Leadership WalkMe TeamUpdated April 6, 2023

What Servant Leadership Can Do For Your Business 

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Servant leadership has a proven track record of success. 

Servant leadership is unlike traditional leadership, which uses authority, hierarchy, and obedience. Instead, servant leadership relies on mutual support, empathy, and care. With this unselfish mindset, the best leaders achieve great results – with a positive experience for all. 

Servant leadership and change management go hand-in-hand. It encourages the leader to be authentic, genuine, and transparent in communicating with employees and helps create an environment of trust, cooperation, and collaboration.

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This article will explain how servant leadership can support your business growth. First, we’ll discuss the origins of Servant Leadership in the 1970s, its relevance today, and the main traits of a servant leader. Then, we’ll explain the key benefits of servant leadership. To make those real, we’ll also give some clear real-life examples. 

At the end of the article, we will compare servant leadership to other forms of leadership – including empathetic, ethical, transformational, and traditional leadership. This section will be especially useful if you’re considering implementing positive leadership models in the next step of your organizational development

There is a lot of depth and background to servant leadership. This article is just a start. As we go along, we’ll suggest further reading for you to follow. 

What Is Servant Leadership?

To put it simply, servant leadership is built on serving others above yourself. If that’s all you remember from this article, that’s ok. But let’s go a little bit deeper into the definition.

Robert Greenleaf and Servant Leadership Theory

The concept of servant leadership was first devised in the 1970s.

The idea was first explained by Robert Greenleaf (1904-1990), a very influential manager, consultant, and writer. He developed the concept after reading an essay in Herman Hesse’s book, Journey to the East. The main character of the book was one of several servants. When he disappeared one day, the other servants realized they had lost more than another servant. They had lost their unspoken leader.

Greenleaf believed that the Servant Leader “is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

It’s certainly an inspiring idea. Instead of seeking personal benefits, the servant leader moves a business forward by caring about others.

Principles of Servant leadership today

Principles of Servant leadership today

More than five decades have passed since Greenleaf’s book on servant leadership was published. Since then, many people have used different interpretations of the theory. Some of those interpretations are confusing and contradictory.

A recent Leadership Quarterly article analyzed the meaning of “servant leadership” in practice. The researchers found that the three fundamental aspects of servant leadership are:

  • A successful servant-leader is always thinking of other people they work with. If leaders are most interested in their promotion, they are not acting as servants.
  • You can tell that someone is a servant-leader because they always prioritize the personal goals of their team members.
  • Furthermore, they only see their own progress through other people’s success in their company and community.

Does this sound less awe-inspiring than what Greenleaf said? Maybe. But when you break it down carefully, you realize that servant leadership isn’t just an abstract ideal. We can see it in many decisions leaders make about their style.

Characteristics of Successful Servant Leaders

Like any aspect of organizational performance, there are many ways to measure servant leadership. One of the most persuasive examples is the Servant Leadership Survey, as explained in an acclaimed Journal of Business Psychology article. The writers split servant leadership into eight key dimensions:

  • Empowerment. Servant-leaders encourage their staff to make independent decisions.
  • Accountability. The team is responsible for project outcomes that they can control.
  • Standing Back. The leader gives credit to the whole team when a task is completed.
  • Humility. A manager must be aware of their weaknesses. They ask for help when they need it. 
  • Authenticity. The professional work of servant-leader should align with their personal values and mission.
  • Courage. Servant leadership theory suggests you should stick with your personal values, try new solutions, and innovate in every aspect of your management style.
  • Interpersonal Acceptance. Another word for this could be “empathy.” Servant leadership helps the personal and professional development of their staff.
  • Stewardship. Successful servant leaders set an example for their staff

These eight characteristics show what’s so special about servant leadership. But within these dimensions, servant leadership uses traits common to many management styles, such as listening, awareness, persuasion, and community building.

