Servant Leadership: Do You Dare to Serve? Your Leadership Style?

The Gentle Touch That Calls For a Different Kind of Courage

Do your team members want to return to the office full-time? If they don’t, maybe it’s down to your leadership. In a 2006 Gallup poll, 75% of employees said their manager was the most stressful aspect of their job. Ever thought about changing your leadership style?

Wooden figures following a green figure
Servant leadership could be the answer to your team wanting to return to the office.

Servant leadership offers a transformational approach to building businesses. Managers and leaders still need to be agile, tackling problems that arise. But servant leadership engages your team and gives you a wider perspective.

Stephen Covey wrote the management bestseller “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” He points out that servant leaders are both servants and leaders. In his words, “You do serve, but it still requires the other dimensions of leadership – character, and competence.”

In this piece, we look at how servant leadership can help transform leaders and managers. Because it’s gentler, it calls for a different kind of courage. We look at why men’s #1 shame trigger is being perceived as weak, which may put them off servant leadership. We quote TED Talks star Brene Brown on turning weakness into strength with Daring or Brave Leadership.

At the end, we suggest further reading. Authors include footballer and activist Marcus Rashford, management guru Ken Blanchard and fast-food CEO Cheryl Bachelder. Cheryl’s book is called ‘Daring to Serve.’ Dare YOU to be a servant leader? Read this article and decide!

The Mind Set of Champions

Servant leaders must still exert leadership when heading projects, achieving goals, firefighting, and making decisions. But longer-term, for sharing your vision and motivating people, servant leadership complements management styles like Transformational management and Coaching. And as a servant leader, your empathy and self-awareness will engage, inspire and keep good people.

The Definition of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership does what it says on the tin. It’s a leadership philosophy where the leader’s goal is to serve.

Servant leadership describes someone who creates a nurturing environment in which workers feel heard, appreciated, and respected. The servant leader’s goal is a work culture with high employee morale and engagement.

A servant leader must be confident in their abilities and those of their team. Grasping servant leadership like Balfour Beattie, Marriott International, Starbucks, Cheryl Bachelder and Marcus Rashford, you’ll turn things around.

Is Servant Leadership the Same as Kind Leadership?

People sometimes mention kind leadership in relation to servant leadership. Kindness, the hallmark of kind leadership, is an important element of servant leadership. Kind leaders are considerate and open about decisions that impact others. They feel a responsibility to make these decisions land kindly. That’s especially so with tough choices that affect people negatively.

Are Tough Servant Leaders Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?

Not necessarily. Provided you’re open about your reasons and sympathetic, that’s fine. People will see you’re authentic. We’ll look at authenticity in a moment. But you must communicate and empathise. Remember those people who don’t want to come back to the office full time, because of the unsympathetic boss!

Two wolves in cold winter landscape
Communication and empathy are key to not coming across as a wolf

What is the Role of a Servant Leader?

A servant leader shares their power. They put others’ needs first, help individuals develop and optimise performance. They’re willing to learn from others and forsake personal advancement and rewards. Generally, a servant leader focuses on performance planning, coaching and helping people achieve. They do that, rather than advancing their career.

What are Some Examples of Servant Leadership in Action?

  • Leading by example.
  • Encouraging collaboration.
  • Caring for your team personally.

Servant Leadership and Project Management

You don’t have to be a manager officially or head up a team, to be a servant leader. If you lead projects in any way, you have direct influence and can set your colleagues up for success. That’s servant leadership.

What Makes Servant Leadership Successful?

Servant leaders draw on their employees’ strengths. They allow other people to do what they do best. Servant leaders take equal responsibility for successes and failures. They’re willing to step aside and let others lead when appropriate.

To repeat, servant leadership is a great long-term strategy for bringing on people in the business. But the leader must remain self-aware and take a lead in tackling problems. In other words, be a leader.

6 Qualities of a Servant Leader

  • Integrity
  • Humility
  • Flexibility
  • Resilience
  • Stewardship
  • Empathy

Who is a Good Example of a Servant Leader? 

