Servant Leadership Guide: Definition, Qualities, Pros & Cons, Examples
“The great leader is seen as servant first” – Robert K. Greenleaf
The above quote lays its premise on a leadership theory that has gone to challenge traditional leadership models. Servant leadership is not entirely a new concept or a way to lead, but it hasn’t been intentionally applied until in recent decades when the idea took off in force.
In this guide, we’ll explore what servant leadership is through the context of history and modernity. We’ll examine the different elements of the concept and consider the characteristics a good servant leader needs to possess. Finally, we’ll examine the advantages and disadvantages of servant leadership and explore a few examples of servant leaders and organizations.
Ready? Enjoy the longest and most comprehensive guide on servant leadership.
UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENT CONTEXTS OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP
Servant leadership combines both practical advice on how to be a better leader, as well as the philosophical notions of what it is to be a good leader. The theory has been evolving over time, with some of the ideas going back centuries.
The historical context
The basic idea of servant leadership is to challenge the traditional hierarchical leadership structures and question the idea of what it is to serve and to lead. The idea of serving others while leading is not a new concept, as philosophers throughout the ages have talked about servitude as a virtue for leaders.
In a classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching, there are passages that talk about servant leadership. The text, which has been often attributed to the famous Chinese writer Lao-Tzu, discusses how the great leaders are not to be seen and who helps the people achieve things.
There’s a passage in the text that states:
The highest rulers, people do not know they have them
The next level, people love them and praise them
The next level, people fear them
The next level, people despise them
If the rulers’ trust is insufficient
Have no trust in them
Proceeding calmly, valuing their words
Task accomplished, matter settled
The people all say, “We did it naturally”
But perhaps an even clearer example of servant leadership in historical texts is the example set out in Christianity by Jesus. He embodied the idea that by serving others you can empower them and help them see the way. He didn’t perform his miracles for recognition or fame, but to simply help the people in need.
The clearest examples of Jesus’ model of servant leadership are found in the Gospel of Mark. In the gospel, there’s a passage, which says:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus didn’t merely talk about servant leadership and its benefits, he also led by example. A powerful example of servant leadership at the time was the act of washing the feet of his disciples. In the historical context of the time, the demeaning task was left for the lowest rank people. When Jesus performed this unthinkable act, he told his followers:
You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. (NIV Bible, Gospel of John 13:13-15)
Furthermore, the idea of servitude and leading as an example to the people has survived in many monarchies, as well as other political contexts. If you’ve ever watched an inauguration speech, you’ve probably noticed how the person swearing in tends to acknowledge of service to God, country and the people.
For example, listen to the powerful speech by Queen Elizabeth II on her coronation in 1953:
The modern context
The idea of servant leadership was coined more thoroughly and brought to a modern business world by Robert K. Greenleaf. His book The Servant as Leader was published in 1970 and it still forms the basis of the theory to this day.
Greenleaf developed his idea of servant as leader after he left AT&T in 1964 from the position of the Director of Management Research, Development and Education. He had worked for the company for 38 years. After his retirement he marked on a second career as consultant, further developing his ideas around servant leadership.
The basic premise of Greenleaf’s servant leadership
For Greenleaf, a servant leader was someone who was a servant first, with a natural inclination to serving others. In his essay, The Servant as Leader, he wrote:
“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
While it might be easy to think, the historical examples of the above might have acted as a catalyst for Greenleaf, the spark for rethinking the idea of leadership and its structures came from his reading of fictional literature. The concept was largely stimulated by Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East.
The book is a story about a group of travelers and their servant Leo. Leo performed menial tasks for the group and acted as the cheerful spirit of the group. But Leo suddenly disappeared one day, leaving the group in chaos and eventually ending their journey. Later, one of the group’s members met Leo and realized he was the head of the Order, which helped sponsor these journeys.
Realizing the value of Leo’s actions, Greenleaf wrote in his essay:
“…this story clearly says – the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness. Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside.”
Furthermore, another major inspiration or instigator to his theorizing was the 1960s and social upheaval within universities across the US. The era saw plenty of young people feeling hopeless about future prospects, something that is obvious across the Western world today. To Greenleaf, part of the importance of the servant leadership concept is based on its ability to offer hope through awareness and self-understanding.