Why Servant Leadership is Important in 2023 

Servant leadership is not new. But it’s more relevant than ever. After all, a McKinsey article from 2022 identified Servant Leadership as one of the most important current trends in leadership. So why is it so important now? 

First, at the level of society, businesses must have a different role than they did in the 1980s or 90s. More pressure than ever exists for businesses to be responsible, ethical, and desirable workplaces. Employees and clients both expect companies to pursue social responsibility. And publically, there is much more great scrutiny of corporate behavior. Overall, people often have a distrust of authority. In this world, traditional leadership just won’t cut it. 

Secondly, the nature of work itself has changed. Digital workplaces have empowered employees – but they bring the risk of abuse. At the same time, well-being, authenticity, and fulfillment at work are important for millennials and gen-z workers. Employees and customers expect to participate in human-centered organizations that support them. 

How can leadership solve these problems? Well, research suggests that moral forms of leadership are one way. For example, a 2022 report from Gartner indicated that authenticity, empathy, and flexibility are key elements of leadership in the 2020s. 

Servant leadership is a deeply moral management framework that meets those needs. 

Benefits of Servant Leadership 

There are so many benefits of servant leadership. We can’t mention them all here. But we can say this much: servant leadership delivers great business value through an ethical, values-driven, and sympathetic system. 

For example: 

  • Supports the emotional health of employees 
  • Helps build flexibility for complex modern lives 
  • Returns value to the community
  • Builds organizational commitment from staff
  • Create trust between managers and employees at every level. 

Servant leadership defends organizations against unforeseen problems that can shake long-term sustainable growth. 

Moreover, servant leadership has been thoroughly researched and analyzed. Business leaders can use servant leadership insights without reinventing the wheel. 

Key Examples of Servant Leadership 

Today, there are many great examples of servant leadership in action. 

You are most likely to find strong servant leadership in service-oriented organizations. 

For example:

  • non-profit organizations
  • educational institutions
  • healthcare organizations
  • social service agencies
  • Business regulatory bodies. 

However, servant leadership principles can be implemented in a far greater range of businesses. 

Businesses that use servant leadership now include: 

  • Tech Companies 
  • Sports Leadership 
  • Law enforcement 
  • Pharmaceutical companies 
  • Logistics and transportation
  • The Food and Drink Industry 

But servant leadership can also be deployed in single business units and teams. Within a traditionally-led company, Agile teams can get on with their work. Alternatively, an important back-end department like HR can set the tone for the rest of the organization. 

The Challenges of Introducing a Servant Leadership Style 

The Challenges of Introducing a Servant Leadership Style

Let’s say you’ve decided that servant leadership would support your organization through its current problems. But it’s not plain sailing. Companies that want to use servant leadership should be thoroughly prepared for its challenges. 

The top five challenges are as follows: 

  1. Introducing a servant leadership style requires a fundamental shift in mindset for leaders and employees. Leaders must let go of traditional hierarchical thinking and embrace a more team-oriented approach.
  2. One goal of servant leadership is to improve the working lives of everyone in a company. However, you may still experience resistance to change from rank-and-file staff. If employees are used to a traditional top-down approach, they may struggle to adapt to the trust given to them. 
  3. Servant leadership may not be in line with the organizational expectations of managers. Without institutional support, servant leaders can struggle to justify their decisions. 
  4. A full servant leader program is time-consuming. Put simply. Building relationships, listening to employees, and developing a shared vision takes time. Is it worth it? Many people would say so! 
  5. Servant leadership should be based on clear ethical principles. But let’s face it. Not everyone is so generous. Managers can talk about sacrifice, commitment, appreciation, and development while delegating tasks to others. As a result, servant leadership comes with a risk of exploitation

Top Tips for Building Servant Leadership in your Organization 

Top Tips for Building Servant Leadership in your Organization

Servant leadership principles can help you optimize your management abilities and deliver the most value to your team. Here are some tips for putting these principles into practice:

Celebrate & Praise Others

To be a servant leader, prioritize the needs of your employees and celebrate their successes, regardless of their position in the company. Show them that their work is important and valued.

