What is Servant Leadership in Business

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What is Servant Leadership
History of Servant Leadership
Can Servant Leadership Work in Business?
How Servant Leadership Works in Business
Video: How Servant Leadership Works in Business

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What is Servant Leadership

Nelson Mandela

Servant leadership is a popular term in discussions of effective leadership.

At its core, servant leadership is about leaders meeting the needs of their followers by showing empathy and ethics and ignoring ego and personal ambition.

Servant leadership is selfless leadership that was exemplified by Nelson Mandela as he led his nation through reconciliation after its many years of racial apartheid.

Servant leadership is selfless leadership with a high regard for empathy and ethics and a low regard for ego and personal ambition. Share on X

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History of Servant Leadership

The term servant leadership is credited to Robert Greenleaf who first used this term in an essay: The Servant as Leader. A major inspiration for Robert’s essay was the novelist Herman Hesse book Journey to the East.

Greenleaf’s basic principle was that servant leadership occurs when a leader seeks to serve others first. He distinguished the servant leader from other individuals who seek leadership because of power or wealth considerations.

Greenleaf was not an author or philosopher. He was an organizational development executive who served as Director of Management Development at AT&T. He was noted for establishing the first corporate assessment center and for assisting in the first promotions at AT&T of women and of African Americans from their usual menial positions to responsible corporate positions.

Although the modern discussions  of servant leadership owes much to Greenleaf, the concept of a leader who puts his followers first hardly originated with him (or Herman Hesse) however. Servant leadership is an ancient concept.

Servant leadership is a prominent instruction in Christianity where Jesus told his apostles: Whoever is greatest among you let him be your servant. A scholarly dissertation shows that the concept of the virtues of a servant leader also dates back thousands of years in Eastern (Lao Tsu, Chuang Tzu) and Western (Plato, Cicero) philosophy.

Servant leadership may be a popular leadership term today. The concept is hardly new, however. It dates back thousands of years in both Eastern and Western philosophy. MAYBE, servant leadership is worth paying attention to! Share on X

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Can Servant Leadership Work in Business?

Despite the long history of the value of a leader who first serves his or her followers, not everyone supports the concept of servant leadership.

Some managers see servant leadership as weak and incompatible with the tough world of business where companies are in battle with each other for their very survival.

Disbelief in the value of servant leadership is particularly true of managers who believe in a more autocratic/authoritarian leadership style (leaders commanding and controlling their followers).

While autocratic/authoritarian leadership has a legitimate place in business, it is a limited use strategy for interacting with one’s employees. Excessive use of autocratic/authoritarian leadership harms employee morale and hinders organizational creativity and innovation.

In business, servant leadership is the opposite of autocratic/authoritarian leadership. It’s a strategy that managers can use often to both engage their employees and meet organizational objectives.

Despite the skepticism of some, servant leadership can and does work in the business world.

A research study tested the servant leadership model in several high-performing luxury automobile companies in the demanding for-profit service industry. The researchers found that attention to servant leadership allowed these firms to achieve top service ratings, increased customer loyalty, and a growth in net profit.

Servant leadership clearly works but what exactly does servant leadership look like in the business context of getting the work done?

What is it exactly that managers do when they adopt the servant leadership model?

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How Servant Leadership Works in Business

A research study of the leadership styles that support implementation of the rigorous ISO 9000 (a set of international standards on quality management and quality assurance) shows that attributes of servant leadership were one of the dominant factors for success.

These attributes are the following:

  1. Providing subordinates with sufficient training to achieve goals
  2. Providing subordinates with sufficient resources to achieve goals
  3. Supporting the professional growth of employees
  4. Sharing information with employees
  5. Empowering employees
  6. Enabling employees
  7. Ensuring a good working environment
  8. Clearly explaining what is expected from employees

These findings show that servant leadership in business occurs when managers focus their efforts on what it will take to make their employees succeed in their roles. The following is an excerpt from my leadership book, 12 Steps to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness, that shows further what servant leadership looks like in business:

Effective leaders see themselves as facilitators of other peoples’ success. These leaders understand that they cannot achieve any results without their team members. These leaders do not view their team members as people working for them. Instead, they see their team members as people working with them. They think “we” not “I.”

Effective leaders do not spend most of their efforts commanding, controlling, and coercing their team members. Instead, they turn the power dynamic upside down. They use their organizational power to support their team members. Effective leadership is servant based.

As a servant leader, your primary role is to remove the obstacles that prevent your people from doing their job. Employee obstacles come in many forms.

If your employees lack knowledge or skills, you provide training and coaching to address their performance gaps. If they need equipment or materials, you do all you can to get these resources to them. If processes or procedures need changing, you work with your boss, peers and senior management to effect change.

As the servant leader, you are constantly assessing what your team members need to be successful. Once you have that information, you actively work to support their success.

To lead people successfully, start each day by looking for the answer to this question, “What does my team need from me today to be successful?” Once you determine the answer, do everything in your power to give your team what they need. When your team is successful, you are successful!

Effective leadership is about meeting the goals of your organization. If you are focusing too much on your own needs, then you are not effectively leading your team.

Effective leadership is not about commanding and controlling employees. It's about serving employees so they can give the organization their best efforts. Share on X

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There’s a reason why servant leadership has existed in multiple forms in the minds of different brilliant people for thousands of years. It is how leadership is supposed to work.

Management expert Peter Drucker makes one of the best cases for the value of servant leadership in business. In an especially powerful quote, he said the following:

The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say ‘I’. And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say ‘I’. They don’t think ‘I’. They think ‘we’; they think ‘team’. They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but ‘we’ gets the credit…. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.

This is why servant leadership works: it’s never about the leader; it’s always about the TEAM.

There's a reason why servant leadership works. It's because this type of leadership is never about the leader. Instead, it's always about the TEAM. Share on X

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Video: How Servant Leadership Works in Business

Image of Nelson Mandela courtesy of Kjetil_r.

Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

This article is accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Content is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional advice in business, management, legal, or human resource matters.

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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