In essence, servant leadership is something innate – the wish to serve is not something you instill on yourself, it is a feeling that comes from within. On the other hand, being a leader is only a status or a title – it is not a permanent position and it is given to you and can therefore be taken away. Therefore, by serving first, you can make a real difference.
A big part of Greenleaf’s idea also looked at how the idea of servant leadership is not just an individualistic way to serve. He also saw that institutions could be servant, something he called ‘credo’. By creating more servant institutions, ones that focus on serving the employee first, you are able to instill change in society. This would then lead to a more loving and just environment for everyone.
In his book, The Power of Servant-Leadership, Greenleaf said the only way to achieve a servant institution is if:
“The people who inhabit it [the institution] serve better and work toward synergy – the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts”
Greenleaf went on to write a number of other titles on the topic. Some of his major publications include:
- The Institution as Servant (1972)
- Trustees as Servants (1974)
- Advices to Servants (1975)
- Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (1977)
- Servant, Leader and Follower (1978)
Further writings and studies of the concept
Greenleaf sparked an interest in the theory and soon other writings and studies on servant leadership emerged. It has also gained traction recently with the issue of increasing income inequality, which has sparked questions over how modern organizations operate.
Larry Spears, Executive Director of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, has explored Greenleaf’s ideas and developed them further. In 1996, Spears wrote in an essay, Reflections on Robert K. Greenleaf and Servant-Leadership, the model is “a new kind of leadership model – a model which puts serving others as the number one priority”.
Furthermore, Spears wrote in his 2005 essay, The Understanding and Practice of Servant-Leadership, that servant leadership is a model “based on teamwork and community” and that it “seeks to involve others in decision making…to enhance the personal growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of our many institutions”.
Spears, as well as Robert C Liden and his colleagues, have identified different values and dimensions in the uses of servant leadership. This has sparked interest from behavioral scientists, such as E.E. Joseph and B.E. Winston in their 2005 essay A Correlation of Servant Leadership, Leader Trust, and Organisational Trust.
The importance of values is a core part of leadership philosophy, as it shapes the way the leader behaves and acts. S. Chris Edmonds wrote in his book The Culture Engine, “I define leadership as a person’s dedication to helping others be their best selves at home, work, and in their community”.
It’s important to note that servant leadership is being developed in a standalone leadership style, but it can also be used as a complement to other leadership styles – mainly those that are democratic in nature.
For further readings on the topic, you can check out the following books:
- The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader
- Practicing Servant Leadership: Succeeding through Trust, Bravery, and Forgiveness
You should also watch the below talk by Anthony Perez on the future of servant leadership:
CORE ELEMENTS OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP
The above section focused broadly on the history and development of the idea, but let’s turn our focus on the core principles of the servant leadership theory.
Spears and other colleagues have identified four core tenets for servant leadership and the framework for applying it. The four are: service to others, holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community and sharing of power in decision-making.
Service to others
Service to others is often viewed as the moral component of the servant leadership theory. The whole concept is based on the leader taking the position of a servant in their interactions with the employees.
The internal thirst to serve is “the key to greatness”, according to Greenleaf’s original essay. The primary purpose of a servant leader is to motivate others and bring about the greatness in others, with the organizational success being the indirect outcome of this approach.
Therefore, a business shouldn’t emphasize the objectives of the organization, but to ensure the employees and the community it serves are reaching their goals. In essence, the element refers to ‘doing what’s right’ and could be part of an organization’s decision to use sustainable supplies, for example.
Holistic approach to work
The second component relates to the emphasis servant leadership puts on serving for the benefit of others, not just that of the company. Greenleaf wrote in 1996 in his book On Becoming a Servant-Leader that, “The work exists for the person as much as the person for the work”.
The holistic approach promotes the idea that individual employees, the organizations they work for, and the society as a whole are interconnected. As mentioned above, by instilling servant leadership in an institution, you can ultimately begin to change the world around you.
The focus of a business should be about encouraging individuals to be who they are and supporting their personal goals and objectives first. For instance, employee benefits should be decided on the needs of the individual and not on the long-term interests of the organization.
Promoting a sense of community
Nonetheless, you also need to promote the success of all stakeholders. For servant leadership to work, you need different parts of the organization working together. In his original essay, Greenleaf called for an establishment of a community within organizations, with groups of individuals coming together. Members of these groups should not only be liable for themselves, but also for the group as a whole.
To a business, the focus should be on ensuring different stakeholders from investors to employees are able to work together and to understand the common objectives.
