What Is Servant Leadership and How It Can Benefit Your Organizations and Its Employees

For many years, organizations were run with a strict top-down form of control. Leaders were in charge and gave orders. Employees were followers and did what they were told. 

That style of leadership has, fortunately, fallen out of favor over the years. Today we recognize that the polar opposite of that traditional relationship is a best practice for effective leadership: leaders serve employees. 

The better leaders can provide an atmosphere and the tools and support that employees need, the more effective, efficient, and productive the organization will be.

This approach is known as servant leadership and is based on the premise of putting employees first and serving them.

What is Servant Leadership? 

Servant leadership is a concept that was first introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf, a manager who founded The Center for Applied Ethics in 1964. In 1970 he wrote his now widely known essay, The Servant as Leader, outlining his views on the characteristics of “servant leaders.” 

Servant leaders put the needs of their employees first and place a high priority on being a team player. Servant leadership is a leadership style that embodies the philosophy of serving others rather than being “in control.”

Rather than taking a command and control approach to leadership, servant-leaders recognize that they can be more successful—and their departments and organizations can be more successful if they focus on meeting employee needs and removing barriers that might hinder their performance.

Leadership skills that are focused on supporting employees and providing them with a culture and environment that is engaging will lead to better results, more motivated employees, and, ultimately, higher levels of quality and productivity.

Servant leaders exhibit a number of key characteristics.

Characteristics of Servant Leaders 

The traits of a servant leader are all traits that support a positive, nurturing, and engaging environment where employees can function at their best while receiving positive support, encouragement, and feedback. Some of the most common traits of servant leaders include:

Service of Others 

One of the primary principles of servant leadership is the service of others. By definition, servant leadership requires a mindset where leaders recognize that they can be most effective if they serve the needs of others, in this case their employees or team members.

Listening 

Effective servant leaders are good listeners. They listen actively and ensure that they understand the needs of those they lead. They create an environment of transparency and trust.

Empathy 

Empathy is an important trait of servant leaders. It is the ability to understand what others are thinking and feeling.

Awareness 

Servant leaders have a high level of awareness of themselves and of those around them.  They are aware of their environment and of the impact of both internal and external elements on that environment.

Emotional Intelligence 

Emotional intelligence is a concept first put forward by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer in 1990 but later popularized by Daniel Goleman. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage one’s own behaviors and actions—to understand why you may be responding to a situation in a certain way and to manage or modulate your responses appropriately.  

Foresight 

Foresight is the ability to look ahead to see what the future might hold; to predict what will happen in the future based on current actions. Foresight is a key attribute of strategic thinking—the ability to take action with a specific end in mind.

Accountability and Responsibility 

Servant leaders hold themselves and others accountable for their behaviors and actions, and for their ability to achieve identified goals and objectives.

Commitment to the Growth of Others 

Servant leaders, with their focus on others, are committed to supporting the growth and development of their team members. They view their role as instrumental in helping employees to learn and grow.

Sense of Community 

Organizations depend on teams of people to get work done effectively and achieve organizational goals. Servant leaders recognize this and, through their strong sense of community, take action to ensure that they are supporting the group and working in concert as a team of equals to be successful.

Authentic 

Servant leaders are authentic. They are genuine;  they do not pretend concern for others. Their actions are consistent with their values.

servant leadership vs traditional leadership

Servant Leadership vs Traditional Leadership 

Servant leaders share some traits with traditional leaders, but there are some key distinctions between the two. 

Most importantly, servant leaders put employees at the top of the typical organizational structure. Their actions are designed to support the needs of employees first and foremost.

While traditional leadership puts the leader in the role of “the boss”—the person who calls all of the shots, controls the rewards and doles out punishment. 

Servant leadership, on the other hand, places the leader or manager in the role of serving employees and their needs.

Clearly, there are a variety of benefits to servant leadership.

Benefits of Servant Leadership 

Servant leadership offers a wide range of benefits for employees and the organization as a whole. These benefits include:

Better collaboration, better teamwork 

Employees who work with servant leaders feel more supported and valued. Consequently, they are able to work together more effectively, collaborate toward common goals, and exhibit better teamwork.

Positive work environment 

When employees are valued and understand that their manager supports them and is committed to serving their needs, the work environment is more positive. In a positive environment, employees are more likely to offer their opinions freely and put forth more effort in support of the team and the organization overall.

Reduced employee turnover 

One very measurable benefit of servant leadership is reduced employee turnover. When employees are satisfied and engaged when they understand that their interests and concerns will be addressed, and when they feel supported they will be more loyal and less likely to leave for other opportunities.

Companies are more agile 

In a servant leadership environment organizations have the benefit of a wide range of inputs. Employees who know that their ideas and input will be seriously listened to and considered will offer more ideas which will spur greater innovation and agility.

Fosters a strong culture 

Servant leadership fosters a strong culture. The team-oriented nature of servant leadership where both leader and employees are working together toward a common goal is supportive and engaging. Employees understand their worth and the value of their contributions to the organization.

Accelerates learning and development 

When employees feel supportive and understand that their leaders are concerned about their satisfaction, productivity, and performance, they are more likely to be committed to their own learning and development. Servant leaders establish an environment that spurs employees to learn and grow.

Creates more leaders 

One final advantage of servant leadership is that it is a leadership style that naturally creates more leaders. Employees are groomed in an environment where leaders serve as role models and coaches, and whether their individual efforts toward learning and improvement are encouraged. They are consequently more likely to be well prepared to move into leadership roles themselves.

list of benefits and disadvantages of servant leadership

Disadvantages of Servant Leadership 

While there are many advantages to servant leadership there are also some potential disadvantages.

Longer lead times on decision-making  

When employees have a stronger voice in decision-making, it may take longer for decisions to be made. In certain situations that may prove to be a disadvantage. For instance, when needing to move quickly to combat an emerging competitor or to be first to market with a new product offering. 

Training investment 

The servant leadership style of leading is not one that is widely trained on. Employees are largely not familiar with this style or able to put it into practice. An investment in servant leadership training might be above and beyond that of typical leadership training.

Crisis management can become unclear 

In crisis situations, employees typically look to their superiors to lead—to provide direction and call the shots. Servant leadership doesn’t support this type of leadership which, in crisis situations, could be a critical downfall.

The role of the leader is lessened  

In a servant leadership model, the role of the leader is diminished. They become equal to team members and have less direct responsibility for decision-making and, consequently, less authority. This may not be the preferred style of some leaders who may not be effective in a servant leadership role. 

It may not be suitable for medium to large enterprise organizations 

While servant leadership can work well in many organizations, in medium to large-sized enterprise organizations it may not be effective for some of the reasons mentioned above.

Examples of Servant Leadership 

Examples of servant leadership can be seen far more widespread today than in the past. This style of leadership has been recognized as a powerful way to build strong teams and achieve great results. 

Servant leaders demonstrate they’re caring for others through their actions:

  • They are resourceful in finding ways to help others.
  • They are supportive when employees face problems or constraints.
  • They are focused above all on supporting their team members. 
  • They genuinely feel good about making others happy.

Teamwork can be dramatically impacted in a positive way by leaders who exhibit the traits of servant leadership.

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Categories: Leadership
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Author: Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Lin is a business journalist and communication strategist with expertise in HR and employee relations. She is accredited through the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM-SCP) and Human Resource Certification Institute (SPHR) and writes frequently for SHRM, HR Daily Advisor, and a wide range of trade publications and corporate clients.