The Ultimate Guide to the Servant Leadership Model

Leadership, in the eyes of some people, is about wielding power. They are like a carpenter with only a hammer who sees everything as a nail. Whatever problems or challenges arise, this type of leader is confident that brute strength, force, and power will bring about a solution.

The servant leader, on the other hand, prefers to serve.

They lead, but are followed willingly instead of fearfully. They come to work thinking first about their team and what can be done for them instead of what power they can put to use that day.

The servant leadership model, in other words, flips the traditional idea of power and authority on its head. It leads from a point of serving.

What Is Servant Leadership?

A servant leader is someone who serves others first, before anything else. Their thoughts and actions bend towards serving others right out of the gate.

Robert K. Greenleaf is given credit for coining the phrase “servant leadership” back in the 1970s. In an essay he wrote about the concept, Greenleaf noted that a person whose first inclination is towards serving others, and then leading, was quite different from someone who wanted to lead.

“That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…”

In other words, a servant leader thinks about others first, instead of self. They are more concerned about the benefit and growth of others rather than putting their own desires or goals first.

A servant leader:

  • Isn’t concerned about acquiring or holding onto power.
  • Isn’t focused on maintaining a certain reputation above all else.
  • Isn’t obsessed with staying ahead of everyone else on the ladder.
  • Doesn’t fear employees gaining skills and knowledge beyond their own.
  • Doesn’t use domination or fear to control people
  • Doesn’t think in terms of controlling people at all, really.
  • Places high value on the community.
  • Is committed to the growth and improvement of those being led.

As you can see, servant leadership differs from traditional top-down leadership. Traditional leadership tends to be about systems and structures that make repetitive work and authority a foundation. Servant leadership, on the other hand, tends to be about people.

Becoming A Servant Leader

Servant leadership doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s much easier to think of leadership in terms of traditional authoritarian terms, particularly for personalities that place value on job titles and the expected respect of titles.

In order to be a good servant leader, you need to develop and practice a few skills, according to Regen University:

  1. Be a good listener. Leaders need to be good communicators and have decision-making skills, but a servant leader also places a high priority on listening to others. You must be able to listen to individuals as well as the group and try to determine what their will or desire is. Additionally, you must be able to “listen” to yourself and know what is motivating you.
  2. Practice empathy. The servant leader can empathize with the group and with individuals. While empathy can be crippling for some (e.g. keeps them from making decisions), the servant leader isn’t at the mercy of empathy but rather uses empathy to not make snap judgments about people. Empathy allows you to get past surface issues to what’s really going on.
  3. Embrace concepts of healing. Everyone (including you) is in some state of brokenness. There is something not working quite right for everyone. The servant leader recognizes this and instead of ignoring that reality and reverting to punitive punishment when that brokenness becomes inconvenient on the job, he or she looks for ways to make broken people well.
  4. Be aware. A typical leader is often completely unaware of what people are thinking, feeling, or even doing. A servant leader, on the other hand, makes a point of being aware of the obvious and the subtle, both in their own life and in other’s lives.
  5. Be persuasive. Servant leadership is about service, not domination. Traditionally, leaders will get people to do what they want them to do through typical dominating means (power, punishment, appeal to authority, etc.). A servant leader takes a different path, using powers of persuasion to help people choose the right path as needed instead of demanding the path.
  6. Be able to conceptualize. Servant leaders are big-picture thinkers. They inspire their team to think beyond the day-to-day grind, beyond the immediate issues in front of them. Traditional leaders are fixated on short-term or immediate goals. Servant leaders look beyond numbers and goal posts, thinking of what their team needs to do to accomplish everything, not just the one thing in front of them. They help their team get the training and tools they’ll need not just for today, but for next year and on.
  7. Be a good steward. A steward is someone who holds onto something and keeps it in good condition for others who need it down the road. Servant leaders are more motivated by thinking of the greater good than thinking of personal achievements or reward. They make decisions and take actions with a steward’s mentality instead of “achieve a goal at whatever cost!” mentality.
  8. Commit to building up people. Servant leaders understand their most important resource and concern is people. They are committed to the growth and well-being of their team, thinking first of them instead of themselves. This means that training opportunities, promotions, growth—these are given to the team instead of to self. As a servant leader, there is no fear that the people on your team will surpass you. You aren’t trying to protect your own place in the world. You aren’t keeping the best opportunities for yourself.
  9. Love the community. Servant leaders love the community more than their own individual success. They don’t sell out the community for any immediate or flashy goal. Servant leaders understand that the concept of community has the power to positively shape and influence lives, more than systems or other corporate structures do.

Why Does Servant Leadership Work?

Studies have shown that servant leadership, and the empowerment and teamwork that accompanies it, trickles down. Higher level managers who turn from selfish leadership to selfless leadership end up creating lower level managers and other employees who then do the same.

Think of how this plays out for employees and customers. Instead of being motivated by what’s best for them, they are motivated to serve others. As you can imagine, that’s going to have a positive impact on your customer’s experience! The studies show that service ratings, and subsequently customer loyalty, increases when the servant leadership model is in place.

Additionally, the servant leadership model creates people who are knowledgeable about the industry and their team because they are tuned into listening to others and being mindful of what is happening around them. The model also creates trust, ethical conduct, and valuing other people, which benefits not only the team but also the customer’s experience.

The Pros And Cons Of Servant Leadership

As you can see, servant leadership takes work. It doesn’t come naturally, particularly for people attracted to power and position. It also requires dedication to the concept because it takes a fair amount of time to get to a fully working model. You can’t make people trust you overnight. It’s something you build.

In some situations, the servant leadership model may not be the best option.

For companies that need to be turned around quickly for financial or other reasons (such as employee problems), servant leadership may take too much time. In those cases, leadership has to be decisive, clear, and quick. While servant leadership can help with employee retention, it’s a balance between the employees that stick around long enough for the model to actually work versus those that cycle through.

It also might not work well in companies that rely on hierarchy and complex organization in order to function in their industry. Hierarchy and its ensuing organization aren’t necessarily bad in certain situations and cultures.

The servant leadership model has the power to transform your team and, eventually, your customer’s experience. However, it takes dedication to implement, and daily requires a leader to control the impulse to lead by force instead of serving selflessly. While it is not a model for the faint-hearted, the positive impact on your team and your bottom line make it worth the effort.

The Ultimate Guide to the Servant Leadership Model