Servant Leadership: What it is, Why it Matters, and How it Can Make You a Better Leader

Illustration of office workers lifting up others

What is a leader?

For many, the word “leader” alone inspires visions of someone in a formal position of power. They’re at the top of the org chart, and people follow them out of sheer obligation. They need to take those directions and fall in line—or face the consequences.

In some workplaces, that traditional view on leadership is still the norm.

However, many other businesses and organizations—from the likes of Starbucks to Southwest Airlines—have embraced a different, more positive approach to leading others.

It’s called servant leadership, and it can make all the difference in the morale and engagement of your team.

So…What Exactly is Servant Leadership?

“Servant leadership is about the need for a better approach to leadership, one that puts serving others—including employees, customers, and community—as the number one priority,” explains Larry Spears, Servant-Leadership Scholar at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington and President of The Spears Center for Servant-Leadership in Indianapolis.

“It emphasizes increased service to others, a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community, and the sharing of power in decision making,” he adds.

Put simply, a servant leader prioritizes the needs of others ahead of their own desires. Exactly as the name implies, they channel their energy and efforts into serving.

“Servant leadership, to me, is the act of striving to generously, selflessly fulfill the needs of my team in order to ensure that they feel supported, motivated, and self-actualized as they make progress to achieve not only the team’s goals, but their own personal goals as well,” shares Brenna Loury, Head of Marketing at Doist.

Author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek, sums up servant leadership perfectly in his book Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t.

“Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us,” he writes. “Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.”

So Much More Than Just a Leadership Style

Servant leadership sounds effective, right? But, that’s because it’s way more than just a leadership hack or a passing fad—it’s a way of life.

“It definitely is not a leadership ‘style’ that one can attempt to use as one among many approaches,” clarifies Spears. “It is a belief that one starts with the desire to serve others, and then you look for ways to lead as best as you can.”

In fact, as Spears points out, some of the most infamous, natural servant leaders of our time were people who had never even heard the term before.

Influential people like Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa were all people who sought to serve—rather than to lead.

That’s the very foundation of servant leadership. It requires a desire and conscious commitment to prioritize the needs of others before yourself. You serve first and lead second.

10 Qualities of Servant Leaders

Leaders who focus on serving are highly effective. In fact, research shows a positive correlation between servant leadership and employee engagement.

But, what exactly makes a servant leader?

After carefully analyzing the original writings of Robert K. Greenleaf, who was the founder of the modern servant leadership movement, Spears identified and defined a set of 10 servant leadership characteristics that he views as critically important:

  1. Listening: Servant leaders listen even more than they talk. They seek to identify the goals of a group, as well as to clarify those goals.
  2. Empathy: Servant leaders work to understand the perspectives of others. They assume good intentions, even when they disagree or are forced to refuse or accept specific behaviors.
  3. Healing: Servant leaders are skilled in healing themselves and their relationships with others, in order to establish healthier and more productive bonds.
  4. Awareness: Servant leaders must be self-aware while also possessing keen awareness of others. This helps them in understanding issues related to ethics, power, and values.
  5. Persuasion: Servant leaders don’t rely on their positional authority to reach decisions within their organizations. Instead, they rely on their persuasive abilities to enlighten and convince other people—rather than enforcing compliance.
  6. Conceptualization: Servant leaders have to be visionary. They need to look beyond the limits and realities of the day-to-day to stretch themselves and their thinking.
  7. Foresight: Servant leaders can’t always predict the outcome of a situation. But, they rely on lessons from the past, realities of the present, and the likely consequences of decisions in order to make informed choices.
  8. Stewardship: Servant leaders are committed to serving others. Peter Block, author of Stewardship and The Empowered Manager, defines stewardship as “holding something in trust for another.”
  9. Commitment to the Growth of People: Servant leaders are deeply dedicated to helping the individuals within their organization grow and develop.
  10. Building Community: Servant leaders strive to foster a sense of true community among those who work on their team or within their organization.

“These ten characteristics of servant leadership are by no means exhaustive,” explains Spears. “However, they do serve to communicate the power and promise that this concept offers to those who are open to its invitation and challenge.”

5 Ways You Can Embody Servant Leadership on Your Own Team

Here’s the thing about the characteristics you see listed above: they’re qualities that anyone can possess. They aren’t reserved for someone in the corner office or in a formal position of power.

“Acting as a servant leader doesn’t require that one is necessarily in a formal leadership role within an organization,” says Spears.

Each of us, no matter our role, will have the opportunity to step up and take the lead from time to time in some aspect of our lives. If we do that by first seeking to serve the needs of others and then taking action to provide leadership, then we are choosing to be a servant leader.”

Ultimately, servant leadership all comes down to making a conscious choice to serve others—and then acting accordingly.

But, what exactly does that look like in practice? Here are a few ways that you can act as a servant leader on your own team—whether you’re the boss or not.

