- IMD Business School

Servant leadership: everything you need to know

Servant leadership is a transformational leadership philosophy where the focus is placed on the needs of others. This type of leadership is steadily reshaping traditional leadership styles in today’s work environment.

In this article, we delve into the specifics of this leadership approach, review the characteristics of servant leadership, discuss its pros and cons, and provide a step-by-step guide on implementing it effectively. Additionally, we’ll highlight key elements to remember about this unique leadership model.

  1. What is servant leadership?
  2. What are the pros of servant leadership?
  3. What are the cons of servant leadership?
  4. What are some core principles of servant leadership?
  5. How to implement servant leadership: 9 steps
  6. 3 things to remember about servant leadership
  7. How to transform your team into a dream team?

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy where the leader’s primary goal is to serve. It’s a style of leadership characterized by focusing on the needs of team members and encouraging their professional and personal growth (as opposed to prioritizing the leader’s own needs for power or recognition).

The concept has existed for centuries, although Robert K. Greenleaf first formalized it in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” This essay sparked a revolution and marked the beginning of a new era for leadership – one based on service, kindness, and trust. 

The idea behind the servant leadership theory is to lead with humility and selflessness rather than domination or power. By putting the needs of others before their own, servant leaders strive to create a productive work environment while ensuring their team members reach their highest potential.

What are the pros of servant leadership?

Servant leaders act as supervisors and facilitators who motivate and inspire their co-workers to achieve excellence. The servant leadership style focuses on fostering collaboration, building trust, and developing team members, making it an attractive way for organizations to cultivate high-performing teams.
When it comes to the pros of servant leadership, several unique benefits come with this approach:

  • Positive atmosphere: Employees who work under a leader focused on helping them be better professionals are more likely to be productive and engaged with their work. The supportive environment these types of leaders foster can also lead to increased creativity and improved communication among team members, which helps everyone understand each other better.
  • Increased motivation: Another benefit of servant leadership is that employees working under these leaders often become more motivated (since they have someone they respect and feel inspired by at the top).
  • Better decisions: Servant leadership encourages team members to think independently while remaining connected and making decisions collaboratively. This results in faster, smarter solutions since everybody’s thoughts and ideas can be considered without anyone feeling overwhelmed or left out.
  • Greater job satisfaction: Servant leaders create an environment where team members are valued and respected, which can lead to greater job satisfaction. This can result in lower turnover rates and more loyalty to the organization.
  • Improved communication: Servant leaders focus on listening and empathizing with team members, which can lead to improved communication and greater understanding among team members. This can make it easier to resolve conflicts and work together effectively.
  • Greater ethical standards: Servant leaders prioritize the needs of their employees, customers, and other stakeholders, rather than just focusing on profits or other short-term goals. This can lead to a more ethical and socially responsible organization that can better meet the needs of its stakeholders over the long term.
  • Stronger teamwork: Servant leaders encourage collaboration and teamwork, leading to stronger relationships and a more cohesive team. This can result in improved efficiency and greater productivity.
  • Empowerment: Servant leaders empower their team members to take on leadership roles and make decisions, which can lead to greater ownership and accountability among team members. This can result in greater creativity, innovation, and problem-solving skills.

    In summary, servant leadership brings many benefits to an organization, including a positive atmosphere, increased motivation, better decision-making, greater job satisfaction, improved communication, greater ethical standards, stronger teamwork, and more empowerment. These factors can lead to a more productive, engaged, and successful organization.

Servant leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, they don’t work for you; you work for them.

Ken Blanchard, American business consultant, author, and speaker

What are the cons of servant leadership?

Despite all its advantages, there are also some drawbacks to servant leadership:

  • Lack of results focus: These types of leaders tend to be less demanding regarding results because they want to ensure their teams are happy and content. As a result, there might be times when performance goals are unmet, or individuals who could have accomplished more don’t reach their true potential because of this leniency.
  • Difficulty connecting with leaders: Some people may find it challenging to connect with such a leader if they’re used to traditional management methods, which often rely on intimidation rather than mutual respect.
  • Potential for passivity: Servant leaders are known for being humble, compassionate, and selfless, which can sometimes lead to passivity. They may avoid taking a firm stance or making difficult decisions, making it hard for the organization to move forward decisively.
  • Limited control: Servant leaders tend to give their team members more autonomy and decision-making power, which can lead to a lack of control over the organization’s overall direction. This can make achieving a shared vision or implementing large-scale changes challenging.
  • Difficulty in scaling: Servant leadership works best in small teams or organizations where the leader can easily connect with each team member. It can be difficult to scale this approach to larger organizations where the leader may not have the same level of direct contact with each employee.
  • Resistance to change: Servant leadership is a relatively new concept, and not all employees or organizations may be open to this new way of leading. There may be resistance to change among employees who are used to a more traditional, hierarchical leadership style.
  • Risk of being taken advantage of: Servant leaders put the needs of their team members above their own, which can sometimes lead to their team members taking advantage of them. They may be more likely to put up with poor performance or bad behavior from team members, which can ultimately harm the organization.

What are some core principles of servant leadership?

