Servant leadership is a non-traditional style of leadership that incorporates elements of the participative leadership and transformational leadership styles.
The term “servant leader” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the modern servant leadership movement and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
While the ideas that servant leadership encompasses have been around for a long time, 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.”
Leaders build influence by persuading people to follow them because they want to, not because they have to. The servant leader seeks not just to lead, but to serve those they lead by continually building positive influence (not positional authority) with team members and investing in their success.
This idea is at the heart of servant leadership, 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.”
In Greenleaf’s view, good leaders must first become good servants. He outlined 10 characteristics of servant leadership that help leaders both lead well and serve well.
The 10 characteristics of servant leadership are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. These characteristics are conducive to building authentic, trusting relationships with team members.
This article will explore these 10 characteristics of servant leadership.
Note: If you’d like to see a free video training program I created that will show you how to dramatically increase employee engagement in your organization in the next three months, just CLICK HERE for instant, free access.
Good communication is an essential skill for any leader who wants to lead well. Unfortunately, many managers fail to realize that listening is the most important part of the communication process.
Greenleaf says, “Don’t assume, because you are intelligent, able, and well-motivated, that you are open to communication, that you know how to listen.”
Employees become disillusioned with their leaders and their jobs when they don’t feel heard, and leaders miss out on helpful feedback when they don’t listen.
This is why servant leaders listen without judgment and are always open and receptive to feedback from their teams. Unbiased listening leads naturally to understanding, which is so important for building trust-based relationships.
Servant leaders understand that listening to their teams is crucial for inspiring employees to do great work. When employees feel their voice is heard, they are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work.
A recent study by Catalyst found empathy may be one of the most important leadership skills because of its positive effects on innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, and work-life balance.
Empathy is key to helping a team grow. 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, they 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.
Greenleaf wrote, “The servant always accepts and empathizes, never rejects.” Empathizing facilitates acceptance, which is important for healing.
We’ll discuss healing in the next section.
Compassionate leadership is fundamental to servant leadership. It helps us turn empathy into action and relieve, or heal, the suffering of others.
According to Larry C. Spears, one of the great strengths of servant leadership is its potential for transformation through healing–healing of one’s self and one’s relationship to others.
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.
With toxic workplace environments driving so much of the turnover we’ve seen with the Great Resignation, the ability to heal the wounds inflicted by negativity in the workplace is an essential leadership skill in today’s organizations.
A strong awareness of ethics and values, combined with a strong sense of self-awareness, is indispensable to servant leaders and guides them in all their actions and behaviors.
Self-awareness refers to a person’s ability to accurately perceive their emotions and remain aware of them as they occur, and it is essential to conscientious, mindful leadership.
For a leader to be effective, they must be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, yet a surprising number of people lack this skill, and they don’t even know it. Research from Dr. Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, found that while 95% of people think they are moderately or highly self-aware, less than 15% of people are actually self-aware.
This can often be a blind spot for leaders. Servant leaders realize the importance of awareness and the need for self-awareness, in particular, to better serve their employees.
Greenleaf said that when we lack awareness, “we miss leadership opportunities.” When we are aware of ourselves and where our team members are coming from, we are better leaders to our teams.
Persuasive leaders make rational arguments for action in ways that elicit a strong positive emotional response from those they lead. Servant leadership relies on persuasion, rather than positional authority, to help drive decision-making.
Servant leaders want to convince, not coerce, and work to build consensus on their teams. It’s not about getting employees to comply; it’s about getting them to understand the decision-making process and to be active participants in it.
This aspect of servant leadership shows just how stark the contrast is between the servant leadership model and more traditional leadership models.
Back in 1970, Greenleaf said, “A fresh look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways.”
This led him to predict that, in the future, the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant led. While the progress has been slow, as employees increasingly leave jobs due to toxic cultures and leaders look for new strategies for holding onto top talent, his words have become more relevant.
Servant leaders are, by principle and practice, visionaries. One of the most fascinating aspects of servant leadership, and the one 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, servant leaders play the long game. They conceptualize problems that do not currently exist and conceive solutions to those problems.