  • Albert Schweitzer
  • Mother Teresa
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Martin Luther King
  • Nelson Mandela

Servant leaders don’t have to give up their lives as part of the job. Or at least, they don’t in business…

The Theory Behind Servant Leadership

Servant leaders can change the world, as these examples show.  In the world of faith, there are Some Extremely Famous People we haven’t mentioned. That’s outside our scope. Meanwhile, the writer Robert Greenleaf gave servant leadership a modern spin for our times. His theory of leadership argues that the most effective business leaders are servants of their people. Servant leaders get results for their organisation through whole-hearted attention to their followers and their needs.

Who was Robert Greenleaf?

Robert K. Greenleaf worked for the American telecoms company AT&T. He realised that the business organisations that thrived had able leaders who acted more like supporting coaches. They served the needs of both employees and organisations. His 1970 essay The Servant as Leader proposed that the best leaders were servants first.

The Key Tools for a Servant Leader

Many tools laid out on a blue surface
It’s important to know the key tools needed to be a servant leader

Robert Greenleaf’s essay identifies:

  • Listening.
  • Persuasion.
  • Access to intuition and foresight.
  • Use of language.
  • Pragmatic measurements of outcomes.

Greenleaf knew he wasn’t a perfect example of a servant leader, but it was his ideal.

Servant Leaders Have Power But Give it Away

What’s the Difference Between Authentic Leadership and Servant Leadership?

Authentic leadership strives to be real. Servant leadership strives to be right. Authentic leadership doesn’t encourage the leader to be over responsive to the desires of others. In contrast, a servant leader‘s primary duty is to serve others.

Are Men Good Servant Leaders?

In David McClelland’s Acquired Needs Theory, the need for power makes people want to influence others and control their environment. No gender has the monopoly in business on autocratic leadership or micromanaging. There are plenty of men and women like that! Servant leaders still influence and control. But they do it through persuasion, rather than coercion.

Some people regard servant leaders as weak. They haven’t grasped Stephen Covey’s point, mentioned earlier, about servant leaders being both servants and leaders. So where has this notion come from? It seems to be from men’s upbringing.

Servant leaders are concerned with giving away their power and facing their vulnerability. Social worker turned TED Talks star, Brene Brown is a vulnerability expert. She says men’s #1 shame trigger is being perceived as weak. Her idea of daring or brave leadership turns this notion of weakness into strength:

“Daring leaders work to make sure people can be their true selves and feel a sense of belonging. A brave leader is someone who says I see you. I hear you. I don’t have all the answers but I’m going to keep listening and asking questions.”

Brene Brown’s book ‘Dare to Lead breaks down the four courage-building skills that make up brave leadership:

  • Engage with vulnerability.
  • Act with integrity.
  • Have more productive and honest conversations.
  • Move on quickly from failure.

A servant leader doesn’t shut down diverse opinions. They’re not threatened by the ideas and inputs of others. Instead, they seek out feedback and consider alternative opinions. This encourages innovation and will carry the business into the future.

What are the Principles of Servant Leadership?

As you’d expect, opinions vary. Here are two versions:

4 Main Principles of Servant Leadership
  • Encourage diversity of thought.
  • Create a culture of trust.
  • Have an unselfish mindset.
  • Foster leadership in others.
7 Principles of Servant Leadership 
  • You get most control by giving away control through delegation.
  • Set strategic goals with the people you’ve delegated control to.
  • Engage with risk by allowing people to learn through doing so: cut plans into small pieces to enable this.
  • Learn from failures: again, focusing on small steps enables this to happen.
  • Maintain the chain of command, but make decisions at the lowest possible level.
  • Reduce employee mobility by encouraging people to develop.
  • Stay out of the day-to-day process, especially communication: let your people grow.

Servant Leadership in Healthcare

The English government is thinking of privatising NHS England and running the country’s health service as a business. Ironically, against this backdrop, servant leadership may be the best model for health care organisations. It focuses on the strength of the team, developing trust, and serving patients’ needs. Servant leadership takes place when leaders serve their fellow workers. Servant leaders develop people and help them flourish.

Not Everyone is in Favour of This…

What are the Pros and Cons of Servant Leadership?

Two columns titled pros and cons
Like everything there are both pros and cons to servant leadership

When you’re considering something game changing like servant leadership, you need a well-rounded view. We’ve considered the arguments in favour. Now here are the ‘cons.’