Sharing of power in decision-making
Finally, effective servant leadership requires collaboration in decision-making. In a sense, a servant leader must have a strong ability to self-reflect and to nurture participatory culture within the organization. R. F. Russell wrote in his essay The role of values in servant leadership in 2001, “Leaders enable others to act not by hoarding the power they have but by giving it away.”
Servant leadership is about breaking the pyramid structure of power and decision-making. Instead, businesses should aim towards a more flexible process, whereas decision-making is shared. A good way of doing it is by promoting top-down innovation and fostering feedback within the organization.
The above image highlights well the leadership structure of servant leadership compared to the traditional power model.
10 CORE CHARACTERISTICS OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP
In his 2005 essay, Spears identified 10 core characteristics of servant leadership by examining Greenleaf’s writings.
Servant leadership requires leaders to listen to other people, not just be good at communication and decision-making. Listening is about focusing on what the team is saying and using this information for guiding the group towards objectives.
But listening should go beyond what’s being spoken in servant leadership. An effective leader should also identify the things that are left unsaid, as well as the inner voices.
Listening in business
A leader should regularly organize team meetings and situations where the members of the team are able to voice opinions. The meetings should be a mixture of group discussions and face-to-face chats.
Since listening is not just about the spoken word, a leader should regularly venture amongst the team and assess the mood in the room. Conflicts can often be sensed and unhappiness felt without someone having to voice it out.
How to improve your listening skills?
In order to develop this characteristic a good leader would learn more about being attentive. This can be improved by understanding body language better and by improving the ability to give and receive feedback.
With listening comes to ability to empathize. Since the focus of servant leadership is to serve others, you must be able to accept and recognize the individual values and feelings people have. Even when someone is underperforming at work, a servant leader should be able to love and understand him or her as humans.
Empathy in business
In a business environment, empathy is often hard to achieve because the focus is on company objectives and performance. But with servant leadership, the focus shifts to the individual employee and his or her wellbeing.
An empathetic leader wouldn’t just accept any behavior or performance, but instead of simply dismissing the team member, the leader would try to understand the behavior.
How to improve your ability to be empathetic?
When having a conversation, you should try to put your own viewpoints aside and openly listen to what the other person is saying. You need to be inquisitive and learn more about different ways of doing things. Instead of rejecting an idea or a thought, learn more about it to understand where the person suggesting it is coming from.
Servant leadership emphasizes the emotional health of an individual, together with mental and physical wellbeing. A servant leader should focus on his or her potential to heal one’s own self and others.
To Greenleaf, healing refers to the idea of making oneself ‘whole’. The wholeness in one’s self is a universal desire and the leader’s role is to help team members to achieve this.
Healing in business
In a business context, healing would be achieved by ensuring there are enough support options employees can use. This could mean access to counselling, provision of proper healthcare facilities, a strong health and safety culture, and focus on self-development through courses and training.
How to improve your healing abilities?
As a leader, you should make the above resources a priority, but you can also help people achieve the wholeness by using the right approach. Ensure you don’t focus on just work-related things in your conversations with people, but also get to know how the person is doing.
Make sure you read self-development guides and provide tips on what you’ve learned to your team. Ensure you are doing well mentally and physically to guarantee you have the strength to help others.
Servant leadership requires awareness, both in terms of general awareness and self-awareness. Self-awareness in particular requires the leader to see their own emotions and behaviors in the context of how it affects the rest of the team.
Greenleaf wrote in his original essay, “Awareness is not a giver of solace – it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.” Through self-awareness, you become better at noticing what the people around you are doing and fix problems quicker.
Awareness in business
Self-awareness is tightly connected to the feedback culture within the organization. It is important that employees are able to provide feedback, not just on themselves and each other, but also the management and leadership.
How to become more aware?
The secret to awareness is taking a closer look inside you. Finding about your strengths and weaknesses is crucial for understanding your inner-self and how it affects others around you.
You can learn more about yourself through personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs. But more importantly, a good leader seeks for feedback from the team to learn more about how they are perceived and how their actions are influencing others.
Servant leadership doesn’t rely on authority to get things done. Instead, the concept uses persuasion in order to make a decision. Servant leader seeks for consensus rather than compliance, which is perhaps the biggest difference to traditional authoritarian models.