1. Listen to Others (Seriously, Really Listen)

The ability to listen is one of the core qualities of a servant leader, so it comes as little surprise that it’s a key activity in demonstrating servant leadership on your team.

“Servant leadership starts with listening,” says Spears. “It is a great way of helping to make things better, and it can have a powerful and positive impact in the lives of others, and in our own lives. And, when done well, it is a great source of joy for many people.”

Too many people engage in conversations and wait for their opportunity to respond. But, listening requires you to not only hear what that person is saying, but absorb it, reflect on it, and retain it. You need to prove that you’re actively invested in the thoughts and opinions of others.

If you are a manager, for example, make sure that you have regularly-scheduled one-on-ones with your team members when you can connect about their goals and challenges.

“Ask them, ‘Are there any roadblocks that I can help remove?’” explains Loury. “Find tangible ways to support them and advocate for both them and the projects they are working on.”

2. Offer Your Help (Without Being Provoked)

Servant leadership is all about serving. This means that true servant leaders need to be willing to step up to the plate—without being pestered or pleaded with.

“A five-star example of servant leadership at Doist would be the implementation of Todoist’s relatively new referral program,” Loury shares. “After struggling for months with a third-party provider, our web development team came to the conclusion that we needed to sever ties and move on.”

“All the work that our team had done as well as the release of the referral program itself was left in limbo. We all felt defeated and frustrated—that is, until Roman, Doist’s Head of Web Development, stepped in with the help of Oleg, another web developer. He was able to implement a solution in a matter of days that fulfilled all the requirements we had originally sought in our referral program. No one asked him to do this. He did it of his own accord, on his own time, and it ended up being a truly 10x solution that blew us all away.”

The lesson? There’s a big difference between serving and meeting requests and demands. Actively look for ways that you can help and support your team, and then step up and do those things—without being asked.

3. Be Willing to Do the Dirty Work

Your offers to help are noble—but only if you walk the walk, and don’t just talk the talk. True servant leaders need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work. They don’t expect others to handle the tasks that they aren’t willing to do themselves.

Ultimately, there are few better ways to serve than by removing a groan-worthy task from someone else’s plate so that they can focus on a larger objective.

“Anyone at Doist, from our founder, Amir, to Goncalo, our CTO, to Roman, our Head of Web Development, is never above doing small-scale ‘grunt’ work if it means another team member will achieve their goal more efficiently,” adds Loury.

4. Provide Recognition

“Never take credit for something a team member has done,” warns Loury. “Give credit where credit is due and, when appropriate, laud your teammates publicly.”

As simple as it might seem, offering adequate recognition is a less-obvious way to serve the members of your team.

“There’s nothing worse than feeling unseen and unheard in the workplace,” says Annie McKee, author of How to Be Happy at Work, in an article for Harvard Business review. “We all have a human need to be appreciated for our efforts, and so when your colleagues don’t notice [your contributions], it makes you feel as though you don’t belong.”

In fact, a whopping 66% of employees state that they would quit their jobs if they felt unappreciated. So, making the conscious effort to applaud and even occasionally reward your team members for their work is important.

As an example, Loury shared a screenshot from Doist’s company-wide message channel, in which Doist’s founder, Amir, publicly applauded the work of specific team members for a recent launch.

Image courtesy of Brenna Loury, Doist

5. Show Up and Serve in All of Your Relationships

One of the beliefs of Robert K. Greenleaf was that a servant leader needs to care about everyone the organization comes into contact with.

Being a servant leader means you can’t just serve your employees or team members—and then ditch those principles in your interactions with customers, vendors, contractors, business partners, and other external contacts.

“It’s all about understanding each other’s philosophies and needs to improve the partnership and cooperation,” writes Josh Spiro in an article for Inc.

Spiro provides the example of the company Johnsonville Sausage, who sends their employees out to work in different restaurants and stores where their products are sold—which gives them a better understanding of those other perspectives.

Make sure that you’re carrying the tenets of servant leadership over into all of your relationships. Not doing so means you’re just paying lip service—rather than working toward being an authentic servant leader.

Focus on Service, Rather Than Perfection

Servant leadership is way more than a buzzword or a leadership style that you can implement overnight—it’s a way of life that requires plenty of conscious thought and commitment to service.

When you begin leading in this way, does that guarantee you’ll be a completely flawless leader? Well, not exactly.

“Each of us are fallible human beings, and human beings make mistakes—servant leaders included,” Spears concludes.

“However, authentic servant leaders try not to make the same mistakes; and, when they think they are wrong, they will do their best to apologize. This, in turn, helps to build up trust between people, and organizations do better where trust is the norm.”

In short, focus on always acting with integrity and serving others first and foremost. After that, the rest will start to fall into place.

December 13, 2018