature, a manager’s authority can sometimes become ambiguous. Rather than taking charge and full responsibility for decision-making, these leaders invite others in and only make decisions in the team's best interest. In some cases, this may blur the line between authority and subordinates.
Servant leadership only works when leaders are sincere and authentic in their approach. You can’t fake servant leadership. Leading this way also can slow the decision-making process due to how collaborative it is. In some cases, teams may require a top-down approach where leaders are in total control to execute tasks, stay organized, and hold everyone accountable. Naturally, servant leadership would significantly disadvantage these sorts of teams.
If a company has not been utilizing this style of leadership, it can be challenging to train managers and employees as it likely insinuates a more significant shift in company culture too. Most companies adopt a “leader” or “organization” first approach as with traditional leadership models. In a servant-first approach, it can be difficult to learn to shift focus to forging authentic connections with teammates and prioritizing the well-being and growth of people on the team.
Servant leadership is likely to be effective when leaders display a sincere interest in their people's growth, development, and happiness. When executed correctly, a servant approach builds up employees to be high-performing, purposeful, and committed contributors to the organization. Servant leadership is effective in situations such as when looking to leverage employees’ strengths or in teams where leaders trust their people to take initiative and responsibility for projects or tasks.
Servant leadership qualities include excellent communication and listening skills, a desire to help others, and an unselfish mindset. These leaders display empathy towards others and prioritize the growth of people and the needs of others over their own success, knowing that employee development will ultimately lead to overall achievements. This type of leadership requires leaders who can build and inspire trust, support others, and possess the ability to motivate their followers. The qualities of servant leaders establish them as persuasive and effective leaders that tend to be big-picture-focused.
Although seen as early as 5th century B.C. in the teachings of Chinese philosopher Laozi (who claimed that the ultimate ruler is someone who deflects attention), the servant leadership philosophy was coined in the 1970s by Robert K. Greenleaf. Claiming the conceptualization of this philosophy occurred to him while reading Journey to the East, Greenleaf defines servant leaders as being unmotivated by power or personal success, but rather by making sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. Servant leader examples can be seen throughout history in organizations ranging from religious institutions to larger corporations.
The history of servant leadership can be traced much further than Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay “The Power of Servant Leadership,” coining the term. In fact, the core philosophy of this leadership type can be seen in how Jesus Christ led his people, equating serving others to the essence of being. Other historical servant leadership style examples include Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr., who always put the needs of others before their own and aligned their agendas with what was best for the people.
Implementing servant business leadership models can greatly benefit companies when done properly. Servant leaders in business include industry giants like FedEx— which follows a ‘“People – Service – Profit’” philosophy, as CEO Fred Smith believes, “when people are placed first they will provide the highest possible service, and profits will follow. “
The concept of servant leadership is rooted in the philosophy of serving-first, self-last. This leadership approach emphasizes the well-being and growth of others, understanding the positive impact that individual development and success can have on the organization as a whole.
To be effective, servant leaders must sincerely care about developing and supporting their staff. They must prioritize meaningful connections and opportunities for productive dialogue while fostering a collaborative and empowering work environment. By uplifting their team and valuing their contributions as essential stakeholders on the team, a servant-first mindset can positively impact and shape an organization's future by building strong, skilled, high-performing employees.
If executed properly, this leadership style can be invaluable. However, this style is not for every team, and it is crucial to understand your team and what type of leadership is best suited for your situation. Understanding the various personalities, strengths/weaknesses, and working styles of a team is the first step to implementing a suitable leadership approach. It can also be helpful to understand your own personality so you can best lead others.
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