Toxic work cultures (and the poor leadership that creates them) have been behind much of the turnover we’ve seen over the last few years, with many workers pointing to a lack of inclusion, fairness, and purpose at work, as well as unethical practices and behaviors, as motivating factors in their decision to leave companies.
With research showing an undeniably strong link between these factors and high attrition, it’s clear that many leaders are failing to provide a work environment that supports all employees.
Keeping our company cultures and work environments positive is hard work, but it isn’t an insurmountable challenge if we lead effectively.
Meeting the challenge requires leaders to act and behave in ways that positively reinforce culture and alignment with core values. It also requires that leaders give team members the tools they need to succeed.
Effective leaders do this by practicing the principles of servant leadership.
Servant leadership is important because it’s focused on creating the necessary conditions for sustainable success. It reinforces culture in positive ways that keep employees motivated and working together harmoniously and prevents organizational culture from turning toxic.
In this article, I’ll explore how servant leadership is important to the future of business and how the principles of servant leadership help leaders maintain resilient cultures and positive work environments where employees thrive.
The Impact of Leadership on Culture
Leadership, more than any other factor, has the greatest impact on culture.
Leaders shape and guide the development of culture. They reinforce culture with team members by clarifying the cultural norms that guide their behaviors and communicating the vision and core values that provide the framework for the culture.
This helps them maintain working conditions that are consistent with those cultural norms and values and foster relationships at every level of the organization that are conducive to collaboration and top performance.
Because leaders play such an essential role in how workplace culture develops in an organization, how it is reinforced, and how it affects employees, leaders must be able to convey cultural norms and facilitate cultural alignment by modeling core values, building cultural buy-in, setting goals that are tied to the vision, and maintaining harmonious working conditions that help employees produce quality work and work well together.
These are not things a leader does once, and then forgets about it; it’s an ongoing process that requires a real shift in how we approach leadership, and it should be a team effort.
What is Servant Leadership?
“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.”
-Robert K. Greenleaf
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.
The ideas that inform servant leadership have been around for a long time, but Robert K. 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.”
Unlike some traditional leadership styles, servant leaders build influence by persuading others to follow them and emphasizing consensus over coercion and serving over commanding.
The servant leader seeks not just to lead, but to serve those they lead by continually building positive influence (not positional authority) with team members and investing in their success.
Why Servant Leadership Is Important
You have probably heard about servant leadership, as it has been the subject of many articles and much research in the field of management over the years, but you may not know how the principles of servant leadership can help leaders keep their cultures strong and sustain long-term success.
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 approaches of others.
Servant leaders put the well-being and growth of those they lead before their own personal ambitions and help them to reach their full potential, which helps the organization reach its full potential.
More than any other leadership style, servant leadership provides the best approach to managing culture and managing people. Greenleaf outlined 10 main principles of servant leadership that guide the servant leader:
- Commitment to the growth of people
- Building Community
Next, I’ll explain how these principles help leaders to maintain a positive culture and supportive work environment where employees can do great work.
Servant Leaders Build Authentic Influence (Persuasion, Awareness, and Listening)
Servant leaders work continually to maintain authentic relationships with their followers. This helps them build influence with team members that reinforces culturally-aligned core values and generates cultural buy-in.
Building authentic influence with team members requires more than a job title or positional authority. Leaders need to convince those they lead to follow them, not because they have to, but because they want to.
Servant leaders do this by building connections with team members that are rooted in trust gained through persuasion, awareness, and listening.
Servant leadership relies on persuasion, rather than positional authority, to build influence and drive decision-making.
Servant leaders want to convince, not coerce, 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.
A strong awareness of ethics and values, combined with a strong sense of self-awareness, guides servant leaders in all their interactions with others.
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 conscientious, mindful leadership. Servant leaders realize the importance of awareness and the need for self-awareness, in particular, to better serve their employees.
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.
Greenleaf says, “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.
When employees feel their voice is heard, they are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work. Servant leaders engage in active listening to empower team members and build trust with them.
Servant leaders understand that listening to their teams is crucial for inspiring employees to do great work and create opportunities for listening that give employees at all levels of the organization a voice and a place at the table.
Servant Leaders Lead Compassionately (Empathy and Healing)
Servant leaders understand that the key to keeping employees satisfied in their roles and motivated to consistently perform well is demonstrating care and compassion toward them.
Servant leaders lead their teams compassionately by empathizing with team members and actively working to improve their personal and professional lives through the process of healing.
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 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.
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.
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 essential to reducing attrition going forward.
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 Leaders Foster Collaboration (Commitment to the Growth of Others and Building Community
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.
Commitment 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.
While many misguided managers continue to push a “zero-tolerance” policy toward mistakes, such policies are detrimental to growth, innovation, and morale. Servant leaders take a very different approach because they know that without trying, failing, learning from our failures, and trying again, we can’t accomplish great things.
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.
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.
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.”
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 Leaders Are Committed To Sustainable Success (Foresight, Conceptualization, and Stewardship)
The visionary perspective of servant leaders helps them set long- and short-term goals that will achieve the organization’s vision for the future.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Foresight 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.
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’ve been entrusted with determines the kind of legacy they leave for the next generation.
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.
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 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.