They are able to achieve what needs to be achieved in the short-term while also taking in the big picture view that helps their teams strategize, unite around a common purpose, find meaning in their work, and see its impact, which is vital to performance.
Foresight refers to the ability to foresee possible outcomes of situations and approaches to addressing those situations. It is closely linked to conceptualization.
Greenleaf described foresight thusly: “Prescience, or foresight, is a better than average guess about what is going to happen when in the future.”
Foresight helps servant leaders identify the best approaches and the ones that are most closely aligned with the organization’s mission and achieving its vision.
The ability to learn from past mistakes, an awareness and understanding of the current reality, and the ability to identify the pros and cons of a decision and its impact on the future are part of foresight, and these skills are rooted in intuitive thinking.
Stewardship is all about working toward the greater good and is a demonstration of commitment to serving and meeting the needs of others. Stewardship is the ultimate guiding force of the servant leader as they tend to the growth and success of their teams.
Stewardship is an essential part of servant leadership. Servant leaders, like good stewards, 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.
Servant leaders seek to improve the lives of team members who, in turn, seek to improve the performance of the organization and the lives of others through their work.
A culture of stewardship helps employees find meaning and purpose in their work and makes them feel satisfied in their roles, committed to the organization’s success, and motivated to perform well.
Commitment to the Growth of People
Greenleaf said, “The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be.”
Servant leaders are committed to the growth of all their team members and interact with them in ways that facilitate and encourage growth.
Through the lens of servant leadership, leaders 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.
Servant leaders nurture the personal and professional growth of employees by providing opportunities for professional development through learning, training, and leadership development.
They also encourage such growth by establishing a healthy system of feedback, mentoring and coaching teams, and giving employees the autonomy they need to perform well and take ownership of their roles.
It can be difficult to build a strong sense of community at work, especially in large organizations.
Servant leaders recognize the importance of building community and forging connections that help those they lead not only do the best work but also take pride in doing that work.
Whether it is helping coworkers connect or helping the organization connect with the community it serves, it doesn’t have to be an ambitious undertaking; small actions by many have a profound impact. This is the key to building community.
As Greenlead wrote, “All that is needed to rebuild a community as a viable life form for large numbers of people is for enough servant-leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by each servant-leader demonstrating his or her unlimited ability for a quite specific community-related group.”
Why Servant Leadership Is Effective
We have all heard of servant leadership. However, it seems we all hear about it more in principle than we see it in practice. The truth is, unfortunately, that many leaders only gauge their success monetarily or by numbers.
Hopefully, that is changing because there’s never been a better time for the servant leader. With record turnover and rampant burnout and stress among workers, the kind of patience and understanding the servant leader is guided by may just be the panacea the business world needs to cure what ails it.
The goal of servant leadership is to build authority and influence by supporting and serving employees and avoids the potentially toxic, more controlling tactics employed in some leadership styles and the hands-off approach of others.
The best leaders care about their employees. They help them to thrive. And the best leadership style is one that demonstrates care toward employees and an investment in their success.
If a leader’s primary job is to inspire their teams to do great work, the most effective leaders are servant leaders.
So how do we pivot our priorities to be in line with a servant leader mindset? By putting our team members first.
Ben Lichtenwalner, author of Paradigm Flip: Leading People, Teams, and Organizations Beyond the Social Media Revolution, says the key to the effectiveness of servant leadership is that servant leaders put others before themselves. And selfless leaders outperform selfish leaders and have more dedicated team members.
Lichtenwalner says, “Being a servant leader is built upon the foundation of putting others first and yourself second. To truly serve your team, you must put their interests and needs before your own.”
When you incorporate the characteristics of servant leadership, you are setting the stage for high-performance teams who are invested in their work and in achieving the organization’s vision.
And, in the process, you will get to the heart of leadership, which is providing the ideal circumstances for your team to do great work and inspiring them to do great work.
Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world. Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence. Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings. His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.