Business Leadership Today

Three Characteristics of Servant Leadership


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

One of the hallmarks of traditional leadership styles is a focus on results. The pursuit of results (or profits, more specifically) has, unfortunately, often had negative impacts on other aspects of organizations—culture, people, and the sustainable use of resources, just to name a few.  

In traditional hierarchical, command and control leadership models, the leader is often more concerned with building influence and power than serving those they lead or helping them achieve the growth they need to stay motivated and engaged. In such a work environment, workers often feel disrespected.

Is this a winning approach to leadership in business today? The research indicates that it is not

Leaders who do not balance results with relationships end up with less engaged employees who are so dissatisfied with their jobs that they leave. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that feeling disrespected at work was one of the top reasons why US workers quit their jobs in 2021.

This is why there has never been a better time, or more dire need, for the servant leader. 

Servant leaders put the needs of others before their own and lead in ways that help their employees thrive while they help the organization achieve positive business results. A servant leader is a servant first, and this is the key to getting results. 

Servant leaders are guided by principles that help them develop characteristics that are conducive to high performance, positive business outcomes, and happier employees. 

Three characteristics of servant leadership that set it apart from traditional leadership styles are its approach to building authentic influence with followers, its focus on the growth and success of others, and its commitment to achieving goals sustainably and without harming employees’ well-being.

This article will discuss three characteristics of servant leadership that set it apart from other leadership approaches and make it the most effective leadership style. 

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a non-traditional style of leadership that incorporates elements of participative leadership and transformational leadership.

Servant leadership encompasses ideas that have been around for a long time, but Robert K. Greenleaf is credited as the first person to articulate them as part of the modern servant leadership movement in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”

The goal of servant leadership is to build authority and influence through supporting and serving employees. Servant leaders encourage their team members to work with autonomy but remain a positive influence guiding them toward growth.

Servant leaders put the well-being of those they lead before their own ambitions and help them to reach their full potential, which helps the organization reach its full potential.

They build resilient teams that are adaptable, collaborative, inclusive, innovative, and united in achieving the organization’s vision. They forge strategies that support high performance, productivity, and profits without burning employees out or causing avoidable stress.

Greenleaf outlined 10 main principles of servant leadership that help leaders both lead well and serve well: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. 

The Benefits of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership offers benefits that traditional leadership styles often fail to deliver, including high levels of trust, a positive work environment, and better collaborative efforts. These benefits help organizations achieve the results they want while supporting the growth and well-being of employees.

High Level of Trust

Servant leaders work continually to build trust with team members, which reinforces culturally-aligned core values and generates cultural buy-in, both essential for keeping employees engaged in their work and committed to the vision.

Building trusting relationships with team members requires more than a job title or positional authority. Good leaders convince those they lead to follow them not because they have to but because they want to. Building influence in this way helps create a high level of trust that facilitates real teamwork and a respectful work environment.  

Positive Work Environment

Servant leaders understand that the key to keeping employees satisfied in their roles and motivated to consistently perform well is providing a positive work environment where all team members feel included and supported. 

Servant leaders do this by leading compassionately. Compassionate leadership provides the ideal conditions for team members to do great work, helps them grow as people, and improves their overall well-being. It fosters a positive work environment that is inhospitable to the toxic behaviors that drive turnover and disengagement. 

Better Collaborative Efforts

Servant leaders are invested in helping all team members succeed and understand that the best way to achieve this is to help them unite around a shared sense of purpose that they work toward through collaborative efforts. 

Building trust (between leaders and team members and between team members and their co-workers) and helping team members see a purpose in their work beyond their day-to-day job duties improves collaborative efforts throughout the organization and an organization’s ability to collaborate with partners and clients. 

How Servant Leadership Is Different From Traditional Leadership Styles

The most effective leaders possess a high degree of self-awareness, invite employees to participate in decision-making, and are committed to helping teams grow. They care about their employees and make the growth of team members their goal. 

Of all the leadership styles, servant leadership is the most effective at achieving this goal. It avoids the potentially toxic, more controlling tactics of some traditional leadership styles and the hands-off approaches of others.

The key to servant leadership’s effectiveness is in how it differs from traditional leadership styles.

According to Greenleaf, “The servant-leader is servant first, it begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first, as opposed to, wanting power, influence, fame, or wealth.”

Servant leadership is different from other leadership styles because it values service to others over personal gain and helping team members reach their full potential over getting results at any cost. Servant leaders share power and help their team members achieve greatness through caring leadership.

