Does the Servant Leadership Style Work?
While conventional forms of leadership are all about control, servant leadership places the needs of other people first and looks to transfer some of the power to them. A term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay published in 1970, ‘servant leadership’ is a concept that transcends the barriers of time and geographical boundaries.
The essay by Greenleaf explains how it takes more than just decision-making abilities to be a leader—your followers need to believe in you and trust that you’re working in their best interests. The concept of servant leadership places emphasis on enabling the growth of people around you and meeting others’ needs. It is just one of the many things that make a successful leader. Here, I look to explain what makes a servant leadership style effective using the available literature on the leadership style, the characteristics that make it up, its pros and cons, and its real-world examples.
What is Servant Leadership Style?
Servant leadership incorporates both practical guidance on how to be a successful leader and the abstract ideas of what a good leader is to be. Over time, the concept has evolved, with some of the theories dating back decades.
The servant leadership concept proposed by Greenleaf takes a philanthropic approach to leadership by emphasizing the welfare and advancement of others. According to Greenleaf, a true servant leader is one who prioritized the needs of others not only to help achieve quality performance but also to promote their professional development.
A servant leader focuses more on team members’ participation in the company’s daily decision-making processes than a leader with an authoritative style. A servant leader prioritizes people over their need for power, which has several positive effects on followers and the group. For example, one study found a positive relationship between the servant leadership style and followers’ satisfaction in career and life.
Here is a real-world example of servant leadership. A sales team manager demonstrates that they are a servant leader to their team by always show a willingness to do the same work they required their team to do. The manager leads the team by joining them on the field and helping them achieve their sales quotas when their team starts to fall behind others in accomplishing their sales objectives.
Several various attributes make a servant leader.
The Characteristics of a Servant Leader
A study published in the International Journal of Leadership Studies identified a total of 12 primary attributes that make up the characteristics of a servant leader. However, five elements stand out and are the most important. These five critical characteristics of a servant leader are listed below.
1. Valuing People
Servant leaders respect individuals for who they are rather than just for what they offer to the business or community. Servant leaders are devoted first and foremost to individuals, especially their followers.
Servant leaders are not self-promoting; they put other people first. They are modest by nature and don’t pretend to be one. Servant leaders recognize that leadership is not just about them; they know and acknowledge that goal achievement is a team sport. This knowledge allows them to stay grounded and humble.
Servant leaders exhibit responsive and nonjudgmental listening. They are good listeners because they genuinely want to learn about other people and feel the need to listen sincerely to understand the people they represent. Servant leaders first strive to understand others and then put their point across. This objectivity helps the servant leader to know when their followers need their help.
Above all, servant leaders are trustworthy. They will gladly take any risk for the people they serve. Since they are honest and genuine, trust levels for servant leaders are often high.
The fifth and final most crucial characteristic of a servant leader is their caring nature. Servant leaders show love and compassion for others; they look to serve others. Servant leaders genuinely care about the individuals they lead.
Pros and Cons of Being a Servant Leader
There are both pros and cons to being a servant leader. To help you decided whether servant leadership is the right leadership style for you, the following are some of the advantages and disadvantages of being a servant leader.
- Decisions are made in the best interests of everyone in a group or organization rather than just for a few select individuals
- Whenever completed, leaders consider requests from followers from the perspective of the entire team or community and decline requests only when it does not serve the team/community’s purpose
- It helps to encourage and facilitate the growth of followers
- It inspires others to accomplish their goals
- Decision-making takes longer
- Leaders are inclined to do what their followers want
- Teaching and retraining people to think like a servant leader takes a lot of time
- The leader can come across as weak
- Leaders have no formal power to get things done
Servant Leadership is not a science but an art—one that you get better at with practice. You can’t expect to research servant leadership principles or read a book about it and instantly readjust yourself from what you have previously learned about leadership. Instead, you will need to practice this leadership style in the real world. The more you practice, the better you will get at it. Over time, you will become a master-servant leader, which can be extremely beneficial.
Founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute, partner to Newsweek on America’s Most Loved Workplaces, and the author of more than 10 books on best practices in leadership and management, including Change Champion’s Field Guide, In Great Company, and Best Practices in Talent Management. Thought leaders and executives voted him as one of Global Gurus Top 10 Organizational Culture thinkers worldwide, and his feedback and benchmarking software has won HR Tech’s top product of the year award. Louis has been featured in Forbes, Investors Business Daily, Newsweek, MSNBC, Fast Company, and interviewed widely. For more information on Carter’s story see, “Meet the Fixer” and GoSolo.