Matt Tenney, Contributor
In traditional leadership models, productivity, performance, and profits are the focus of the leader’s efforts and how they measure success.
Traditional leaders lead in ways that they believe will increase all these metrics but are often less concerned about how the methods and strategies they use to achieve the business outcomes they want can negatively impact their employees. They often also fail to realize that the negative impacts on employees will inevitably negatively impact the organization’s future in the long term.
Their followers follow them because of positional authority. They may be more focused on accruing more power and seeking personal gain than they are on ensuring that their followers have the tools they need to find their own success.
Servant leadership takes a different approach to leadership, one that is more focused on serving others to achieve positive business outcomes.
While productivity, performance, and profits are important to the servant leader, they achieve positive business outcomes by encouraging the growth of team members and setting goals and strategies that support their well-being.
Servant leadership offers benefits that traditional leadership styles often fail to deliver.
The benefits of servant leadership are higher levels of trust, a positive work environment, improved collaborative efforts, and sustainable growth and success. These benefits help organizations improve productivity, performance, and profits while supporting the growth and well-being of employees.
This article will explore how servant leadership benefits organizations and their employees by creating the necessary conditions for long-term success.
What Is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership is a non-traditional style of leadership that is focused on the well-being and growth of others rather than the pursuit of material gain and power.
While the ideas that inform servant leadership weren’t new at the time that Robert K. Greenleaf articulated them in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” he is considered the founder of the modern servant leadership movement.
In the words of Greenleaf, “The servant-leader is servant first, it begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first, as opposed to, wanting power, influence, fame, or wealth.
Greenleaf outlined 10 main principles of servant leadership that guide the servant leader:
- Commitment to the growth of people
- Building community
How Servant Leadership Differs From Traditional Leadership Styles
The most effective leaders possess a high degree of self-awareness, invite employees to participate in decision-making, are committed to the growth of others, and forge relationships with team members that are rooted in trust. They care about their employees and make the growth of team members their goal.
Of all the leadership styles, servant leadership is the most effective at achieving this goal.
The key to servant leadership’s effectiveness is in how it differs from traditional leadership styles.
Servant leadership is different from other leadership styles because it values service to others over personal gain, builds influence through persuasion and authenticity, and is focused on the growth of others. Servant leaders share power and help their team members achieve greatness through caring leadership.
Unlike some traditional leadership styles, servant leadership emphasizes consensus over coercion and serving over commanding. This creates a highly ethical, transparent, and respectful work environment where employees are culturally aligned with the organization and committed to achieving positive outcomes.
Why Servant Leadership Is Important
Servant leadership has been the subject of much research in the field of management over the years. You may have seen many articles about it in popular publications over the last decade, but you may not know how the principles of servant leadership help leaders bring out the best in their team members or the many ways servant leadership benefits organizations.
The goal of servant leadership is to build authority and influence through supporting and serving employees. It avoids the potentially toxic, more controlling tactics of some traditional leadership styles and the hands-off approaches of others. Servant leaders encourage their team members to work with autonomy but remain a positive influence guiding them toward growth.
Servant leaders put the well-being and growth of those they lead before their ambitions and help them to reach their full potential, which helps the organization reach its full potential.
They build resilient teams that are adaptable, collaborative, inclusive, innovative, and united in achieving the organization’s vision. They forge strategies that support high performance, productivity, and profits without burning employees out or causing avoidable stress.
The Benefits of Servant Leadership
When leaders practice the principles of servant leadership, they see many benefits that are conducive to long-term success and a high level of employee satisfaction.
Servant Leadership Increases Trust
Servant leaders work continually to maintain authentic relationships with their followers. This helps them build trust with team members that reinforces culturally-aligned core values and generates cultural buy-in, which is essential for keeping employees engaged in their work and committed to the vision.
Building trusting relationships with team members requires more than a job title or positional authority. Good leaders convince those they lead to follow them not because they have to but because they want to. Building influence in this way helps create a high level of trust that facilitates real teamwork and a respectful work environment.
Servant leaders build trust through persuasion, awareness, and listening.
Servant Leaders Are Persuasive: Servant leaders rely on persuasion, rather than positional authority, to build influence and drive decision-making, seek to convince others (not coerce them), and work to build consensus on their teams so that everyone is a part of the decision-making process.
Servant leaders make rational arguments for action in ways that elicit a strong positive emotional response from those they lead. It’s less about compliance and more about helping employees understand the decision-making process and encouraging them to be active participants in it.
Servant Leaders Are Aware: A strong awareness of ethics and values, combined with a strong sense of self-awareness, helps servant leaders identify what their team members need to succeed and better serve them.
Greenleaf said that when we lack awareness, “we miss leadership opportunities.” When we are aware of ourselves and where our team members are coming from, we make the most of those opportunities and develop high-performance teams in the process.
