Matt Tenney, Contributor
While the ideas that are central to servant leadership have been around for a long time, Robert Greenleaf is credited as the first person to articulate them as part of the modern servant leadership movement in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”
Servant leadership is about putting others first and involves compassionate leadership, a high level of emotional intelligence, the ability to build positive influence, planning for the future without doing harm in the short-term, valuing relationships, and having a lasting impact on the world.
Greenleaf outlined 10 tenets, or main principles, that should always guide the actions and behaviors of servant leaders.
The main principles of servant leadership are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. These characteristics are conducive to building authentic, trusting relationships with team members.
This article will explore these principles and offer tips on how to put them into practice.
What Is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership is a non-traditional style of leadership that incorporates elements of participative leadership and transformational leadership.
Servant leaders are visionaries who support the development of individuals in the organization, while transformational leaders provide a common vision and develop individuals to meet those goals.
The goal of servant leadership is to build authority and influence through supporting and serving employees and avoids the potentially toxic, more controlling tactics employed in some leadership styles and the hands-off approach of others.
Authenticity is central to servant leadership. Servant leaders work continually to build strong, authentic relationships with their followers. This generates significant cultural buy-in and contributes to a positive employee experience, high employee engagement, and high employee satisfaction.
Servant leadership also emphasizes appreciation, a caring attitude, humility, strong listening skills, and a high degree of trust.
Greenleaf outlined 10 main principles that characterize the servant leader:
- Commitment to the growth of people
- Building Community
We’ll delve into each of these 10 principles below and what they mean in the context of servant leadership.
Servant leaders listen without judgment and are always open and receptive to feedback from their teams. Unbiased listening leads naturally to understanding, which is so important for building trusting relationships with team members.
Good communication, especially active listening, is an essential skill for any leader who wants to lead well and let their employees know they are valued. Employees become disillusioned with their leaders and their jobs when they don’t feel valued and heard, and leaders miss out on helpful feedback when they don’t give their employees a voice.
Servant leaders understand that listening to their teams is crucial for inspiring employees to do great work. When employees feel their voice is heard, they are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work.
Servant leaders empathize with all team members and demonstrate compassionate leadership.
A recent study by Catalyst found empathy may be one of the most important leadership skills because of its positive effects on innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, and work-life balance.
When we empathize, we understand and share the feelings of another person. Servant leaders seek not only to understand where their employees are coming from, but they also seek to empathize with them to better serve them.
Empathy is key to helping a team grow. Servant leaders listen with empathy, understand with empathy, lead with empathy, and encourage empathetic behaviors in their employees. They move beyond empathy and take action to provide relief through healing.
Servant leaders heal their teams by removing the obstacles to success, addressing conflict in a timely manner and with great tact, and helping team members move forward in positive ways.
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.
In “The Servant as Leaders,” Greenleaf said, “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.”
Servant leaders recognize that leadership provides them with the opportunity to improve people’s lives and help them overcome past hurts. With toxic workplace environments driving so much of the turnover we’ve seen with the Great Resignation, the ability to heal the wounds inflicted by negativity in the workplace is an essential leadership skill.
Servant leaders are aware of what’s going on around them, what their team members need to succeed, and are highly self-aware.
Self-awareness refers to a person’s ability to accurately perceive their emotions and remain aware of them as they occur, and it is essential to serving and leading your employees well.
For a leader to be effective, they must be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of team members, and what they need from us to do great work. Yet, a surprising number of people lack this skill, and they don’t even know it.
Research from Dr. Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, found that while 95 percent of people think they are moderately or highly self-aware, less than 15 percent of people are actually self-aware.
A strong awareness of ethics and values, coupled with a strong sense of self-awareness, is indispensable to servant leaders and guides them in all their actions and behaviors.
Servant leaders use persuasion, rather than positional authority, to help drive decision-making and motivate employees.
Servant leaders are persuasive and make rational arguments for action in ways that elicit a strong positive emotional response from those they lead. They prefer to convince, not coerce, and work to build consensus on their teams.