In 1970, Greenleaf wrote, “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”. The creative way refers to a personal relationship with the team, rather than a position of power.
Persuasion in business
In order to achieve organizational objectives, the business must build trust and enthusiasm within the team. By fostering good employee-leader relationships, the team wants to get things done.
In a large part, persuasion in business is highlighted by the organization’s need to ‘make their case’. Employees should be involved in the decision-making and explained what the objectives are and why, as this can help influence them in a positive manner to act.
How to become more persuasive?
For a servant leader, persuasion is an important tool and there are a few ways to master it. You can improve your body language, your communication and ability to sense when is the right time to talk and to listen.
Finally, you should aim to be the expert in your field, as it can guarantee the team looks up to you and feels inspired by you. Show your own enthusiasm and expertise with your actions and it’ll inspire others.
Greenleaf said in Servant as Leader that a servant leader is able to conceive solutions to problems, which are not presently there. This kind of conceptualization therefore requires the leader the look beyond simple day-to-day realities.
In a traditional leadership model, the leader’s focus is often on short-term operational objectives. But a servant leader must look beyond these and conceptualize issues that might not even be on the horizon.
Conceptualization in business
Different stakeholders will have unique roles in determining the short- and long-term objectives. Conceptualization is often left at the trustees or directors, but these boards can be hung up with daily business operations and overlook the importance of visionary conceptualization.
As employees should mainly focus on operational efficiency, trustees on visionary approach, then the role of the leader is to bring balance in these two approaches.
Therefore, whilst it’s important a leader is on top of the day-to-day operations and makes sure these are efficiently implemented and achieved, the leader must also look beyond short-term objectives and develop a visionary strategy for the future.
How to be better at conceptualization?
The most efficient way to improve your ability to conceptualize is through the improvement in business acumen. You need to improve your understanding of the industry and the organization by reading relevant reports, books and industry blogs. This can help you see where the industry and organization is heading and better prepare for the future.
Another relating point to conceptualization is the concept of foresight. Servant leadership requires the ability to foresee likely outcomes through the understanding of the past.
There are three key points to foresight in leadership:
- The ability to learn from past experiences
- The ability to identify what is currently happening
- The ability to understand the consequences of specific decisions
For both Spears and Greenleaf, foresight is tightly related to intuition. It’s an area where leadership studies have not yet ventured in more detail.
Foresight in business
The role of foresight in business can be examined in almost all the aspects of doing business. During things such as product launches, for example, the business must be able to carefully predict what the outcomes will be.
In terms of product launch, it can help to examine the previous product launches and learn from mistakes or successes. You must also be able to understand the current climate in order to make predictions on how well the target market will take to the new product.
How to improve foresight?
In order to become better at predicting the future, you should improve your analytical skills. This can be done by focusing on your decision-making process and by following up on the decisions you’ve made – in short, you need to develop a deeper understanding of the consequences your decisions have.
Stewardship in servant leadership relates to taking responsibility of your actions and those of the team. The main assumption is to commit to serve the needs of others first. For Greenleaf this means that not only is the organization holding their trust in the leader, the whole organization is to serve the wider community.
Stewardship requires openness as well as persuasion. It’s not about controlling the actions, but to rather allow yourself to be accountable.
Stewardship in business
Businesses are not just accountable to the investors, but emphasis should also be put on the stewardship of the wider society. This could mean, for instance, being more open about the practices and operations to allow greater scrutiny. It can also be manifested in community work and sustainable practices.
How to include greater stewardship in your leadership?
You should start by understanding your own values and how they guide you in your leadership roles. Furthermore, study how those values align with the values of the organization or the team you are leading. Remember that you shouldn’t be afraid of pointing out the situations when the two don’t align.
#9 Commitment to the growth of people
Servant leadership model focuses on the intrinsic value people offer outside of their contribution as an employee. Therefore, the aim of a servant leader is to help people realize their potential beyond just the ability to do the job well.
Servant leadership requires the commitment to help people realize the personal and professional development potential, as well as to support it. Greenleaf has 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”.
Commitment to the growth of people in business
A business must support the training and development of its employees, not just in professional terms but also in personal growth. This means providing funding for courses, books and other such materials, but also actively listening to the ideas that people have.
Furthermore, the assistance should go beyond existing employees and be aimed towards helping employees that have had to leave the organization. If your organization must lay-off staff, the focus should be on promoting their wellbeing until they are back on their feet.
