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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 questions about how servant leadership differs from other leadership styles or if a servant leadership approach is appropriate for your 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. Businesses need leaders who can take action amid growing uncertainty and operate effectively in a complex workplace with a diverse workforce. This article provides insights into the proven benefits of servant leadership for elevating leaders and empowering organizational excellence. It includes a case study of servant leadership from a global leader in the business services and supplies industry and a leadership style quiz.

How Servant Leadership Makes a Difference in the Workplace

There are several well-researched employee and company benefits associated with servant leadership, such as:

A servant leader's selfless love for followers is a benefit multiplier. Evidence suggests that selfless love increases leader and follower commitment, yielding enhanced intrinsic motivation that amplifies workforce and business strategy alignment. Intrinsic motivation is also a moderating factor in employee engagement. It improved intrinsic motivation, resulting in higher levels of employee engagement.

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

In addition to enhancing what leaders expect, servant leadership unlocks the unexpected. Discretionary effort, also known as organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), is increased by servant leadership. For example, consider two employees 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 employee's responsibility. Servant leadership enhances the workplace climate, increases discretionary effort (unexpected worthy behaviors), and improves business results.

No organization looks to stay the same year after year. Innovation is required to remain relevant and succeed in a fast-paced digital marketplace. Studies reveal that a servant leadership style improves employee productivity and creativity. Employees are more likely to provide constructive criticism and engage in productive conflict without fear of exclusion or retaliation. It is in this environment that employees can be creative.

The Servant Leadership Style Described

Most attribute Robert Greenleaf as the founder of servant leadership. He described a servant leader as a servant first and used the following test to answer the question: What's servant leadership? Would you pass this test?

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 additional insights into the potential of servant leadership in today's workplace.

10 Characteristics of a Servant Leader

These ten characteristics are foundational to understanding the servant leadership style:

  1. Listening to self and others: Servant leaders use verbal, nonverbal, and empathic listening to build trust and improve relationships.

  2. Displaying empathy: Servant leaders possess the ability to be aware of, feel, and take on another person's emotions. Empathy plays a vital role in moderating the effects of workplace conflict. Research has linked empathy with forgiveness and healing relationships.

  3. Healing: Servant leaders provide physical and emotional support to restore broken relationships and help hurt employees.

  4. Awareness: Both general awareness and self-awareness strengthen the leader's ability to understand issues involving ethics, power, and values holistically.

  5. Persuasion: Servant leaders rely on persuasion vs. positional power to make decisions. This is one of the most apparent differences between a servant leader and a traditional leader.

  6. Conceptual thinking: Servant leaders consider the best of what is and what can be by tapping into the team's dreams. Rather than solely focusing on the short-term, the servant leader can align followers with the company's purpose and vision of the organization.

  7. Strategic foresight: The goal is not to predict the future but to enable better decision-making and preparedness so leaders can grow revenue amid uncertainty.

  8. Stewardship of others' needs: Servant leaders hold others' needs in their trust while serving and influencing with persuasion.

  9. Commitment to follower development: Servant leaders see their followers' potential and value beyond their tangible contributions to the business.

  10. Building community: A community is defined by shared social identification among the members. Servant leaders recognize and take action to build community with those in the workplace. Creating shared social identity provides the missing link between employees feeling excluded and included.

Employees are looking for leaders who demonstrate these behaviors. However, these characteristics alone do not fully capture servant leadership.

7 Dimensions of Servant Leadership

Like the operating system on your phone, the leader's inner game values and virtues moderate leadership effectiveness. While characteristics describe what a leader should do in a given situation, the leader's virtues and character determine what a leader will do.

Virtues provide a foundation for the characteristics of a servant leader.

Virtues Character Values Behaviors and Performance

The following are the seven virtues of a servant leader:

  1. Love: Doing the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons.

  2. Humility: Having a realistic self-image, others focused, being willing to listen, and being vulnerable.

  3. Altruism: Concerned for others' welfare and equity and derives pleasure from helping others.

  4. Vision: Able to see around the corners, understand follower capability, and possess a growth mindset.

  5. Trust: Having integrity, respect, transparency, and goodwill.

  6. Empowerment: Sharing power, teamwork, transparent expectations, goals, and responsibilities.

  7. Service: Choosing others over self and authentic.

Comparing the motivations and dimensions of different leadership styles reveals similarities and differences, contributing to a deeper understanding of servant leadership.

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 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 overlap in dimensions of leading with 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 servant and authentic leadership motivations and dimensions.

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 and spiritual leadership.

Servant Leadership vs Spiritual Leadership

A Servant Leadership Example in Business

Sodexo's journey provides excellent examples of servant leadership in business. Headquartered in France, Sodexo is the leader in the global business services and supplies industry. It started as a family-run business in Marseilles, France. Since its beginning in 1966, Sodexo's 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 servant-leadership characteristics. Here are some examples:

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 its employees globally and encourages work flexibility to promote improved performance for clients and customers.

Sarosh Mistry, Region Chair for North America and Chief Executive Officer, suggested that improved performance starts with ensuring an excellent quality of life for Sodexo employees. Sylvia Metayer, Chief Growth Officer, humbly stated, "I am learning that to be a CEO is to be a servant." Sodexo's senior leadership shares a servant focus. The following table provides examples of servant leadership from Sarosh Mistry and Sylvia Metayer, two members of the Sodexo Executive Committee.

Sodexo servant leader examples

Sarosh indicated that Sodexo looks for leaders who motivate employees through service by giving back to the communities they serve. A servant-leader understands that leaders can use power to serve others' needs through performance.

Servant Leadership Quotes

"Leadership is an extreme sport requiring both courage and humility." Cheryl Bachelder, Former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc.

"Listen, show compassion, and ask for feedback." Liz Theophill, Chief Technology & Digital Officer at Novartis AG

"How you get the results is more important than the results themselves." Art Barter, CEO, Datron World Communications, Inc.

It is no longer acceptable for corporate leadership to be blind to their followers' needs and the communities where they live and work. People are looking to business leaders to help remove barriers that impact meeting their own needs. Servant leadership, an emerging 20th-century leadership style, provides solutions to today's dilemmas.

Take Our Servant Leader Quiz

Take this free quiz to learn if your leadership style aligns with servant leadership.

Executive Coaching


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He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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