It’s not about getting employees to comply; it’s about getting them to understand the decision-making process and to be active participants in it.
This aspect of servant leadership shows just how stark the contrast is between the servant leadership model and the authoritarian leadership model. Servant leadership asks the question “What would an authoritarian leader do?” and seeks the opposite path when it comes to decision-making.
Servant leaders are, by principle and practice, visionaries, and this helps them conceptualize the future.
One of the most fascinating aspects of servant leadership, and the one that truly represents the servant leader’s capacity to help their teams achieve great things, is its emphasis on the conceptual perspective in forging strategies and setting goals.
While many managers often become so focused on achieving short-term operational goals that they miss the big-picture view, servant leaders play the long game.
They are able to achieve what needs to be achieved in the short-term while also taking in the big-picture view that helps their teams strategize, find meaning in their work, and see its impact, which is vital to engaging employees.
Servant leaders conceptualize solutions to issues and opportunities for success through foresight.
Foresight refers to the ability to foresee possible outcomes of situations and approaches to addressing those situations. It helps servant leaders identify the best approaches and the ones that are most closely aligned with the organization’s mission and achieving its vision.
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, and these skills are rooted in intuitive thinking.
Servant leaders are good stewards of the people and resources they manage and good stewards of organizational culture in a way that ensures they leave a strong legacy behind.
When servant leaders are good stewards of their teams and the organization’s culture, it 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.
Good stewardship is all about working toward the greater good and is a demonstration of commitment to serving and meeting the needs of others. Servant leaders seek to improve the lives of team members who, in turn, seek to improve the performance of the organization and the lives of others through their work.
Stewardship is the ultimate guiding force of the servant leader as they tend to the growth and success of their teams.
Commitment to the Growth of People
Servant leaders are committed to the growth of all their team members and interact with them in ways that facilitate and encourage growth.
Through the lens of servant leadership, leaders are able to see the intrinsic value their employees bring to the table, which goes beyond their more tangible contributions or the monetary success they can help the organization achieve.
Servant leaders nurture the personal and professional growth of employees by providing opportunities for professional development through learning, training, and leadership development.
They also encourage such growth by establishing a healthy system of feedback, mentoring and coaching teams, and giving employees the autonomy they need to perform well and take ownership of their roles.
Servant leaders build community by uniting those they lead around a common purpose.
It can be difficult to build a strong sense of community at work, especially in large organizations. Servant leaders recognize the importance of building community and forging connections that help those they lead not only do the best work but also take pride in doing that work.
A servant leader’s ability to conceptualize and envision future success and tie it to employees’ goals and outcomes facilitates this sense of community and a true sense of teamwork.
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. This is the key to building community.
Greenleaf wrote, “All that is needed to rebuild a community as a viable life form for large numbers of people is for enough servant-leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by each servant-leader demonstrating his or her unlimited ability for a quite specific community-related group.”
Servant Leaders are Effective Leaders
The best leaders care about their employees. They help them to thrive. And the best leadership style is one that demonstrates care toward employees and an investment in their success.
Because a leader’s primary job is to inspire their teams to do great work, the best leaders are servant leaders.
We have all heard of servant leadership however it seems we all hear about it more than we see it. The truth is, many leaders still only gauge their success monetarily. They value results over a supportive work culture that helps employees reach their full potential.
But, in the face of so much burnout and employees leaving jobs in record numbers due to toxic work cultures, there’s never been a better time for servant leadership.
It is obvious that continuing to focus so heavily on results, at the expense of employees’ well-being, is not a winning retention strategy. To lead well going forward will require a shift in how those in management roles relate to their teams and prioritize their values.
Ben Lichtenwalner, author of Paradigm Flip: Leading People, Teams, and Organizations Beyond the Social Media Revolution, says the key to the effectiveness of servant leadership is that servant leaders put others before themselves. And selfless leaders outperform selfish leaders and have more dedicated team members.
Lichtenwalner says, “Being a servant leader is built upon the foundation of putting others first and yourself second. To truly serve your team, you must put their interests and needs before your own.”
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.