Business Basics: What Is Servant Leadership?

Few would dispute that Gandhi was a good leader who inspired a loyal following through his own self-sacrifice and in the service of a cause. His type of leadership style, servant leadership, can be traced to the writings of a philosopher and poet of ancient China, Lao-Tzu, but an increasing number of modern leadership and management thinkers have also embraced the ideas of servant leadership. Its relevance and popularity is growing as a result.

What Is Servant Leadership?

In the 5th century, Lao-Tzu wrote about leadership and suggested, “the highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.” The modern interpretation of servant leadership, however, comes from the writings of Robert Greenleaf, who coined the phrase “servant leadership” in a 1970 essay entitled, “The Servant as Leader.” He sums up servant leadership in the following passage:

“The servant-leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

To put it simply, the servant-leader strives to share power and help the development and performance of their team.

How Do I Use Servant Leadership Within the Workplace?

Greenleaf outlined 10 principles to guide the development and application of Servant leadership:

  1. Listening – The servant-leader is a skillful listener, who listens to both what is being said, and what is not said, and sums up the will of the team.
  2. Empathy – Even if the performance is below par, you might reject the behavior and performance of your team, without rejecting them as people.
  3. Healing – The servant-leader can bring the team together in times of conflict or change, whether that is from outside or from within.
  4. Awareness –Of themselves, others, and what is going on around them and the team.
  5. Persuasion –- Seeking to persuade by convincing others of the merits of a course of action, rather than coercing through the exercise of authority.
  6. Foresight – Using the intuition of lessons learnt from yesterday to the problems of today and those yet to arise tomorrow.
  7. Conceptualization – Balancing the need to focus on what is happening today with the ability to provide a sense of mission and vision for tomorrow.
  8. Stewardship – Recognizing a sense of responsibility for the team, the organization, and the wider society.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people – A focus on developing people in terms of their personal and professional development and acknowledging the potential for their future growth.
  10. Building Community –- Bringing together and developing a sense of belonging and common purpose within organizations, both large and small.

Does Servant Leadership Work In Practice?

Edward D. Hess, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, says years of careful research have indicated that many leaders in today’s most successful organizations don’t conform to the stereotype of charismatic and commanding individuals. Instead they are servant-leaders, who lead by example through their daily behavior. Servant leadership delivers high performance in organizations as diverse as Best Buy, UPS, Ritz Carlton, Room & Board, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Levy Restaurants, the San Antonio Spurs, and TSYS.

In a world in which the ethics of business have recently been brought into the spotlight by high profile cases such as Wells Fargo, the behavior of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and Cambridge Analytica and its implications for the ethical reputation of Facebook and its management, servant leadership has the potential to remedy the failings of the traditional command and control structure of business. Servant leadership offers a more ethical and principled approach to leadership, particularly in a world that is more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Excelsior College, its trustees, officers, or employees.