In Greenleaf’s view, leaders must first become servants to lead effectively. This approach to leadership, though less results-focused than other leadership styles, has the benefit of achieving the desired results in ways that are not detrimental to the well-being and psychological safety of others. 

Servant leadership shifts the focus of leadership and presents an approach that prioritizes serving the greater good over personal gain and the pursuit of power. Servant leaders lead in ways that are sustainable for employees

This creates a highly ethical, transparent, and respectful work environment where employees are culturally aligned with the organization and committed to achieving positive outcomes.

The Three Characteristics of Servant Leadership that Truly Set It Apart from Traditional Leadership Styles

The principles of servant leadership guide the servant leader toward strategies that achieve the business results they want without harming the well-being of others by helping leaders develop three key characteristics that set them apart from traditional leaders: 

1. Servant leaders build authentic influence rooted in trust.

Servant leaders build influence with those they lead by building authentic, trust-based relationships with them that are conducive to collaborative, inclusive work environments where employees feel valued. 

Servant leaders are guided by a set of principles that require a high level of emotional intelligence: listening, persuasion, empathy, healing, and awareness. 

Listening: Good communication is an essential skill for any leader who wants to lead well. Unfortunately, many in leadership fail to realize that listening is the most important part of the communication process—and crucial for building trust with team members. Servant leaders engage in unbiased listening and are always open and receptive to feedback from their teams.

Persuasion: Servant leaders don’t command team members to follow them, they persuade them and invite them into the decision-making process. Servant leaders want to convince, not coerce, and, rather than focusing on compliance to get results, they work to build consensus.

Empathy: When we empathize, we understand and share the feelings of another person. Servant leaders seek not only to understand where their employees are coming from but also seek to empathize with them to better serve them. They listen with empathy, understand with empathy, lead with empathy, and encourage empathetic behaviors in their employees, which increases trust between team members and their co-workers, as well as leadership. 

Healing: In “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf said, “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.” Servant leaders recognize that leadership provides them with the opportunity to improve people’s lives and help them overcome past hurts so that they can move past them and maintain trusting relationships. 

Awareness: A strong awareness of ethics and values, combined with a strong sense of self-awareness, guides servant leaders in all their actions and behaviors. Greenleaf said that when we lack awareness, “we miss leadership opportunities.” We also miss opportunities to build trust when we lack awareness. When we are aware of ourselves and where our team members are coming from, we are better leaders to them, and they will trust us more for it. 

2. Servant leaders focus on the growth and success of others rather than the pursuit of power.

Servant leaders are focused on the greater good and serving others—whether it’s their employees, customers, or other stakeholders. Servant leaders demonstrate this by committing to the growth of people and building community. 

Commitment To the Growth of People: Servant leaders are committed to the growth of team members and interact with them in ways that facilitate and encourage personal and professional growth. They are able to see the intrinsic value their employees bring to the table, which goes beyond their more tangible contributions or the monetary success they can help the organization achieve. 

Building Community: Whether it is helping co-workers connect or helping the organization connect with the community it serves, servant leaders recognize the importance of building community and forging connections that help their teams both grow and commit to the growth of others. This principle is tied strongly to the core philosophy of servant leadership: that leaders serve and inspire their followers to also serve others. 

3. Servant leaders are committed to achieving goals sustainably.

Servant leaders take care of the resources they have been entrusted with and always consider the impacts their actions and decisions can have on their teams and the long-term success of the organization. Servant leaders are guided in their decision-making by the principles of conceptualization, foresight, and stewardship.

Conceptualization: The aspect that truly represents the servant leader’s capacity to help their teams achieve great things is its emphasis on the conceptual perspective. While many managers often become so focused on achieving short-term operational goals that they miss the big-picture view and fail to recognize opportunities for innovation, servant leaders conceptualize problems that do not currently exist and conceive solutions to those problems. 

Foresight: Foresight refers to the ability to foresee possible outcomes of situations and approaches to addressing those situations. It is closely linked to conceptualization and helps servant leaders identify the best approaches and the ones that are most closely aligned with the organization’s mission and achieving its vision. Servant leaders engage in decision-making that is informed by both the current reality and a consideration of the potential long-term impacts of the decisions they make.   

Stewardship: Stewardship is the ultimate guiding force of the servant leader as they tend to the growth and success of their teams. Servant leaders are good stewards who are more focused on care than control, value the resources and people with which they have been entrusted, and ensure that they leave a strong legacy behind that inspires others. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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