What is Servant Leadership?

Portrait of Alec Ortega

Alec Ortega

July 17, 2021

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership theory is a way to operate a business that involves letting those in your organization work closest to your customers lead the company since they understand what customers value most. At its core, it is about building community and a commitment to the growth of your employees. Traditional operating models have executives and leadership decide what's best for the business, then assign work to lower teams. With servant leadership, the role of executives is to empower ground-level teams to make data-driven decisions for their verticals and help align teams towards common goals.

Servant leadership is a transformational leadership style that prioritizes the team's growth and well-being over the organization's or leader's own ambitions. This means that instead of top-down mandates, managers need to be able to ask questions like "What do you think should we do?" or "How can I help you with this project?".

Characteristics of servant leaders

There are some servant leader characteristics that you'll want to imbue within the leaders of your organization. These can also be seen as core servant leadership principles.

Prioritizes empathy

Servant leaders see people as whole beings with emotional and intellectual needs. While empathy is crucial in any leadership role, it is especially important in organizations that embrace servant leadership. Servant leaders are effective listeners and communicate in ways that aren't aggressive or defensive. Servant leaders make decisions from the perspective of those they lead. They want what's best for their team, not themselves. In other words, these types of leaders adopt a serve-first mindset and prioritize their organization, employees, and community above themselves.

Servant leaders also want to ensure they fully understand the needs and perspectives of those they lead. This can also mean growing a culture where employees feel comfortable and safe speaking to one another.

This can mean having an open-door policy where employees feel safe discussing any issue without fear of being reprimanded, getting involved in social events outside of company functions like volunteering opportunities, or creating shared spaces within your office so teams can come together more often than just during weekly meetings.

Sets an example with humility

Humility is a fundamental characteristic of being a servant leader. This means placing the needs of others before your own. It should be clear that you care about and are willing to help those in lower positions on the organizational chart and those with less experience than you.

Becoming a servant leader means being selfless enough to put aside personal ambition for something better, like helping someone learn from their mistakes or celebrating another's success. Servant leaders prioritize the personal and professional development of others, ensuring they build their knowledge base and professional skills. Humility goes hand-in-hand with empathy because it prevents leaders from thinking they know best when they may actually not.

Builds a culture of trust and transparency

Servant leadership is a culture of trust and transparency, where everyone has the right to speak up. Leaders are open with their people about goals, plans, and priorities to build commitment across teams.

Servant leaders empower those on the frontline by giving them more autonomy over how they do their work, choosing strategies they think the best suit your customers' needs, and empowering others to do so too – even when managers disagree. In this way, you'll develop leaders at all levels of your organization. By giving ownership to employees and teams, the servant leadership style can increase employee motivation and encourage them to be more creative and innovative. 

Gives a voice to those who aren't heard enough

Servant leaders do their best to make sure everyone is heard and has a voice at the table. They are inclusive, welcoming newcomers, sensitive to differences in opinion or background, and respectful of different viewpoints.

Servant leadership requires that managers use their power wisely by using questions instead of orders when possible, empowering teams rather than seeking control over them, and facilitating collaboration between stakeholders to avoid siloing information.

How does servant leadership differ from other leadership styles?

Executives and Leaders

Servant leadership is a fundamental shift in mindset. Executives and leaders are not in the driver's seat. Instead, they provide resources and opportunities for others to lead and make data-driven decisions themselves.

As a result, servant leaders develop teams willing to step up and take risks when the time comes. A servant leader's role is to be the steward of a group's resources and to teach other leaders to serve others while still achieving the goals set forth by the business.

A servant leader shares power, puts the employees' needs first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Culturally this can be quite a shock to some businesses that have traditionally operated by limiting decision-making to a select few and have limited transparency. Servant leaders are expected to have a higher degree of self-awareness, and emphasis is placed on listening skills. Servant leaders need to be aware of their own limitations to understand what to delegate and what skills to foster in the teams under them.

When leaders shift their focus from the company to the employees, they are more likely to produce skilled, talented, knowledgeable, and motivated employees who will help improve its overall operations and management. A good servant leader makes decisions with the team's best interests in mind and ensures that everyone has the resources and knowledge they need to meet their objectives.

Hiring

Candidates in your hiring pipeline might look a little different when you're thinking about servant leadership. When interviewing candidates, look for characteristics of empathy and people who are willing to take a step back and listen instead of looking for the most experienced candidate with all the answers.

One major benefit of servant leadership is that you may not need to hire many managers or traditional leadership roles. Because your existing team members are empowered to lead, they often see more personal growth and grow into managerial roles much more often. Since managerial positions are difficult to fill, you'll often see a significant decrease in hiring costs. Practicing servant leadership leads to a larger employee pool of future leaders.

Making business decisions

Traditionally executives and leaders have teams of data analysts that may create presentations and dashboards on the current state of the business. Leaders then use this data to make informed decisions about the business.

However, this is often not the case with organizations that embrace servant leadership. Instead, successful servant leaders empower employees with more responsibility and enough transparency to make data-driven decisions independently.

One leader can't have as much context as all individual members of the teams below them combined. Empowering low-level teams and giving them autonomy will result in those closest to customers contributing the most value.

