Servant leadership has become another popular leadership model. Though the idea of a leader acting as a servant to followers is thousands of years old, the concept was reintroduced to business practice and researchers by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1969. Servant leadership did not attract academic interest until 2002 when Russell and Stone* formalized it as a leadership theory. It has since become standardized as a model.**
Let’s consider the traditional idea of a hierarchical organization. We can think of followers serving the needs of their managers. Followers can do the bidding of their superiors. Managers benefit from this relationship psychologically and materially as other people follow their commands.
Servant leadership reverses this relationship. Servant leaders focus on serving the needs of followers and their communities first instead of making followers serve the needs of management. They take the role of stewards that serve and develop their organizations and followers.
What Servant Leaders Do
Servant leadership involves multiple elements which are often components of other leadership models:
Listening. Servant leaders listen to followers and do not dictate decisions and commands. They also listen carefully to understand what is really bothering others in the group. Listening itself is a key foundation in servant leadership because it is how the servant leaders connect to followers and the organization’s other stakeholder groups.
Empathy. Servant leaders try to understand others and accept them as individuals. They try to understand the motivations of followers as well as their unique circumstances. Empathy can be a valuable tool in determining the root causes of employee underperformance.
Healing. The servant leader encourages and supports others and herself. The servant leader fosters healing.
Awareness. Servant leaders try to understand their own needs and the needs of others. They have some level of peace in their lives, and they help others in the organization work together peacefully. Servant leaders understand ethics and work to encourage ethics and values in the workplace.
Persuasion. Servant leaders work to convince others and build consensus. They do not issue commands. In terms of emotional intelligence, this makes servant leadership opposed to dictatorship of autocratic leadership and nearer to the democracy of participative leadership.
Conceptualization. Servant leaders try to think about challenges in a big way. This big picture thinking is similar to the visionary, authoritative leadership style in the emotional intelligence framework of leadership. It is a critical ingredient in inspirational motivation, one of the “4 I’s” of transformational leadership.
Foresight. Foresight is either characterized as intuition or knowledge-based forecasting. Those of us who do not believe in intuition or who just don’t have any can substitute a thorough knowledge of past events and a vigilant watch on recent events. Foresight is related to conceptualization.
Stewardship. The organization cares for and benefits stakeholders inside the organization and community members outside the organization.
Commitment. Followers are not just machines that can do work for you. Instead, they are people with aspirations for growth. Servant leaders take an interest in the development of their followers professionally and personally. This aspect of commitment in servant leadership is similar to individualized consideration, one of the “4 I’s” of transformational leadership. Commitment often leads to the coaching style of leadership outlined in emotional intelligence leadership theory.
Building community. Large organizations can be much more intimidating than small groups or local communities. Servant leaders and their organizations try to compensate for this by building a sense of community among followers. This alleviates alienation among followers who dread the feeling of being a mere cog in a large machine.
Consequences of Servant Leadership
This leadership philosophy supports decentralized decision making. Listening to others and working to support followers shifts power from upper management to lower-level teams across an organization. Future leaders of the organization are developed among today’s followers.
The stewardship aspect of servant leadership aligns the interests of the organization and its customers. This perspective drives managers and employees to search for ways to add value and utility for their customers.
Servant leadership improves how workers feel about the organization, increasing employee retention.* Workers feel that the organization cares about them, have more positive job attitudes, have a sense of pride in their work, and are less stressed by their jobs. Under servant leadership, followers believe that their jobs are challenging and are able to help them grow and develop.
It can also create a service culture inside an organization. Service leadership improves the performance of salespeople and other outwardly facing personnel because they often model the way they treat customers after the way managers treat them.