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What Is Servant Leadership?

August 12, 2020 Leadership Skills

In recent years, leaders have transitioned away from focusing on how their followers can serve their needs to now focusing on how they can better serve the needs of their followers. There’s no leadership style that exemplifies this more than servant leadership. In this post, we’ll explore the definition of this leadership style, its pros and cons, as well as what this type of leader looks like in action. 

What is Servant Leadership?

The Definition 

Servant leadership puts the needs, growth, and wellbeing of followers first. In other words, these types of leaders adopt a serve-first mindset and prioritize their organization, employees, and community above themselves.

Servant leadership is in direct contrast to styles like autocratic leadership, transactional leadership, and bureaucratic leadership – all of which focus on structure, hierarchy, and a rigid give-take relationship.   

The Characteristics

To best understand the characteristics of servant leadership, it may be helpful to turn to “The Servant As Leader,” which is an essay written by the founder of this leadership style: Robert K. Greenleaf. Based on his essay, we can identify the traits of a servant leader:

  • Committed to serving the needs of others
  • Selfless and humble
  • No interest in holding onto power or material possessions
  • Community focused
  • Highly empathetic 

What Are The Pros and Cons of Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership comes with many benefits. But, just like any other leadership style, it can have some downsides as well. It’s important to be familiar with both the pros and cons so you have a full understanding of this leadership style before implementing it in your own role. We outline the most significant considerations below. 

Pros

  • Focuses on the development and growth of others
  • Can lead to improved performance, innovation, and collaboration
  • Creates a safe environment where people aren’t afraid to fail
  • Reduces turnover and disengagement
  • Increases trust with leaders 

Cons

  • Servant leaders can become more easily burnt out
  • Resource intensive
  • Difficult to train other leaders in the serve-first mindset
  • Can take longer to see results or reach goals 
  • Has the potential to be perceived as ‘weak’ 

What Type Of Person Is A Servant Leader?

Let’s imagine you work at a company where the CEO, Taylor, practices a servant leadership style. It’s evident that she cares deeply about her people – from the executives she works with everyday to the new hires she hasn’t met yet. Taylor demonstrates her caring through her actions.

Instead of sitting in her office with the door closed, Taylor makes a point of eating lunch with her employees, checking in on them through Slack, and always expressing gratitude for their hard work. 

Any time an employee comes to her with a problem, needs, or question – which is frequently – she always makes herself available. Not only that, but she’ll prioritize getting them the support they need – whether that’s in the form of learning and development opportunities, additional company benefits, or any other resources her team needs. 

Taylor isn’t only focused on serving her own employees. She’s also passionate about giving back to the local community. That’s why she’s an advocate of corporate social responsibility, volunteers her time to causes she cares about, and focuses on providing products and services that truly help people over those that might create more revenue. 

While Taylor is prone to overworking herself and using company resources in a way that doesn’t immediately boost the bottom line, she feels it’s completely worth it. Her employees are happy and fulfilled, and her organization is a beloved presence in their community for all the positive contributions it makes.  

Servant leadership takes a lot of time, dedication, and resources to implement. But the results speak for themselves. If this is a leadership style that resonates with you, we encourage you to take the first steps to put it into practice in your own role.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your own leadership style can help you better identify which approach is best for your current role. Check out our ebook, 10 Leadership Styles You Should Know, to learn more about different approaches to leadership and when and how to apply them.