Here are some of the core principles of servant leadership, as put forth by the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership and further conceptualized by Larry C. Spears:

  • Listening. A great leader understands the importance of active listening skills. It’s a key leadership skill to ensure team members feel heard, understood, and valued.
  • Empathy. A servant leader strives to understand and empathize with others. This approach goes beyond transactional relationships, focusing instead on fostering deeper, more compassionate connections.
  • Healing. Servant leaders recognize their team’s well-being is paramount. They are committed to healing themselves and others, thereby creating a healthier community.
  • Awareness. Self-awareness and a keen understanding of the team’s needs and feelings are significant qualities of an effective leader. It enables them to make decisions that consider the bigger picture, not just the bottom line.
  • Persuasion. Instead of using their position of authority to make decisions, servant leaders use persuasion to build consensus within groups.
  • Conceptualization. A servant leader has the ability to envision the future and think beyond day-to-day realities. They conceptualize the impact of their decisions on their team and business, leading to long-term strategic planning.
  • Foresight. This refers to the ability to foresee potential outcomes based on understanding the past. Foresight is crucial for risk management and making informed decisions.
  • Stewardship. Servant leaders see themselves as stewards committed to the growth and well-being of their team and organization. This principle goes hand-in-hand with their management style of prioritizing service over self-interest.
  • Commitment to the growth of people. Servant leaders believe in investing in their team members. Leadership development is a critical focus area, nurturing future leaders and prioritizing the personal and professional growth of all team members.
  • Building community. A servant leader understands the strength that lies in fostering a sense of community. Building community in the workplace leads to an environment where people feel a sense of belonging and are more committed and productive.

Each of these principles is crucial in establishing “servant first” as the key characteristic of servant leadership, challenging traditional power structures and creating more empathetic and effective leadership models.

How to implement servant leadership: 9 steps

Fortunately, organizations can take steps toward successfully implementing servant leadership to avoid its drawbacks while getting the most out of its benefits. Here are some tips for successful implementation.

1. Evaluate existing practices

Start by evaluating existing managerial practices and identifying any areas where improvement needs to occur for servant leadership principles to thrive.

2. Provide training & recognition programs

Invest in providing staff training in areas like communication and collaboration so they’re better equipped when dealing with each other or having open discussions about various topics related to employee satisfaction. Additionally, provide rewards or recognition programs that recognize those who go above and beyond expectations set by managers and peers alike.

3. Encourage open dialogue & transparency

Create an environment where dialogue between team members is encouraged regardless of one’s position. This helps everyone feel like they have ownership over contributing ideas or solutions without fear of reprisal from higher-ups. Also, ensure transparency between all involved parties so information sharing becomes part of the organization’s natural culture instead of feeling forced or uncomfortable.

4. Focus on feedback & development opportunities

Maintain an ongoing dialogue between management and staff by offering regular feedback sessions concerning individual performance, strengths and weaknesses, etc., while also providing development opportunities that allow personnel to hone skillsets needed to grow professionally.

5. Empower employees

Give employees the autonomy and resources to take on leadership roles and make decisions. This will help them feel more engaged and motivated and will help the organization become more flexible and responsive to changing circumstances.

6. Lead by example

As a servant leader, it’s essential to lead by example. Demonstrating the values and behaviors you want to see in your team members will help create a culture of servant leadership throughout the organization.

7. Encourage collaboration

Encourage collaboration and teamwork by creating opportunities for team members to work together on projects and recognizing and rewarding team efforts. This will help build stronger relationships and a more cohesive team.

8. Communicate the vision

Communicate the vision and mission of the organization, and ensure everyone understands how their role fits into the organization’s overall goals. This will help create a sense of shared purpose and motivation among team members.

9. Regularly review progress

Regularly review progress and make adjustments as needed. Monitor the effectiveness of the servant leadership approach, gather feedback from team members, and make changes as necessary. This will help ensure the organization is constantly improving and moving in the right direction.

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3 things to remember about servant leadership:

1. What servant leadership is

Servant leadership is a philosophy and approach that puts the needs of others before your own. By focusing on service, humility, and trust in the workplace, servant leaders can create a productive and collaborative environment where everyone can thrive.

Implementing this leadership style requires commitment from both leader and team members alike, but it is an effective way to foster collaboration and success. With the right actions, support, and dedication, servant leaders can take their teams – and their organization – to the next level.

2. The pros:

Servant leadership can lead to a more ethical and socially responsible organization, as it prioritizes the needs of employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

This approach can also increase employee motivation and job satisfaction, resulting in lower turnover rates and higher commitment and loyalty to the organization.

The benefits of servant leadership are also evident in better decision-making, as it encourages independent thinking and collaboration among team members.

3. The cons:

As with any leadership approach, servant leadership also has some potential downsides. It can be challenging to implement in organizations that are highly hierarchical or with a strong “command and control” culture.

Leaders need to be aware of these potential drawbacks and find ways to mitigate them, such as setting clear performance goals, creating a culture that values mutual respect, and being prepared to make difficult decisions when necessary.

Final thoughts on servant leadership

Servant leadership is a leadership style based on serving others and putting the needs of employees, customers, and other stakeholders first. It can lead to a more engaged, motivated, and productive workforce, better decision-making, and a more ethical and socially responsible organization.

Implementing servant leadership requires a change in culture and mindset, training and development opportunities, open dialogue, transparency, focus on feedback and development opportunities, empowering employees, leading by example, encouraging collaboration and communication, and regularly reviewing progress.

While it may have its challenges, the benefits of servant leadership make it a practical approach for any organization looking to improve its performance, employee satisfaction, and overall success.

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