What is servant leadership and how does it compare to other leadership styles?
In this post, we’ll define servant leadership and look at other leadership styles such as:
- Empathetic leadership
- Ethical leadership
- Transformational leadership
- Traditional leadership
Once we have those definitions in hand, we can explore the benefits and drawbacks of each.
What Is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership is a leadership style built upon the principle of serving others. This reverses the common conception that many have of leadership, which assumes that others should serve the leader.
Corollaries can be found in government structures around the world. In democratic societies, for instance, elected leaders are supposed to serve the people. In absolute monarchy’s, on the other hand, the people must serve the monarch.
The idea of servant leadership was formulated by Robert K. Greenleaf after he read an essay by Herman Hesse’s book, Journey to the East. In that book, the main character was one of a number of servants – but when he disappeared one day, the other servants realized that they had not lost another servant, but their unspoken leader.
This made an impression on Greenleaf, who articulated the idea in an essay, which then became expounded upon in academic journals and in the business world.
For instance, several researchers have developed “scales” and characteristics of servant leaders, such as that of Larry Spears.
Spears’ characteristics of servant leadership include:
- Commitment to the growth of people
- Building community
Although Spears pointed out that this list was not exhaustive, it did provide insight into the potential value of servant leadership as an idea.
Anyone interested in becoming a better leader, therefore, would do well to investigate servant leadership further.
Servant leadership, however, is only one among many leadership styles – let’s look at a few more in the next section.
Servant Leadership vs. Other Leadership Styles
Here are just a few other concepts that can provide insight into what it takes to become an effective leader:
Traditional leadership typically refers to top-down command structures, where managers give orders and employees follow them.
Many compare this leadership style to an “authoritarian” leadership style and suggest that, by definition, this approach is worse than more democratic leadership styles.
Others, though, claim that this leadership style has its use cases – top-down decision-making, for instance, can reduce inefficiencies, miscommunications, and indecisions, since one person makes all the decisions.
Democratic leadership is a second approach to leadership. In this style, group members participate with the group leader in order to make decisions.
On the surface, this style of leadership may seem more fair. It does, however, have its drawbacks. Decisions can take longer, miscommunications can be more frequent, and outcomes can be of a lower quality.
This leadership style is even less involved than democratic leadership.
French for “let do,” laissez faire leaders let their employees operate with autonomy.
Again, on the surface, this leadership style may seem to be the most fair, since it offers subordinates the most freedom of all. Yet when the psychology researcher Kurt Lewin compared this approach to the previous two, he found that group members actually weren’t able to work independently and they often failed to cooperate.
Ethical leadership emphasizes the importance of adhering to a code of ethics as a leader.
The exact definition of this term can vary from source to source, but the core principle is to follow and demonstrate ethics in one’s approach to leadership. While different individuals will possess different codes of ethics, this style implies that leaders should manifest traits such as fairness, honesty, and authenticity.
Transformational leadership suggests that leaders should possess a vision, follow that vision, and help to transform the workforce and the workplace.
This leadership style is closely related to change leadership, in that both approaches to leadership create a vision for change, motivate employees, and work to drive that change forward.
Transactional leadership, like transformation a leadership, is part of the Full Range Leadership Model.
This could be considered synonymous with traditional leadership, since it focuses on supervision and performance. The sole aim is on immediate, short-term employee productivity and performance.
Empathetic leadership posits that empathy is an important – if not a defining – trait among leaders.
Having empathy for other employees can improve bonds between workers, increased trust, decrease friction in the workplace, and more.
Which Is the Right Leadership Style for You?
There is no single “right” leadership style.
Although some may argue that certain leadership styles are “better” than others, the reality is that every leadership style has its use case. As we saw above, for example, autocratic leadership may seem to be less fair than laissez faire leadership – but when left to their own devices, employees may not know what to do.
Likewise, transformational leadership may seem “better” than transactional leadership, but it is also true that transformational leaders cannot enact change without the support of other types of leaders, including transactional leaders. Ultimately, every leader and organization will need to decide what leadership style is appropriate for them. Digital transformation leaders will require different leadership traits from sales managers, who will require different leadership traits from board members, and so forth.
Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.