Create An Inspirational Vision

To motivate your team, give them a clear vision for the company’s future. This vision should align with your business goals and inspire your employees to go the extra mile.

Construct Ethical Guidelines

As a servant leader, you should prioritize compassion, empathy, and integrity and create ethical guidelines that reflect these values. This goes beyond a standard code of conduct and emphasizes the human side of your business.

Empower Others

Empowering your employees is crucial to the success of a servant leadership model. Encourage collaboration and provide opportunities for your team members to develop leadership skills.

Prioritize People Over Tasks

While metrics like profit and efficiency are important, as a servant leader, you should prioritize the people behind these tasks. Collect feedback from your employees and align them with the company’s strategy.

Be Flexible & Agile

Change is inevitable, and as a servant leader, you must be agile and willing to make adjustments when necessary. This includes embracing digital transformation and overcoming resistance from employees.

Lead With Humility

A good servant leader is approachable and shares power with their team. Avoid arrogance and work beyond self-interest to build a stronger connection with your employees.

Servant Leadership vs. Other Leadership Styles 

Servant Leadership vs. Other Leadership Styles

There are many different leadership styles, each with unique advantages and drawbacks. This article will explore several other leadership models and how they compare to servant leadership.

Traditional Leadership

The traditional approach to leadership is the top-down model, where managers give orders, and employees follow those orders. This style is becoming less popular as it is considered authoritarian. Leaders’ competency level determines the success of this model, and it can save time and avoid miscommunications when one person makes all the decisions.

Democratic Leadership

The democratic approach to leadership involves all employees in the decision-making process. This style is gaining popularity as it recognizes the importance of individual voices in deciding the company’s future. However, considering everyone’s opinion can lead to inefficiency and lower outcomes.

Laissez-Faire Leadership

Laissez-Faire leadership involves minimal interference, where leaders let their employees act with complete autonomy. This approach might be ideal if you don’t like bossing people around. However, employees often struggle to govern themselves and may make poor decisions.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leadership focuses on following a code of ethics while leading. Ethical leaders adhere to a code of ethics that embodies fairness, honesty, and authenticity.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership suggests leaders should have a vision and mission statement for transformation. This style focuses on changing employee behavior and improving productivity and efficiency. It relates to change management and will be most beneficial during significant change initiatives.

Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership focuses on metrics like productivity and performance, making it easier to measure progress. This style is observant, result-oriented, and prefers looking at the big picture.

Empathetic Leadership

Empathetic leadership suggests that compassion and sympathy are defining traits of an effective leader. The aim is to build trust and strengthen the bond between employees and management by listening to employee feedback. However, failing to build trust among employees can have negative consequences.

Which is the Right Leadership Style for You? 

There is no single “right” leadership style. Many like to frame the discussion as servant leadership vs. traditional leadership. The reality is that every leadership style has its use case. 

Every organization must decide which leadership style is most appropriate for each project. For example, servant leadership could suit digital transformation very well. Humility and standing back will help staff to develop solutions of their own.

Assess your company’s needs and refer to our guide to find the best leadership style for you.

Thoughts For The Future  

Servant leadership has become an increasingly important trend in modern leadership styles. Its emphasis on support, empathy, and genuine care has proven effective in achieving great results. 

The importance of servant leadership in today’s society and workplaces cannot be understated. As businesses face increasing pressure to be responsible, ethical, and desirable places to work, traditional leadership approaches are no longer sufficient. Moreover, the changing nature of work requires a leader who prioritizes the needs of others. 

This article has given a broad view of servant leadership. But if there’s one thing to remember before finishing, servant leadership can be implemented on any scale – from an individual project to a complete company restructure. 

Even in a limited digital transformation, compassionate people-focused leadership is vital. As a 2021 McKinsey article reminds us, “without focused and active CEO commitment, there is almost no chance of success.” The servant-leader CEO could do especially good work for the challenges of digital transformation. 

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