How to show your commitment to the growth of people?
You can again set an example as a leader by investing in your own personal and professional development. If you are constantly seeking to grow, you provide motivation to the team around you to do the same.
In addition, you must also discuss personal and professional goals with your team. By understanding what are the things they want to develop, you can help provide the tools and routes for them to achieve these objectives.
Learn more about how to grow your people and the benefits associated with it.
#10 Building community
Finally, servant leadership relies on the creation of a community and a sense of togetherness within the organization. To Greenleaf, the creation and the dominance of large institutions have been the eroding force in communities. But servant leadership can help re-build this social pact uniting individuals by showing that communities are viable.
Greenleaf wrote in his essay, the best way to achieve community in the setting of large institutions might stem from smaller groups. He said, “Achieving many small-scale communities, under the shelter that is best given by bigness, may be the secret of synergy in large institutions”.
Building community in business
With the above in mind, businesses could foster a sense of community by focusing on team building. By creating effective and caring teams, the organization as a whole will become more caring.
How to support community building?
As a leader, you want to ensure different people within the organization interact with each other. Organizing social events and get-togethers is important. You want to encourage diversity and the flow of opinions within the organization as much as possible.
THE QUALITIES OF A SERVANT LEADER
The image encapsulates the idea of a servant leader – instead of directing others to success, a servant leader helps the team by leading through example.
The above ten core elements of servant leadership are also directly related to the characteristics a servant leader should possess and focus on. But there have been further focus on the qualities leaders should have.
Russell and Stone proposed a list of 20 attributes servant leaders highlight the most in a 2002 essay A Review of Servant Leadership Attributes: Developing a Practical Model. They further divided these into nine functional attributes and 11 accompanying attributes.
The functional attributes to Russell and Stone are intrinsic of servant leaders.
The accompanying or enhancing attributes are:
Other theorists have added to the lists and refined it further. Dirk van Dierendonck identified six characteristics of servant behavior in his review of servant leadership writing. His six included empowering and developing people, authenticity, humility, stewardship, interpersonal acceptance and the ability to provide a sense of direction.
It’s possible to further identify six key components from the literature. If you want to become a servant leader, you must be:
- Open-minded – Servant leader has to be open-minded because it focuses heavily on the idea of development, collaboration and servitude. You must be open to listen to people’s ideas and to accept their contributions as valuable. It’s crucial that you don’t just passively take this in, but you need to actively seek out differing opinions, new ways of looking at things and routes to try challenge the traditional models.
- Trustworthy – For servant leadership to properly work, the organization must be built on trust between the different shareholders. If the employees don’t trust the leader, the transformation to a servant leadership won’t take place. Because of the openness, self-awareness and sense of community, trust must be among the first things you establish as a leader.
- Helpful – Servant leaders are promoting self-development and wholeness of one’s self. A leader who lacks empathy and the sense of wanting to help cannot succeed in a servant role. A servant leader is always looking out for ways they can help and improve the employee’s life, whether professional or private.
- Selfless – Servant leaders must also put their own ego and needs aside and focus on the wellbeing of the employee and the whole organization. Furthermore, because of the emphasis on foresight and conceptualization, a good leader doesn’t just think of the present moment when making decisions, but the future generations as well.
- Aware – The awareness of your inner self and the awareness of seeing what the people around you are made of will help become a better servant leader. You need to identify the skills and the value each person brings to a team, but also to identify the consequences of different actions. Being able to understand why people behave the way they do will guide a servant leader to serving better.
- Accountable – Finally, servant leaders should be held accountable. But accountability is not as much about the punishment, but rather a way to understand that everyone makes mistakes.
Interestingly, the role of values is highly emphasized in discussion of the attributes of a servant leaders. Russell outlined in 2001 the belief amongst theorists that says much of the above attributes are inner values of the leader. Therefore, the thinking is assuming servant leaders tend to have different value systems, which separates them from other leadership theories.
Furthermore, servant leadership theory suggests personal values of the leader can impact the resulting corporate culture. Therefore, a servant leader, just by bringing in his or her own value and belief systems, can begin to shift the whole culture towards something unique and different.
