This article is part of The Ascender, the Highrise platform for articles and resources.

Servant Leadership: What makes it Different?

Andrew Langat
October 14, 2021
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What You Need to Know About Servant Leadership:

  • A servant leader's role is to bring the best out of his team members
  • Servant leaders have excellent listening skills, encourage people, and exercise authority for the common good
  • Servant leadership has its own strengths and own limitations.
  • A servant leader shares power

“A better society, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people.” Both an ancient philosophy and modern practice, we envision that servant leadership as a movement will continue to enrich the lives of individuals and establish more people-centered institutions as well as strengthen its vital relationships.- Robert K. Greenleaf.

“Servant leadership” is often glamourized and, some might say, overused in leadership circles. Whereas what it truly means might vary, servant leadership's true meaning is based on prioritizing the greater good rather than personal objectives.

Few leaders truly practice servant leadership as a management style because, unlike other leadership styles, it often requires the leader to focus and serve without personal gain. This commitment to the growth of "others" differentiates this from other leadership styles.

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Definition of Servant leadership

In his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, Robert K. Greenleaf, the father of servant leadership, defines a servant leader as one who is a servant first and is entirely different from a leader who is a leader first.

From this, we can infer that such a leader commits to the growth and well-being of his followers. This style mirrors transformational leadership, emphasizing the need to value people through listening, mentoring, and empowerment.

A quote by Bill Gates.

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What is Servant Leadership Theory?

Servant leadership theory argues that a good leader is a servant of the people. This is achieved through full attention to their followers well being.

Greenleaf believed that:

The servant-leader is the servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first."

Servant leadership goes against the grain of traditional leadership styles, where the leader is typically the focus of all attention as the main character, and the team works to support the leader’s vision.

You can read more about this theory from the Greenleaf center for servant leadership here.

A group of executives talking about the strategy of their next goal.

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Examples of Servant Leadership

All around us, there are examples of servant leadership. They may be your direct manager, community leader, local pastor, etc.

One good reference for such a leader in the modern world is Dan Price, the former CEO of Gravity Payments. In an unprecedented move, Dan set a minimum of $70,000 as the minimum salary for every company employee. To achieve this, he had to cut his salary from more than $1,000,000 to just $70,000. Before this move grabbed headlines, the average pay at Gravity was $48,000—this perfectly illustrates servant leadership.

Other successful servant leaders include:

  • Martin Luther king Jr, the former civil rights leader
  • Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa
  • Abraham Lincoln, former President of the United States

Servant leaders exercise the principles of servant leadership through:

Showing Commitment to Teamwork: Servant leadership is critical for effective teamwork. Creating and managing teams of talented professionals is a hallmark of excellent servant leadership. Creating a team might sound trivial to a casual observer; however, it involves proven methods of creating shared goals, defining roles and responsibilities for each team member, and leading by example.

Once the team is created, managing the team through servant leadership yields significant results. Servant leadership lets a team leader effectively mediate the inevitable conflicts within a team and keep the team focused on the big picture.

Prioritizing Employee Satisfaction: Prioritizing employee satisfaction is vital. Satisfied employees perform at higher levels. This extra productivity far outweighs the costs of ensuring employee satisfaction. A servant leader needs insight and skills to determine what motivates employees and thus implement as required.

Flexibility: The needs of an organization vary, and the requirements of employees or subordinates are rarely static. Servant leadership lets a leader adapt to different settings and maintain a high level of performance.

For instance, in the dynamic world of tech, a servant leader should have the flexibility to switch methodologies from research and development to sales and marketing seamlessly.

Effective Communication: Communication is crucial for servant leadership to work effectively as it builds rapport. Communicating effectively will enable you to understand yourself better and your team. Besides, focusing on non-verbal communication, asking questions, and listening completes the loop.

Accountability: Accountability is a crucial pillar of servant leadership. It means owning up to mistakes and deviations from set goals and objectives. Accountability builds trust and makes team members feel invested in the process rather than acting as drones for top leadership. 

Trust: Trust-building is crucial to building one's servant leadership credentials. A leader should genuinely care about the team by looking out for each member's needs and creating supportive environments where concerns can be shared.

