The Servant Leadership Approach: What it is and How it Works

The Servant Leadership Approach: What it is and How it Works

Servant leadership requires a way of behaving that is cultivated over time as leaders interact more with their team. Defined by a philosophy that endorses a non-traditional form of leadership, it allows that leaders must serve in order to be effective.

Did you make a double take on that last sentence? If you did, worry not. Most people do. Or rather, most businesses would. In the traditional sense, the leader is always defined as the first among equals, and this has more or less been adopted by business and industry. In fact, businesses stake their futures on the kind of leaders they hire. Every year, millions of dollars are spent in recruiting managers and team leads. The time-honored view is that company leaders must be decisive and assertive, striking fear or at the very least intimidation into the hearts of subordinates.

These days, in a more politically-correct world where equality and inclusivity is valued, business leaders who follow the old top-down approach do not hold sway the same way they did even a decade ago. Bosses who are seen as overly pushy and cold towards their employees will not earn their loyalty and are subjected to passive-aggressive hostility. This is why adopting a combination of leadership styles or techniques is in order. Inclusion, integration and flexibility are now the in thing with millennials and Gen Z.

Servant leadership is one of what is now referred to as ethical leadership approaches. Here, the servant leader puts the team first and themselves second. If you are a servant leader, your primary concern is to pay close attention to and address the needs of all members of your team to effectively lead them.

So let’s take a closer look at what servant leadership is, how it works, its characteristics and also when its use becomes inappropriate.

How Does Servant Leadership Work?

The first person credited with articulating servant leadership was Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay titled “The Servant as a Leader” published in 1970. It pushes forward that a person, in any given capacity, interacts all at once as a fellow employee, manager or executive with a team. The aim is that of becoming a recognized authority in the sense of knowledge and experience rather than one who wields power.

The leader acting in the servant leader role is someone who follows a specific manner of behaving, namely:

  • follows a process of careful attention to a team by regularly checking to know their situation and help them advance, develop and achieve what they need to;
  • discerns circumstances as seen through the eyes or perspective of team members;
  • makes decisions that uphold the best interests of the team;
  • makes sure that all team members are well-informed and have enough resources to meet personal goals.

What are a Servant Leader’s Characteristics?

Caring for others is the number one concern for avowed servant leaders. Therefore they are committed to:

  • Being a good listener — serving others well is founded on knowing how to listen well to what others are saying. This involves studying how to focus on their issues and concerns, knowing how to read their body language, not interrupting them when they are speaking their mind, and giving constructive feedback.

  • Being self-aware — knowing your strong points and your weaknesses will help you see how your actions affect others and manage emotions in a way that your behavior will positively affect others, all the while getting feedback from others on your behavior.

  • Being someone who can truly empathize with the needs and concerns of others — understanding that empathy is generated by accepting others’ motives and viewpoints, valuing perspectives of others, and having an open-minded approach to any situation.

  • Ensuring that people you are working with will grow — this means knowing all the ways of helping others become better-informed, acquire better resources and continuing education — and making all these happen with a flexible, streamlined and cost-effective process.

  • Having the capacity to bridge rifts and help others with their problems — promoting emotional well-being, mental and physical support, creation of a healthy work atmosphere, and maintaining a happiness and engagement index for both customers or employees you lead.

  • Knowing how to make insightful decisions with the necessary foresight — cultivating an open mind and commitment to study and research enables a servant leader to find the best information that leads to better insight in inclusive decision-making. Such a leader can envision a business future based on facts or data including the human factors that could realize this future, particularly on how people are able to work towards the best outcomes for all involved.

  • Creating concepts based on the big picture and getting them to work through perseverance — dreaming big is not just a dream in business, it could actually be the driver of business. Servant leaders promote or advance any concept through appropriate training, information dissemination, and closing the feedback loop. Because promoting a dream concept through servant leadership involves communication, agreement, cooperation and collaboration among all stakeholders, servant leaders must be able to strengthen their persuasiveness.

  • Building a community through social responsibility — responsible community building is always something that helps business create and achieve more of the most positive outcomes. This ideally happens through group and personal interaction in a less formal and friendly atmosphere, like a company lunch, a party, etc. Social responsibility binds a team with a common cause that promotes a better sense of what a business must do to achieve a common good.

  • Holding yourself accountable for what your organization does and achieves at all times. This is done through a balance and harmony between goals and a servant leader’s well-developed conscience and responsibility to others.

When Does Servant Leadership Become Inappropriate?

In hierarchical cultures with a more autocratic power structure, decision makers are all given a position of power and attendant titles. In this type of situation, servant leadership will typically become problematic. Servant leaders will not have the kind of respect they deserve and/or earn compared to more open and democratic structures. They cannot be effective because of the rigid rules and systems in place, which wait on the decisions of designated or elected leaders rather than innovators, creatives, thought leaders and development personnel. In autocratic structures, the risks of servant leadership will affect such organizations negatively.

Thankfully, in today’s world, more and more businesses have come to realize that ethical leadership styles are appropriate to the type of mindsets and politics held by the majority of their employees. It applies not only to nonprofit organizations or public service promoting a more democratic belief system. Because in the end, we must realize that at the heart of every transaction, business or otherwise, is a human being. A person with feelings, dreams and aspirations. And therein lies the secret of leadership success: acknowledging each human being that we must respect. Or, as a servant leader, must serve.

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