Concrete studies on the above hypothesis are yet to be conducted. Nonetheless, in a 2005 study by Joseph and Winston, a positive correlation was observed with a set of values and organization performance. When the leader’s values showed honesty, integrity, and benevolence, the organization tended to so more effectiveness and trust.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP
Just like other leadership theories, servant leadership has also attracted both negative and positive attention from theorists and business people alike. Let’s examine some of the advantages and disadvantages associated with servant leadership.
Advantages of servant leadership
As Greenleaf himself has written, servant leadership is a long-term concept, which could potentially have an impact on the whole society. It’s therefore a transformative theory that might change the way people treat leadership, servitude and authority.
Servant leadership has been considered especially powerful at a time when corporations have found themselves trying to avoid negative press. The ‘self-serving’ leadership styles have created unhealthy power relations within organizations that many theorists see unattainable. Russell (2001) writes, “Position of power is eroding in many organizations; therefore, leaders must derive their influence from values”.
Naturally, at the heart of the theory is the idea of creating better employee-leader relations and this can have a positive impact on a company. A good treatment of employees and their needs have been shown to improve employee satisfaction, which can in turn lead to better customer service and productivity. The tools at the disposal of servant leadership are there.
Since servant leadership listens to a variety of opinions and encourages openness and discussion, it has the power to improve innovation within the organization. Through the innovation, the organization can foster and gain competitive advantage over its competitors.
The openness to ideas and opinion also means servant leadership encourages diversity within the workplace. Unlike in autocratic styles, the more democratic approach to opinions can guarantee employees of different kind don’t start feeling alienated within the organization. If each employee is met with a personalized approach and concern, team cohesion can remain higher, as people don’t feel unfairly treated by the leadership.
The theory also has the advantage of emphasizing employee wellbeing and training. Focus on continuous training is important, as it guarantees the workforce is always on top of their skillset and aware of any recent developments. Training can also help secure future leaders for the organization.
As the needs of the employee are at the forefront, servant leadership has the power to improve work-life balance and boost employee satisfaction. A servant leader is more likely to adapt new ideas and schemes that can develop a person’s professional and personal life. These can boost employee loyalty and reduce employee churn.
According to Paul T.P. Wong, psychology professor at Tyndale University College, servant leaders “tend to gain a great deal of respect and trust from their employees”, which can promote a higher work morale. This in turn will increase productivity within the organization and improve the bottom line.
Learn more about Servant Leadership from Ken Blanchard.
Disadvantages of servant leadership
There has also been criticism directed towards servant leadership. Part of the criticism is based mainly towards the theory and whether it is a fully developed concept of leadership, while others focus on the disadvantages the approach might bring about in business.
First, in terms of the functionality of the servant leadership model, writers like Stone, Russell and Patterson critiqued the theory to be “systematically undefined and lacking in empirical support” in their 2003 essay Transformational Versus Servant Leadership: A Difference in Leader Focus. Therefore, unlike some other models, servant leadership still needs to develop away from its current rudimentary model.
Another criticism of the theory weighs in on the possible patriarchal nature of servant leadership. Deborah Eiche-Catt, among others, has written about the theory being gender-biased. In her 2005 article, the Myth of Servant-Leadership: A Feminist Critique, Eicher-Catt writes the theory “insidiously perpetuates a long-standing masculine-feminine, master-slave political economy”.
But the disadvantages aren’t just related to the theory side of servant leadership. Others have argued the theory is unrealistic in its approach to workplace relationships.
Servant leadership is critiqued by its soft approach in a competitive business environment. As the focus is on ‘serving’ and ‘inspiring’, the organization might suffer from diluted accountability and responsibility. In short, are operational failures the fault of the person who didn’t ‘inspire’ enough or the responsibility of the employee who didn’t perform the job?
Brighthub’s post on servant leadership also identified key business situations when the approach might not be effective enough. These included:
- A servant leader might not be able to maintain the approach of persuasion if the situation is severe and calls for a more direct approach. Such situations could arise when an employee is behaving in a difficult manner or there’s a crisis within the company.
- Openness is a key characteristic of servant leadership, but it might not be viable in situations when confidentiality is key. Companies might also be faced with clear legal reasons for hiding certain information from employees.
- The organization’s focus on individual wellbeing and personal development might suffer in the event of market upheaval and downsizing.
Overall, the emphasis on individual needs and aspirations can hinder how well the company is able to achieve its organizational goals. It can create a conflict of interest between the values and objectives of the employee and the organization. Therefore, servant leadership doesn’t necessarily answer the problem of individual-organization fit.
