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What Is Servant Leadership? A Philosophy for People-First Leadership


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This article was from CIO and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

Servant leadership is a leadership style that prioritizes the growth, well-being, and empowerment of employees. It aims to foster an inclusive environment that enables everyone in the organization to thrive as their authentic self. Whereas traditional leadership focuses on the success of the company or organization, servant leadership puts employees first to grow the organization through their commitment and engagement. When implemented correctly, servant leadership can help foster trust, accountability, growth, and inclusion in the workplace.

Proponents say that by improving the emotional health of employees servant leadership empowers employees to express themselves more freely in the workplace. Employees then turn around and give the same nurturing to their coworkers, creating a welcoming environment that enables and encourages growth and quality work. A major aspect of servant leadership is acceptance of others; by creating an environment where everyone feels accepted, it helps create a "psychological ethical climate" that allows employees to be authentic and not fear judgment from leadership for being themselves. It encourages a forgiving and understanding attitude that allows employees to make mistakes, learn from their mistakes, and channel that into personal and professional growth in the organization.

Servant leadership theory

The theory of servant leadership was started by Robert K. Greenleaf, who popularized the term in a 1970s essay titled "The Servant as Leader." After reading the book Journey to the East, Greenleaf was inspired by the main character, Leo, a servant who disappears from work. After his disappearance, the productivity and effectiveness of the rest of the workers falls apart, revealing that Leo was in fact a leader all along. This led Greenleaf to believe that servant leadership is effective in its ability to allow workers to relate to leaders and vice versa, creating more trust and autonomy for workers. Greenleaf first put this theory to test while working as an executive at AT&T, and it's gained traction over the years as an effective leadership style.

Greenleaf initially proposed an "I serve" mentality for servant leadership and based it on the two main premises of "I serve because I am the leader," and "I am the leader because I serve." The first premise is focused on altruism, a selfless concern for others, while the second premise hinges on a person's ambition to become a leader.

Servant leadership model

Greenleaf's original premise for servant leadership was relatively vague compared to other leadership approaches and models, which has led to several interpretations of his original idea to either expand on the concept of servant leadership or help offer more specific guidelines to what servant leadership looks like in practice.

Larry Spears, former president of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, in "Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective Caring Leaders" has outlined the qualities that a servant leader needs to have to be impactful. These characteristics include empathy, listening, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community.

Two researchers, Barbuto and Wheeler, evolved Spears's 10 characteristics into a framework called "the natural desire to serve others," which combines Spears's 10 characteristics into five dimensions of servant leadership that includes altruistic calling, emotional healing, wisdom, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship. Under each category there are four to five characteristics that pertain to servant leadership.

Joe Iarocci, author of Servant Leadership in the Workplace, defines three key priorities (developing people, building a trusting team, achieving results), three key principles (serve first, persuasion, empowerment), and three key practices (listening, delegating, connecting followers to mission) to outline what servant leadership looks like in the workplace.

Russel and Stone, two researchers, developed nine "functional attributes of servant leadership," which includes vision, honesty, integrity, trust, service, modeling, pioneering, appreciation of others, and empowerment. They also outlined 11 "accompanying attributes," which includes communication, credibility, competence, stewardship, visibility, influence, persuasion, listening, encouragement, teaching, and delegation.

Servant leadership characteristics

According to Greenleaf, the most important characteristic of being a servant leader is to make it your priority to serve rather than to lead. Servant leaders are more interested in serving the needs of employees and helping them grow in the organization and are less interested in focusing on profits and simply leading people along by telling them what to do. Greenleaf didn't outline exactly what character traits make for a strong servant leader, but researchers James Sipe and Don Frick have studied his work and outlined seven pillars of servant leadership that fall within the boundaries of Greenleaf's original theory: 

  • Person of character: A servant leader is someone who maintains integrity, makes decisions based on ethics and principles, displays humility and serves to a higher purpose in the organization.
  • Puts people first: A servant leader demonstrates care and concern for others and helps employees meet their goals and grow within the organization.
  • Skilled communicator: Communication skills are integral to servant leadership, and you will need to ensure you can effectively listen to and speak with your employees, while also inviting feedback.
  • Compassionate collaborator: To be a strong servant leader, you'll need to consistently work with others and work to strengthen relationships, support diversity, equity, and inclusion, and navigate conflict in the workplace.
  • Has foresight: As a servant leader, you will need to keep an eye on the future and anticipate anything that might impact the organization. You'll also need to have a strong vision for your organization and be the type of person who can take decisive action when needed.
  • Systems thinker: Servant leaders need to be comfortable navigating complex environments and able to adapt to change. This type of leadership requires strategic thinking and the ability to effectively lead change in the organization.
  • Leads with moral authority: As a servant leader, it's important to establish trust and confidence in your workforce by establishing quality standards, accepting, and delegating responsibility and fostering a culture that allows for accountability. 

Examples of servant leadership

In the technology industry, servant leadership is most often seen in agile development environments on Scrum teams. On a Scrum team, the Scrum Master isn't necessarily a leader; instead they're a team member who works closely with other agile workers and takes charge on defining requirements, mapping sprint plans, and resolving any roadblocks along the way.

Famous servant leaders in the corporate world include Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor Co.; Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube; Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever; Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks; and Tim Cook, CEO of Apple; among many others. These are just a few people who are billed as strong examples of servant leadership in the corporate world. These leaders show qualities that include being risk-adverse, employee-focused, and driven by success over profits.    

Servant leadership training

The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership offers several courses on servant leadership. The Foundations of Servant Leadership covers the fundamentals of Greenleaf's philosophy and how to apply those principles in the workplace. The Key Practices of Servant Leadership covers strategies for effective servant leadership and how to apply those in real-life settings. The Implementing Servant Leadership course focuses on strategies and practices that will help you effectively implement servant leadership in an organization. Courses are completed online using a collaborative wiki and group discussions; each course costs $450.

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