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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

What's Servant Leadership?

What's Servant Leadership

Have you ever wondered what servant leadership is? Maybe you already understand the basic concepts but have specific questions about how servant leadership differs from other leadership styles or if a servant leadership approach is appropriate for a diverse team. The costs of poor leadership often show up in the workplace disguised as low employee engagement, a lack of team cohesion and collaboration, high employee turnover, and failed execution. This article highlights examples of servant leadership in business using a complex global organization. The benefits of servant leadership are evident to followers, teams, and organizations.

The Servant Leadership Style Described

Robert Greenleaf is attributed by most as the founder of servant leadership, described a servant leader as a servant first and used the following test to answer the question, what's servant leadership?

The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, will they not be further deprived. ~Greenleaf & Spears

The following short video from leadership guru, Ken Blanchard provides some thoughts on the power of servant leadership in today's workplace.

10 Characteristics of Servant Leadership

People are looking for leaders that possess the following characteristics:

  1. listening to self and others

  2. empathy

  3. healing self and others

  4. awareness

  5. persuasion

  6. conceptual thinking

  7. foresight

  8. stewardship of other's needs

  9. commitment to people development

  10. building community

These characteristics are foundational to understanding the servant leadership style. However, these characteristics alone do not fully capture servant leadership.

7 Virtues of Servant Leadership

7 Virtues of Servant Leadership

Characteristics describe what a leader should do and the following seven virtues associated with servant leadership direct what a leader will do:

  1. Love

  2. Humility

  3. Altruism

  4. Vision

  5. Trust

  6. Empowerment

  7. Service

The following figure demonstrates the relationship between virtues, character, values, and behaviors. Virtues provide a foundation for the behaviors that lead to worthy performance.

Virtues Character Values Behaviors and Performance

Servant leadership, transformational leadership, authentic leadership, and spiritual leadership are emerging contemporary leadership styles. Using the virtues of servant leadership to compare the motivations and dimensions of these emerging leadership styles reveal similarities and differences that contribute to a deeper understanding of servant leadership.

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Servant Leadership vs. Transformational Leadership

While similar to servant leadership, the primary focus of transformational leadership is the organizational benefit. The emphasis of servant leadership is on service to the follower. The table below displays the motivations and dimensions of servant leadership and transformational leadership.

Servant Leadership vs Transformational Leadership

Servant Leadership vs. Authentic Leadership

In contrast to servant leadership, authentic leadership focuses on the leader being who they were created to be. Authentic leadership and servant-leadership share an overlap in dimensions of leading with the heart and humility. The critical difference between these two contemporary leadership approaches is the difference in the leader's focus on themselves for authentic leadership and others for servant leadership. The table below displays the motivations and dimensions of servant-leadership and authentic leadership.

Servant Leadership vs Authentic Leadership

Servant Leadership vs. Spiritual Leadership

Spiritual leadership is distinctly different from servant leadership, although it is the most similar theory of the four contemporary leadership theories discussed. Spiritual leadership focuses on motivating the leader and others, which contrasts with service to others in servant-leadership. Both spiritual leadership and servant leadership theories share the dimensions of love, vision, and altruism. The following table displays the motivations and dimensions of servant leadership and spiritual leadership.

Servant Leadership vs Spiritual Leadership

Servant Leadership Benefits

Servant Leadership Benefits

There are several individual and organizational benefits associated with servant leadership, such as:

  • performance

  • productivity

  • intrinsic motivation

  • organizational citizenship behavior

  • organizational alignment

  • improved workplace climate

  • enhanced employee capacity

  • increased creativity

A servant leader's altruistic love for others multiplies benefits associated with servant-leadership. Love makes a better workplace and improves outcomes.

Servant leadership creates increased leader and follower commitment, yielding increased intrinsic motivation that amplifies workforce alignment and business strategy benefits.

"Higher levels of intrinsic motivation cause people to do more and results in higher performance" Patterson

Evidence supports a positive link between higher levels of employee intrinsic motivation and work productivity. A 2015 research study demonstrated that intrinsic motivation is a moderating factor in employee engagement, independent of a leader's style, and concluded that organizations should emphasize increased intrinsic motivation.

In addition to expected behavior, servant-leadership impacts an employee's discretionary effort, also known as organizational citizenship behavior (OCB). For example, consider two employees are walking down a hall. Both employees see a piece of paper on the floor. Only one employee stops to pick it up even though it is neither employees' job responsibility. Servant leadership improves the workplace climate and increases discretionary effort that benefits an organization.

Executives are turning to investments in innovation for growth and no organization looking to stay the same year after year. Innovation is required to remain relevant and succeed in today's business. Servant leadership practiced by leadership can increase follower's productivity and creativity.


Servant Leadership Examples in Business

The journey of Sodexo provides excellent examples of servant leadership in business. Sodexo is the global leader in the business services and supplies industry, with its headquarters in France. Sodexo started as a family-run business in Marseilles, France. Since the beginning of Sodexo in 1966, its mission, values, and ethical principles have guided its people-focused actions around service.

Sodexo Mission Vales and Ethical Principles

This global organization of over 470,000 employees is located in 67 countries and served 100 million consumers daily in 2019. While Sodexo does not explicitly state servant-leadership, the organization's mission and leaders align with the servant-leadership characteristics (See Table below).

Sodexo alignment with servant leadership

Sodexo measures employee quality of life as the employee's physical environment, health and wellbeing, social interaction, recognition, ease and efficiency, and personal growth. Sodexo considers the lifestyles of their employees globally and encourages work flexibility to promote improved performance for clients and customers.