EXAMPLES OF FAMOUS SERVANT LEADERS
Organizations have taken on servant leadership and reaped its benefits. Below are a few examples of leaders and organizations, implementing this transformative theory.
The US president is often considered an excellent example of a servant leader. Dr Charles M. Hubbard, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy, writes that Lincoln possessed the two main characteristics of a servant leader. First, the idea of sustainable change that lasts through the ages; i.e. the long-term change needed in servant leadership.
But in addition, Lincoln also revolutionized the organization of the US government and empower the citizens to seek something greater. He embodied the idea of serving the greater good of the people. According to Hubbard, Lincoln didn’t seek the presidency for the sake of power, but rather as he felt it was the ultimate position to serve the people of the country.
In terms of leadership lessons Lincoln’s servant leadership can teach to modern leaders, Hubbard says the most profound is the idea that:
“True leadership is not about power over others. It should be about change for the better regardless of the organization you are leading.”
Martin Luther King
If you are looking for a modern servant leader, then the example of Dr Martin Luther King is a powerful one. James Perry wrote in the Huffington Post in 2010 that Dr King thought people the true ideals of a servant leader – “one who offers an inclusive vision; listens carefully to others; persuades through reason; and heals divisions while building community”.
Perhaps different to other servant leaders, Dr King understood the long-term implications of the idea. He once said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle”. He wasn’t interested in the personal accolades, but for the justice and equality of all people. He knew that by helping others and enabling them to reach greatness, he could enjoy more in the present.
TDIndustries is an American company closely associated with the servant leadership theory. The company’s founder Jack Lowe Sr. read about servant leadership and the concept had a profound impact on him. He later implemented the model in his burgeoning company.
The company has truly taken with the theory and employees are required to take courses on servant leadership. Furthermore, supervisors within the company are regularly assessed on how well they are implementing the ideals of Greenleaf and others.
Maureen Underwood, VP of the people department at TDIndustries, told Axiom News, commitment to the idea requires plenty of work and dedication. She said the whole concept boils down to the idea of personal values. “It’s just about being a person who listens, a leader who is dedicated to growing people,” Underwood said.
The company also shows its commitment to the principle of building a community and taking care of its employees through the way it deals with profit. TDIndustries divides around 30% of the profits between the retirement savings plan and employment stock ownership plan. In addition, it doesn’t have any separate schemes for its executives – all are equal within the company.
Festival Foods is a relatively small business chain in the US, which adopted servant leadership over a decade ago. In Success, chairman David Skogen explained the philosophy and how the company has benefited from the approach.
According to Skogen, the servant leadership idea the company uses the most is the idea of persuasion, or in their case “remind more than instruct”. The company’s employees gather every morning and go through the performance of yesterday. It’s a common practice of comparing annual sales and identifying things that have been different, as well as outlining the road forward.
But in addition, servant leadership changes have added an element of having each person at the meeting a chance to input their own ideas, hopes and dreams to the conversation. According to Skogen, these can range from ideas regarding the organization’s operations to personal ideas such as asking for prayers.
The idea is to provide an opportunity for everyone to speak. This creates an atmosphere of openness within the organization. It also ensures the communication lines between the people at the top and below are open. Skogen says it creates a ‘trickle down effect’ of servitude and helpfulness.
Furthermore, Skogen reminds that servant leadership isn’t easy and it didn’t result in an overnight change in corporate culture. But there was a shift in attitude that meant employees and leaders started a day thinking, “It’s a privilege to work for us and just be thankful you have a job”.
Finally, check out the below clip by CNN on how servant leadership shows on Kimpton’s business model:
While servant leadership is still in infancy when it comes to being a complete theory, it is becoming increasingly popular amongst leadership theories. It’s focus on a community and the ‘common good’, instead of the personal interests of the leaders or the organization is appealing in the current climate of rising inequality.
The theory relies strongly on the philosophical ideals of who is a servant leader and what does the servant leader do. It removes leadership from the traditional notion of viewing leaders as isolated and in control. In effect, it creates a more democratic and people-centered approach.
At its heart, servant leadership isn’t as much about providing a set of tools or concepts a leader can work with, but more an outline of a good leader who’s inner values will guide towards better leadership. The problem is that while the theory explains what and who is a servant leader, it doesn’t yet fully explain why the actions are important or what are the organizational benefits of the approach.