June 29th, 2022

As company executives and CEOs struggle to address employment gaps and retention issues, the relationship between leadership style and employee value is coming to light.

In the past, leadership positions have often been associated with power and authority. Such associations can brew negativity in the workplace, thus breeding poor engagement and performance. Enter servant leadership: a style of leadership that suggests leaders should serve their teams to lead them to success. 

While the concept of servant leadership has existed for decades, it isn’t widely recognized, understood, or adopted. Yet it could be the key to recruitment, retention, and improved performance in today’s changing workforce. 

Whether your next career move leads to the C-suite or a board seat, it’s important to learn about this critical leadership style and how it can help you to build positive and productive relationships throughout your organization.

What is Servant Leadership?

The term servant leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay titled “The Servant as a Leader”. The essay proposed that the best leaders were servants first, and that the act of serving first leads teams (and the companies they work for) to greater success. By serving others, individuals in a position of power have the capability to construct improved work conditions and lead by example.

All too often, leaders are authoritarians who dole out tasks to be completed as assigned with little room for creativity—let alone failure. Servant leadership places leaders in a position to better serve their teams, promoting learning and building an environment that naturally cultivates success.

Key Principles of Servant Leadership

Cultivating servant leadership requires careful consideration of the needs of others and how you can meet those needs as a a leader. The following are the 10 most important characteristics of servant leaders as identified from Greenleaf’s original writings:

  • Listening: Communication is a key leadership characteristic. This includes focused listening to every member of all teams involved in the success of a project. For high-ranking CEOs, this often means listening to learn the intent of multiple stakeholders, from board directors to new hires.
  • Empathy: By learning the strengths and weaknesses of your team, you can gain insight into their passions and provide encouragement to set them up for success. When you understand the perspective of others, you can help them overcome weaknesses and improve your delegation and productivity.
  • Healing: Past and current relationships heavily influence team collaboration and success. By recognizing your past relationship challenges and seeking ways to heal them, you can cultivate healthy relationships within your current team and understand how to create a healthy workplace environment. As Susan Schmitt Winchester, co-author of Healing at Work: A Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve, shared with the Athena community: “The world needs you to heal, so you can help heal the world.”
  • Self-Awareness: While identifying your own strengths and weaknesses can be daunting, it’s important to think deeply about your emotions and behaviors and the drivers that create them. Then, work to understand how it effects your team and leadership.
  • Persuasion: Instead of using your positional authority to force team members to comply with your vision, servant leaders use persuasion to gently encourage team members to see the logic in a proposed plan. This allows team members to buy-in to the project and feel invested in its success. 
  • Conceptualization: The best leaders inspire others through their ability to see the big picture beyond day-to-day activities. Conceptualization requires making an effort to see how the key roles of an entire organization work together.
  • Foresight: By learning from past experiences, you can gain insight into what will most likely happen in the future. Making decisions based on foresight can include careful delegation or following your intuition for the best outcome in a complicated situation.
  • Stewardship: The focus is not on self-promotion, but rather on developing others and the organization as a whole. This means servant leaders take responsibility for the development of their team and company and are accountable for their actions. 
  • Commitment to the Growth of People: A servant leader wants what is best for the workers they serve. To help team members grow, it’s your responsibility to nurture the personal and professional growth of employees.
  • Building Community: Communication and collaboration are essential to team success. Servant leaders create psychologically safe environments built on trust.

Servant Leadership vs. Traditional Leadership

For most, servant leadership is seen as being in direct opposition to traditional leadership. Consider the ways servant leadership works differently from traditional leadership methods:

  • Leading with power vs. empathy: Traditional leadership styles typically rely on a position of power to invoke fear and loyalty. Servant leadership utilizes empathy to create the best working environment.
  • Placing the company first vs. the well-being of the people: Traditional leadership is most concerned with the power and position of the company, which offers little incentive for employees. Servant leadership prioritizes the well-being of employees to naturally provide incentives for individual, team, and company success.
  • Leveraging power vs. understanding to move the company forward: Traditional leadership leverages (and sometimes abuses) power to force employees to perform. Servant leadership focuses on the needs of all employees across all teams to cultivate an environment for success.

Servant Leadership in Your Organization

Implementing servant leadership in your organization or team can lead to improved engagement and reduced turnover. Yet putting these critical characteristics into action can be challenging.. These tips can help you build actions from ideas to implement servant leadership in your organization.

Roll Up Your Sleeves

To truly understand the position of others, put yourself in their shoes. To effectively lead, it’s important to feel and recognize employee pain points to eventually reach effective solutions. Take the time to leave “executive work” behind for a day to work in the trenches with team members to see if your expectations are realistic.

Build a Strong System of Communications

Poor communication between employees and upper management leads to a culture of distrust and high turnover. By routinely checking in with employees and learning more about their personal and professional struggles, you can better meet their workplace needs and steward a culture of understanding. Create multiple channels of communication to allow employees to communicate with each other and company leaders in a way that makes them feel most comfortable.

Lead and Make Decisions with Empathy

Employees are individuals, and each person faces different personal and professional challenges. In the face of a national pandemic, many company leaders recognized the struggle women leaders face trying to balance the needs of children and the demands of the workplace. As a result, businesses must be thoughtful and strategic about how they transition their workforce back to the office. 

Tracy Layney recently spoke at a CHRO Perspectives Salon about transitioning 200,000 Bank of America employees back to the office. While the decision to return to the office was difficult, they are leading with empathy to ensure employees still have access to the flexible working arrangements they enjoyed. 

“Once people take that step back in the door, there’s a ton of positivity. Like, ‘Wow, I forgot what it was like to be with my colleagues, to be in meetings, to feel like a part of something in person’,” Tracy said. “But people are also saying they liked to catch their kids’ three o’clock game. We’ve been clear that we’re going to be an in-office culture, but we’re going to think about what flexibility means for each of us.”

Making the right decisions for your workforce often requires changing requirements and expectations to better fit the demands of your employees’ lives. This might include flexible schedules, changing compensation plans, and individualized approaches for various team members.

Get to Know Your Employees

Workers are not cogs in a company machine. By getting to know your employees’ lifestyles, career goals, and personal values, you can build a positive workplace culture that inspires them to succeed.

The world of employment and leadership roles is changing. As employees reimagine what they expect from their employers and their workplaces, leading companies are forced to adapt to a new normal and higher standards for success, and recognize the value of ethnic and gender diversity in leadership roles.

Athena helps women leaders become better leaders as they rise into the C-suite and boardroom. Learn how Athena helps women reach their biggest career goals, or get in touch with us to learn more.



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