Servant leadership: why being a servant leader is worth the work

Servant leadership may sound antithetic. Isn’t the role of a leader to guide and manage, rather than follow and serve? However, being a leader and being of service are not only compatible, their combination can lead to better outcomes than the sum of their parts.

Instead of blindly following organisational goals, servant leaders prioritise the well-being and development of individuals within their team. This results in better engagement, better mental health, and better personal growth.

Despite its many benefits, servant leadership can be time consuming, requires a lot of mental energy, and can lead to slow decision making, so it’s important to mitigate the few challenges associated with managing people this way.

The role of the servant leader

The concept of servant leadership has been around for millennia, but it was Robert K. Greenleaf who first coined the term in his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf described the characteristics of servant leaders, and provided examples of how such an approach to leadership could make a substantial difference to society.

The first peer-reviewed servant leadership scale was not published until after Greenleaf’s death. In 1998, Richard S. Lytle, Peter Hom and Michael Mowka developed the “service orientation scale”, in which ten factors were identified as forming the core principles of servant leadership.

As a servant leader, you should…

  1. Be empathetic. If you know your team well, you will understand their strengths, weaknesses, and what they need. Learning more about who you are working with, and taking an interest in them as a person, will help you create a psychologically safe space for your team.
  2. Actively listen. Giving a team member your full attention shows that you value their contributions. This avoids employees feeling that they are passive workers whose thoughts and feelings are not appreciated.
  3. Create an environment that promotes healing. If the work environment feels healthy, your team will not only be happier, but more productive as well. Be aware of other people’s mental, emotional, and physical needs, and create a workplace that allows people to practise self-care. This will help those who have had a negative experience in a previous job to heal and grow in their new role.
  4. Be self-aware. Practise self-reflection to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, and define how you can contribute to the team and organisation overall. Be honest about your limitations, as there may be someone else in your team whose strengths can fill these gaps, resulting in better team success.
  5. Be persuasive. Without being coercive, servant leaders should encourage people to take the desired actions. Without falling into the trap of the middle ground, aim to build agreement and encourage shared drive within your team.
  6. Conceptualise the vision. Make sure that everyone in the team can visualise the overall goal, so that people can clearly see the direction they should be taking. Having a “North star” can be especially helpful when faced with complex decisions.
  7. Work on foresight. Through experience, servant leaders should be able to anticipate the future and avoid unnecessary hurdles for their team members. This process may involve exploring the weaknesses of previous projects to identify what went wrong and what can be improved upon moving forwards.
  8. Be an effective steward. Instead of shouting orders, lead your team by example, setting the tone and taking responsibility for your own actions. This aspect of servant leadership helps to build trust and respect amongst team members.
  9. Commit to the growth of people. We are more than just our jobs. If you want your team to work effectively you will need to invest in team members as people. Provide appropriate growth and development opportunities — even when it doesn’t seem directly related to the job — and make sure to support  their individual career dreams.
  10. Build community. Having a sense of belonging will help the team get more done. Encouraging authentic relationships within your team is vital to make work more enjoyable, more creative, and more productive.

As you can see, being a servant leader is not an easy feat. In addition, it comes with a set of specific challenges that need to be considered in order to make the most of this unique leadership style. 

The challenges of servant leadership

In a paper exploring the neuroscience of servant leadership, Grant Avery, a leading expert in project management, reported that servant leadership is ideal for complex projects due to the increased engagement and improved collaboration of teams.

Furthermore, he explains how servant leadership can address the problem of social pain at work. He wrote: “Recent neuroscientific research on how social pain is experienced by the brain suggests that social pain — a phenomenon that is often triggered by unthinking managers — is highly damaging to teamwork and problem solving in projects. Servant leadership reduces social pain and, so, also the damaging effect on individual and team effectiveness that it creates.”

Vaneet Kashyap and Santosh Rangnekar also linked servant leadership with improved overall employee wellbeing, a key factor in deciding to remain with an organisation. Being a servant leader may therefore help to reduce staff turnover.

However, although servant leadership may help to inspire trust, generate results, and motivate action from teams while preserving their mental health, it’s not without its risks. As with many management styles, it takes a significant amount of time to develop servant leadership skills. During this time, decision making is likely to be much slower.

At first, the team may also find it hard to adapt to a leader who may appear to have less authority, and may wrongly consider that such a servant leader appears to be  “weaker” than others. Though, this only becomes a problem in teams that have low motivation and cohesion.

Servant leadership can only ever be as effective as the leader’s motivation allows it to be. Being a servant leader necessitates a high level of authenticity, and retraining to work in this way requires hard work. This management style does not have a specific end goal — boom, you’re a servant leader! — and is instead one of constant fine-tuning and development, which can be frustrating for some. But the many benefits make it worth a try.

How to practise servant leadership

We have seen that there are many benefits to servant leadership, as well as some risks. The following strategies may help you develop as a servant leader in a safe manner.

  • Preach by example. Instead of giving people a set of instructions, demonstrate the behaviours you want to see in your team members.
  • Explain why your colleagues’ work is essential. When the team understands the bigger picture, they will recognise how their work fits within the vision. This helps to drive engagement and motivation.
  • Encourage collaboration. Working together effectively improves problem solving, creates efficient processes and will lead to great innovation and success. Don’t be a bottleneck to collaboration: remove yourself from the equation, and let your team members brainstorm ideas together.
  • Support growth and development. Help your team members develop professionally and personally to boost the range of hard and soft skills within your team. This could mean giving them an educational stipend, letting them take time off to attend conferences, or asking them to regularly share what they recently learned with the rest of the team.
  • Show empathy and compassion. An individual who feels that their thoughts and emotions are being considered will be happier, more effective, and more likely to stay in their role. Make space for honest, vulnerable conversations with your team members.
  • Ask for feedback. Encourage an environment of open discussion, and ask for honest feedback from your team. Whether it’s about processes or communication, these suggestions will help you to improve the way you manage them.
  • Take care of your own health. It’s easy to forget about your own well-being when you are so focused on taking care of your team members. A servant leader needs to be able to support their team over the long run, which means they need to take care of their own mental and physical health. Take breaks, recharge your batteries, and make sure you have time and energy to do the things you love outside of work.

Training can help to learn how to become a servant leader by applying these strategies. However, it’s not easy to switch to an organisational model built on the principles of servant leadership.

Dr Nathan Eva and colleagues wrote: “Regardless of the quality of a training program, we contend that it is unlikely that self-centred, dogmatic, narcissistic people can be trained to be other-centred, sensitive, empathetic, socially sensitive servant leaders.”

They added: “As with virtually every major organisational change, moving an organisation from a command and control culture to one based on servant leadership will take several years to complete. Thus, organisations attempting to implement servant leadership cultures need to be patient.”

While it requires a bit of patience and determination, servant leadership can help tackle many of the challenges faced within the modern workplace, such as burnout and emotional exhaustion. Adopting this management style can boost business performance and ensure employees feel valued and respected.

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