What is the Main Criticism?

The biggest criticism is, servant leadership can minimise the manager’s authority and the overall management function. When employees see their manager catering to them in an extreme manner, they’re less likely to view them as authoritative.

Why is Servant Leadership a Bad Idea?

Another criticism is that servant leadership is bad because it’s paternalistic. Or if the servant leader is a woman, it’s maternal. Either way, the critics say it gets in the way of employee engagement. If the priority is empowering frontline workers to take ownership, it’s not good for managers to serve them.

Other Downsides to Servant Leadership

  • It takes longer to make decisions.
  • Leaders must do whatever staff members ask.
  • It takes too long to teach and retrain leaders to think like a servant leader.
  • Leaders don’t have the formal authority to get things done.
  • It takes time to build servant leadership. Relationship building is an important part.
  • It doesn’t work with every organisation.
  • The team can lose sight of their goals if they’re not being pushed.
  • It’s the flip side of motivation.
  • In servant leadership, the leader’s ego takes a backseat.

We come back to Stephen Covey’s point. Servant leaders are both servants and leaders. You need to be aware of, and understand, the reservations in this list. But ultimately, servant leaders are expected to lead.

Where Does Servant Leadership Not Work?

It doesn’t work in the following situations:

  • All you want is short term goals. Your leadership will be short lived if you’re willing to throw away your investment and your team after achieving those.
  • You’re only serving one stakeholder or group of stakeholders. This means for instance serving shareholders, but not employees, the community or the environment.
  • Your motivation is your career, not the organisation. If you believe the organisation is there to serve you, maybe you should consider other leadership models.

What Other Leadership Styles Do Servant Leaders Sse?

As a servant leader, you focus on others’ needs before yours. As we’ve seen, it’s a longer term approach to leadership, rather than a short-term technique for specific situations. So you can combine it with a leadership style like Transformational management. Transformational managers mentor and develop subordinates. They motivate them to achieve organisational goals and focus on these rather than personal targets.

AND FINALLY – Where Do YOU Want to go With All This?

Businessman pointing at camera to signal you
Having learnt about servant leadership, are you going to incorporate this into your team?

You can become a servant leader by developing the following characteristics:

  1. Listening.
  2. Empathy.
  3. Healing – creating a healthy work-life balance, giving people the tools they need, making them feel valued.
  4. Self-awareness – knowing your own strengths and weaknesses.
  5. Persuasion.
  6. Conceptualisation – keeping the big picture in mind without losing focus on the day to day.
  7. Foresight.
  8. Stewardship – leading by example: setting the tone for the team.
  9. Committing to people’s growth.
  10. Building community and morale.

Here are three contrasting books to help you get up to speed with servant leadership.

Do you like management textbooks?  Try Ken Blanchard’s Servant Leadership in Action: How you can achieve great relationships and results. The blurb calls this, ”the most comprehensive and wide range guide ever published on this subject.” See for yourself. Take a look at the free pages online.

Want a less formal read, but with a powerful impact? Try Marcus Rashford MBE’s “You Are A Champion: How to Be The Best You Can Be.” The Manchester United and England star made history in the 2020 lockdown with his End Child Food Poverty campaign. His book is an inspiring guide about reaching your full potential, written by a living example of instinctive servant leadership.

Fancy an American perspective on servant leadership, from the sharp end? Cheryl Bachelder is CEO of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen. Her book Daring to Serve explains how she unlocked her employees’ purpose and ingenuity. From there, she made them happy, engaged and more productive.

Engage in Servant Leadership

You know your team best. Here are some activities to engage your people and help them understand servant leadership:

  • Brainstorming who the true leaders are in society, who change lives.
  • Team building exercises to encourage them to be servant leaders.
  • Involve people in planning and carrying out your company’s charity and social giving.
  • Encourage them to get involved with industry charities. In the grocery industry the main one is Grocery Aid.

Remember, in servant leadership, leaders and managers are there to serve. But you must be both servant and leader. And be confident in your abilities and those of your team. Get the balance right, and you’ll turn your business around and enrich everyone’s working life. Including yours!

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