Servant Leaders Listen: Servant leaders understand that listening to their teams is crucial for inspiring employees to do great work. They create opportunities for listening that give employees at all levels of the organization a voice and a place at the table.
Greenleaf said, “Don’t assume, because you are intelligent, able, and well-motivated, that you are open to communication, that you know how to listen.” Servant leaders listen without judgment and are always open and receptive to feedback from their teams.
Servant Leadership Creates a Positive Work Environment
Servant leaders understand that the key to keeping employees satisfied in their roles and motivated to consistently perform well is providing a positive work environment where all team members feel supported.
Servant leaders do this by leading compassionately. Compassionate leadership provides the ideal conditions for team members to do great work, helps them grow as people, and improves their overall well-being. It fosters a positive work environment that is inhospitable to the toxic behaviors that drive turnover and disengagement.
Research has shown that power can impair our mirror-neurological activity, which is the neurological function tied to our ability to understand and interact with others. This leads to a phenomenon known as hubris syndrome, which is defined as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”
Greater responsibilities and the resulting pressure of taking on those responsibilities can rewire our brains and cause us to stop caring about others as much as we used to. We may find it more difficult to empathize with others when this happens.
Servant leaders avoid these potentially negative effects of leadership and maintain positive work environments by empathizing with team members and actively working to improve their personal and professional lives through the process of healing.
Servant Leaders Empathize: Empathy brings acceptance. Greenleaf wrote, “The servant always accepts and empathizes, never rejects”—this means making inclusion and understanding priorities for the entire organization.
Servant leaders listen with empathy, understand with empathy, lead with empathy, and encourage empathetic behaviors in their employees. But servant leaders don’t just empathize—they take actions to relieve the suffering of others through healing.
Servant Leaders Heal Others: According to Larry C. Spears, one of the great strengths of servant leadership is its potential for transformation through healing—healing of one’s self and one’s relationship with others.
Servant leaders recognize that leadership provides them with a wonderful opportunity to assist their people in the search for wholeness by helping them improve their lives and overcome past hurts.
Servant Leadership Improves the Outcomes of Collaborative Efforts
When leaders make trust-building a priority, it improves collaborative efforts throughout the organization and an organization’s ability to collaborate with partners and clients.
Servant leaders are invested in helping all team members succeed and understand that the best way to achieve this is to help them unite around a shared sense of purpose that they work toward through collaborative efforts.
Servant leaders utilize the principles of commitment to the growth of others and building community to unite employees and boost collaboration.
Servant Leaders Commit to the Growth of Others: Servant leaders are committed to the growth of others and help them develop a continuous improvement mindset where learning is ingrained in the culture and mistakes are embraced and treated as learning opportunities.
Utilizing mistakes as learning opportunities paves the way for innovation and growth and improves accountability and ownership. When employees take ownership, it improves collaborative efforts and makes teamwork more successful.
Servant Leaders Build Community: It can be difficult to build a strong sense of community at work, especially in large organizations, but the process is essential for true teamwork. Servant leaders recognize the importance of building community and forging connections that help those they lead put forth real team efforts that lead to success.
Whether it is helping coworkers connect or helping the organization connect with the community it serves, it doesn’t have to be an ambitious undertaking; small actions by many have a profound impact.
Servant Leadership Achieves Success Sustainably
The visionary perspective of servant leaders helps them set long- and short-term goals that will achieve the organization’s vision for the future, making teams more adaptable and innovative.
Their commitment to being good stewards of the resources with which they have been entrusted helps them plot a path toward success that will not do harm in the present or jeopardize the future.
Servant leaders utilize the conceptual perspective, foresight, and stewardship as the means to achieve goals sustainably while helping team members to thrive.
Servant Leaders Conceptualize: Servant leaders can look beyond day-to-day realities and analyze problems from a conceptualizing perspective. The best servant leaders involve their team members in the process and understand that diverse points of view lead to innovative solutions.
The big-picture view of the servant leader helps their teams strategize, find meaning in their work, and see its impact, which is vital to motivating and engaging employees.
Servant Leaders Use Foresight: Foresight, or “a better than average guess about what is going to happen when in the future” as Greenleaf describes it, refers to the ability to foresee possible outcomes of situations and approaches to addressing those situations. It is closely linked to conceptualization.
The ability to learn from past mistakes, an awareness and understanding of the current reality, and the ability to identify the pros and cons of a decision and its impact on the future are part of foresight.
Servant Leaders Are Good Stewards: Being a good steward of the people and resources they manage is important to the servant leader. Stewardship is closely tied to foresight and conceptualization because the ability of a leader to take great care of the resources they are entrusted with determines the kind of legacy they leave for the next generation.
A culture of good stewardship helps employees find meaning and purpose in their work and makes them feel satisfied in their roles, committed to the organization’s success, and motivated to perform well.
Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world. Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence. Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings. His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.