Difficulties implementing servant leadership

Culturally

Leaders who have learned over decades to hoard knowledge will not be as eager to relinquish control. Practicing servant leadership is a cultural shift for many leaders, and some may not want to follow a different management style than they are used to. In addition, servant leadership requires more vulnerability from leaders since they hand over some power to other team members.

Servant leadership also asks team members to be more vulnerable by sharing what's working or not working on the ground level of an organization. For example, team members may not be used to leading projects or may not have a natural desire to make autonomous decisions.

If an employee is coming from an organization where all business decisions were abstracted from them, they cannot tie the value of their work back to the business's bottom line.

An effective leader must encourage people to embrace transparency and foster cross-team communication. Unfortunately, this often takes time and experimentation, and you may encounter a few failed attempts before you find a communication style that works for your organization.

Balancing privacy and transparency

It's not easy to decide whether or not an organization should share all its data with everyone. In the case of a public company, they may have restrictions on material non-public information that needs to be kept secret for legal reasons. However, many companies err on the side of hiding information instead of making it accessible - which has its own drawbacks and can lead people down dead ends in research efforts because crucial pieces are missing from the puzzle when only one person knows what is happening behind closed doors.

Diversity and inclusion data is a hot topic in today's society. It has only been recently that businesses have begun to make these statistics readily available for employees, but this transparency doesn't just benefit the company - it empowers its workers too. In traditional business models, leadership may see an imbalance of diversity across firms or sectors and create inclusion programs without consulting their staff members first.

Solutions are limited by the perspective of those making them.

In an organization operating under a servant leadership model, you have the power of a broader perspective to drive solutions that truly solve the problems. By listening to those who understand the problem the most, you'll be able to develop solutions that a limited subset of your organization wouldn't even otherwise imagine.

Advantages of servant leadership

Diversity of perspective

As an organization becomes more diverse, you have a wider range of perspectives. The greater the amount and variety of viewpoints, perspectives, or other aspects that exist within your company's culture as a whole - the more ideas you will have to create new ones! Servant leadership facilitates this exchange by giving ground-level teams decision-making power based on their own experience and context which empowers them with confidence they can make decisions for themselves without running it up through countless levels of bureaucracy.

Increasing cross-team communication can lead to new ideas that may not have existed before. By implementing servant leadership practices, employees are able to share their thoughts and express themselves without feeling as though they will be judged for doing so. This promotes a more fluid environment where everyone is valued equally which could ultimately result in the discovery of top-quality ideas that might otherwise never see the light of day.

Strong sense of ownership

Servant leadership is a way for managers to empower and build a sense of ownership among their employees. This not only helps with retention rates but also builds trust in the company as teams are empowered with decision-making power which has proven successful when it comes to retaining staff members who feel invested in what they do due to tangible results that show up on a day-to-day basis.

Employees who have autonomy over well-defined goals will be excited to come into work each day because they know what is expected of them and how it ties back to shared business objectives and the company mission.

Servant leaders don't need to micromanage employees or provide detailed instructions for every task at hand when ground-level team members already understand what needs to be done based on their experience and context around customer interactions.

Fosters collaboration

Teams are empowered to work with each other and take risks which can lead to more innovative ideas. Servant leaders encourage teams to collaboratively find solutions that will work for your company's unique situation by asking questions like "Who has done something similar before?", "What worked or did not work about their approach?", "Why was it successful or unsuccessful?."

By building off success stories within an organization, you create new models so everyone can become better at what they do and learn how best to innovate through successes achieved on previous projects.

Higher customer satisfaction

In organizations that practice servant leadership, team members work together to come up with the best possible solutions. This is not just because they care about customer needs but also because each of them has a strong understanding and can play an active role in coming up with innovative ideas for meeting those goals.

Servant leaders empower their employees to collaborate with one another while considering the needs of all parties. They push for an iterative process where everyone has a voice and decision-making is based on data, which leads to more innovative ideas being generated from different perspectives.

Stronger sense of community

When employees understand how their work contributes to the success of a larger goal, it creates a sense of community within your company. By applying servant leadership practices, you can set the tone for your company to foster collaboration and innovation while also creating an environment of trust among employees, which encourages them to have autonomy over the goals they own. Creating a safe space for your employees to share their learnings informs the business and promotes a sense of well-being across your organization.

Servant leadership at scale

It's easy to write an email telling leaders how best to support their teams. But, unfortunately, it's much harder to implement transparency and accountability at scale. Fortunately, Commonality provides features to make implementing servant leadership incredibly easy.

Commonality's Alignment feature allows leaders to view how teams perform and answer the question: "How can I help?". Servant leaders commit to the teams underneath them just as much, if not more so, as the teams above them. Commonality allows every team to view the big picture and see how every team performs above and below.

Teams that don't have teams underneath them can focus on their own growth and instantly see how they're impacting the business and see how their efforts tie all the way back to top-level business objectives.

Get started completely free

If you want to find out more about servant leadership, we can help. Commonality is a free data-driven OKR platform that helps organizations work better together by aligning teams around common goals through data transparency. It’s powerful for companies with distributed teams or those trying to figure out how they should be working best as an organization - whether it's in marketing, finance, sales, design, or product development. We would love to invite your team to try Commonality completely free, so you can experience the benefits of democratizing your data and implementing servant leadership!

First published Jul 17, 2021, 4:06 PM, updated August 12, 2021

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