Direct Engagement: Servant leaders prioritize direct engagement with team members. They lead the team in projects and are available to offer immediate feedback.

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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership, by nature, involves giving up control to employees and taking in a lot of feedback. Knowing this, there are several pros and cons of servant leadership. Here are some of them:

Advantages of Servant leadership

  • A servant leader focuses on building deeper relationships based on trust
  • This leadership method encourages responsibility and ownership
  • Servant leadership can boost innovation and inquiry and improve creativity
  • A servant leader helps foster a people-centric culture
  • Servant leadership delivers better company-wide performance through positive leadership.
  • Decisions are made in the best interest of a company
  • A Servant leader helps boost internal staff growth
  • It fosters mentoring of future leaders
  • Boosts morale within the company
  • Servant leaders are more respected by employees
  • This leadership style builds employees’ sense of value and appreciation within the workplace.
  • Employees feel that their concerns and personal growth are well catered.
  • When employees feel that their best interests are catered to, it leads to more work commitment.

Disadvantages of Servant leadership

  • The concept of servant leadership can be challenging to communicate
  • It’s more time-consuming for everyone involved
  • Servant leadership skills can be challenging to attain
  • A leader can come off as inauthentic
  • Retraining existing leaders as servant leaders could be difficult
  • This leadership style can make a leader appear weak and ineffective
  • The authority of a servant leader can be diminished
  • The unconventional nature of servant leadership can cause confusion
  • Decision-making can be slowed down due to a high level of team involvement
  • There is potential for misalignment among team members
  • Servant leadership can decrease motivation and resourcefulness if not done well
  • The overall team's growth is hinged on its successful implementation. Where there is doubt, it can lead to unintended consequences.

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How to Become a Servant Leader

1. Keep Your Organization’s Goal in Mind

Servant leadership prioritizes a team's needs, but the organization's goals should remain central to a leader's mindset. A servant leader should not let the needs of team members curtail the pursuit of organizational goals.

To become an effective servant leader, one must tread the line between meeting the organization’s goals and keeping the team engaged and motivated. Executive and leadership coaching can help impart some of the goal-balancing skills needed to become a servant leader while still meeting an organization's or company's goals.

2. Develop Your Communication Skills

To get the most out of a team, a leader must communicate effectively with his/her team. Communication skills are critical for a leader to share big-picture organizational objectives and ensure that team members fully understand their roles.

Good communication skills also go beyond the scope of verbal communication skills. Non-verbal communication skills such as gestures, facial expressions, and posture play a huge role in effective communication.

These skills are easily transferable, so leadership coaching and executive coaching can go a long way in honing one’s communication skills.

3. Be Selfless

Selflessness is perhaps the most evident personality trait of a servant leader. Conventional autocratic leaders work for themselves and often take credit for other people's work.

Servant leaders consider the goals and welfare of others before thinking of themselves. Selflessness also improves employee engagement by making your leadership feel more relatable to employees.

You can become more selfless by learning to embrace other people’s ideas and thoughts while at the same time putting your thoughts across in an open and approachable manner.

4. Be Empathetic

Empathy lets a leader put themselves in the shoes of others. Having another person’s perspective is critical to developing one’s credentials as a servant leader.

Besides having another person's perspective, acknowledging one's biases will go a long way in making you a servant leader.  

5. Be Self-Aware

A servant leader could come across as aloof and out of touch if the leader does not acknowledge boundaries.

Self-awareness is vital in knowing where boundaries lay and how not to cross them. With this essential skill, a leader knows how to act and how his/her words and actions impact others.  

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How Does Servant Leadership Differ From The Path-Goal Theory?

Unlike servant leadership theory, Path-Goal theory emphasizes how leaders can offer leadership elements that the followers can use to better their goals. Moreover, the leadership role is divided into four categories: directive, supportive, participative, and achievement.

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Andrew Langat
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Andrew Langat is an experienced content specialist in Leadership, Productivity, Education, Fintech, and Research. He is an avid reader and loves swimming as a hobby. He believes that quality content should be actionable and helpful.