Servant Leadership

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Today’s business leaders require skill sets beyond financial savvy and experience. In the United States alone, businesses spend $166 billion on leadership development each year. The growing understanding of leadership’s impact on employee satisfaction and retention has ignited widespread interest in the concept of servant leadership.

History of servant leadership

The idea of servant leadership emerged from the work of Robert Greenleaf. After a forty-year career in management, Greenleaf formed The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership and authored several books on the subject. According to Greenleaf, a servant leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.

Defining characteristics of servant leadership

Steph Altom, professional development specialist at The Next Step, identifies some defining characteristics of the servant leadership style.

Respect for people

Respect is a key component of servant leadership. Altom believes this begins by seeing the innate humanity and worth of every person. Successful servant leaders must have a genuine interest in the people who are working in their organization and value the unique strengths each one brings to work every day.

Aspiring servant leaders must be strong active listeners. Signs of active listening include:

  • Unspoken body language, like leaning forward
  • Making eye contact
  • Asking insightful questions

In his essay The Servant as Leader Greenleaf himself prioritized listening: “A true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first.”

Accountability leads to growth

The idea of accountability can sometimes have a negative connotation. But it’s not about the leader holding everyone else accountable, Altom said. “It’s about accountability across the board,” she said. Altom acknowledges that it can feel strange because we may not be accustomed to employees holding a leader accountable, but in a servant leadership culture, it is imperative. “Accountability is actually a good thing because it helps people grow where they need to grow,” she said.

Leaders who serve also have a philosophy of knowledge sharing instead of knowledge hoarding. Because they genuinely care about their employees, servant leaders give them the tools they need to grow into their role. When a leader freely shares their knowledge, this increases the organization’s efficiency and helps prevent bottlenecks. It’s no surprise that servant leadership plays an important role in inverted organizational charts.

Emotional intelligence and an outward mindset

Successful servant leaders intentionally cultivate their emotional intelligence (link to our blog post when it’s live). According to Harvard Professional Development Programs, despite mounting evidence that high emotional intelligence is a strong predictor of professional success, it is sometimes downplayed as a “soft skill.”   

Altom underscores the importance of a leader’s mindset. She points to the Arbinger Institute’s research which reveals that people and organizations operate from two distinct mindsets:

  • a self-focused inward mindset and
  • an others-inclusive outward mindset

“An outward mindset says, ‘I see you as a person. I understand that you have your own needs, your own requirements, your own fears, your own strengths, and your own motivations.’” Altom said. With practice, individuals can recognize when one’s mindset is shifting inward and readjust.

Servant leadership principles apply to all relationships

It’s worth noting that while most people may think of “servant leadership” in connection to leading employees and teams, it also involves relationships with clients and customers, other stakeholders , and the larger community. “It’s about having a positive impact on all your relationships internally and externally,” Altom said. “While each relationship will look a little different depending on the context, the underlying concept is the same.”

Prioritizing people is good business sense. By focusing on the needs of others, servant leaders can boost employee morale and help their bottom line. At The Next Step, our human resource experts can help you understand and embed principles of servant leadership within your organization. Reach out for a free consultation today.