Business Leadership Today

Empower, Uplift, Lead: The Journey of an Effective Servant Leader


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

In the realm of leadership models, one approach stands out for its unique perspective on the role of a leader: servant leadership

In recent years, servant leadership has gained significant traction, heralded for its inclusive and empathetic approach. It is increasingly seen as an effective leadership model that can drive organizational success while also promoting ethical and sustainable business practices. 

This concept, first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his seminal 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader,” turns traditional leadership hierarchy on its head. 

Instead of focusing on the accumulation and exercise of power by the few, servant leadership emphasizes the leader’s role as a steward of the resources provided by the organization. It encourages leaders to serve others while still achieving the goals of the organization.

Traditional leaders may balk at this approach; however, servant leadership can be a highly effective leadership style, bringing out the best in employees and creating a high-performance work environment. 

A servant leader can be effective by prioritizing the needs of the team, demonstrating compassion, maintaining strong communication, and committing to the continuous growth of each individual. This approach drives organizational success and fosters a positive work environment.

This article will explore how servant leaders can lead effectively (and sustainably) and lead their teams to success.

A Unique Approach to Leadership

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy where the main goal of the leader is to serve others. This is vastly different from traditional leadership approaches, where the leader’s primary focus is the profitability of the company or the pursuit of power. 

A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first, and helps people develop and perform to the best of their ability.

The philosophy of servant leadership begins with a conscious choice to serve others. The servant leader puts the needs of others first and ensures that those they serve grow as individuals, becoming healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous. 

This leadership style stands in contrast to the traditional model of leadership, where power and control are centralized, and leaders often put their own interests ahead of those they lead.

Servant leadership is about empowering and uplifting those who would traditionally be considered powerless. It’s about giving a voice to those who wouldn’t typically have one and creating a culture of trust and cooperation where everyone feels valued and heard. 

This approach fosters a positive work environment and leads to higher levels of engagement and productivity.

Characteristics of a Servant Leader

Servant leadership is characterized by a number of key traits that set it apart from other leadership styles. These include the ten tenets outlined by Greenleaf.

Listening: Servant leaders actively listen to their team members, valuing their input and encouraging open dialogue.

Empathy: They show genuine concern for their team members and acknowledge their perspectives.

Healing: Servant leaders understand the importance of fixing problems and fostering a healthy team environment.

Awareness: Servant leaders are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and understand how their actions affect others.

Persuasion: Rather than using their authority to resolve disputes, servant leaders rely on persuasion to influence others.

Conceptualization: Servant leaders have the ability to conceptualize their vision and communicate it to their team.

Foresight: Servant leaders have the ability to foresee potential issues and outcomes based on their understanding of the past and present.

Stewardship: Servant leaders see themselves as stewards entrusted with managing their team and organization.

Commitment to the Growth of People: Servant leaders are deeply committed to the personal and professional growth of each and every team member.

Building Community: Servant leaders foster a sense of community within their team and organization.

Famous examples of servant leaders include Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who dedicated their lives to serving others and made significant impacts on society.

In the corporate world, servant leadership is exemplified by figures like Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, who was known for his extraordinary commitment to his employees. His leadership style contributed to the airline’s remarkable success and high employee satisfaction rates.

The Impact of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership has a profound impact on organizations, leading to higher engagement, increased trust, and stronger team performance.

Servant leaders prioritize the growth, well-being, and empowerment of employees. This focus on serving others fosters an environment of trust and cooperation, where everyone feels they have a voice and are empowered to participate fully. 

As a result, employees are more engaged and committed to their work, with research indicating that servant leadership enhances both team performance and satisfaction. Research has also found that servant leadership strongly predicted affective trust, organizational citizenship behaviors, and task performance of subordinates. 

Research in the German Journal of Human Resource Management has highlighted the positive individual and collective outcomes of servant leadership, including behavioral, attitudinal, and performance.

There is even evidence that servant leadership not only benefits employees but also the leaders themselves. Studies have suggested that managers find their roles more meaningful when they feel they are helping other people.

The impact of servant leadership extends beyond the individual leader or employee, influencing the overall health and success of the organization.

Becoming an Effective Servant Leader

Becoming a servant leader is a transformative journey that begins with a commitment to serving others. This approach requires a shift in mindset from traditional leadership paradigms, focusing on the growth and well-being of communities and individuals.

This may seem like a challenging transformation to make, but, by establishing some simple habits and being consistent, any leader can learn to be a servant leader. 

Self-reflection is a critical first step in this journey. It involves introspection and a deep understanding of one’s values, strengths, and weaknesses. This self-awareness allows leaders to align their actions with their beliefs, fostering authenticity and trust.

Receiving feedback is another crucial aspect of servant leadership. Constructive criticism provides valuable insights into how actions and decisions affect others. It encourages leaders to remain humble, acknowledge mistakes, and continuously strive for improvement.

Continuous learning is the cornerstone of servant leadership. It involves staying curious, open-minded, and adaptable in the face of change. By seeking knowledge and new experiences, servant leaders can better understand the diverse needs of their team and make informed decisions.

Becoming an effective servant leader is a continuous process of self-reflection, receiving feedback, and lifelong learning. It’s about putting others’ needs first and helping them perform as highly as possible. 

Embracing Servant Leadership: A Path to Transformation

Servant leadership, with its focus on the growth and well-being of others, is a powerful approach that fosters trust, engagement, and strong relationships within teams. 

This makes it one of the best approaches to leadership if we want to build resilient teams that can help our organizations weather change and achieve goals, even in difficult times. 

The benefits are profound, leading to more cohesive, agile, and effective organizations. I encourage you to explore and practice servant leadership. It’s not just about leading; it’s about serving, learning, and growing together. 

Embrace this journey, and you’ll discover the transformative power of putting others’ needs first. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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