3 Ways to Create a Culture of Servant Leadership

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  • June 12, 2019

Servant leadership subscribes to the concept that leaders exist to serve employees and not the other way around. The servant leader, as described by Ken Blanchard, “unleashes the power of people and organizations for the common good.”

Although this philosophy—which has a proven track record of transformation and increased efficacy—can be embraced one manager at a time, creating a culture of servant leadership makes it less of a novelty and more of a standard operating procedure for achieving excellence. Blanchard outlines four key elements for building this culture:

  1. Clear vision.
  2. Clear values.
  3. Clear internal goals.
  4. A focus on people.

Blanchard confirms that culture is all about your people: “That they come to work and they make a difference and they want to be there, fully engaged, happy, excited to make a difference with each other and customers.” A culture of servant leadership doesn’t happen overnight, but working toward creating it, with the help of the three tips in this post, is worth the effort.

1. Mentor aspiring servant leaders

Servant leadership might look like it comes naturally to some, but in reality, it’s a mindset and set of skills that are intentionally taught, developed, and practiced with dedication. Moreover, it’s not a rigid framework, but rather one that evolves and grows as any person does—it takes time, internal inspiration and external motivation, and, perhaps most importantly, the right mentors.

Great leadership positively influences an organization’s culture; servant leadership takes this benefit to the next level by ingraining in managers that success is a shared, selfless experience. This sounds great on paper, but often, seeing it in action makes the greatest impression and requires hard work and commitment. And because servant leaders already are focused on the betterment and development of others, they make perfect mentors in showing how it’s done.

In an essay by Jeffrey W. Foley included in the excellent compilation Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results, he writes about being relentless in the development of leaders: “Servant leaders inspire people to grow while discovering their skills and unique gifts. Servant leaders do all they can to facilitate that growth by putting their people in positions where they can flourish.” Servant mentors grow other servant leaders, not just for the benefit of their protégés, but also with the knowledge that the leaders they help develop will go on to serve and develop others.

2. Source feedback from employees

Employees require a workplace in which they feel safe not only to develop, but also to trust the service their managers are offering. Communication is obviously important between leaders and subordinates in any workplace, but servant leaders thrive on the feedback they receive from the employees they oversee. Coming from a place of respect, a manager saying, “Tell me your concerns, needs, and how I can help you” invites an open discussion focused on the employee’s perspective.  

The authors of A Great Place to Work for All: Better for Business, Better for People, Better for the World highlight three things that differentiate For All Leaders—a term they use to describe a “super leader”:

  • They work with teams, including seeking out people’s input and involving them in decisions.
  • They recognize people, from calling out their accomplishments to helping them get ahead in their careers.
  • They make people want to follow them because they are competent, honest, and reliable.

All three of these attributes can apply to a servant leader, and all embrace feedback to facilitate a manager’s growth. The more employees see their feedback being received and acted upon, the safer they will feel to open up even more, further strengthening the servant leader’s relationships and effectiveness.

3. Look outside the organization

Servant leadership is an outward philosophy—the leader puts the needs of others first, which has a ripple effect in which all employees begin to face outwardly to serve each other, which in turn benefits the entire organization. Usually, the “others” are the employees they manage, but servant leadership should extend beyond immediate subordinates or people within the organization to the community as a whole. This can include customers, shareholders, clients, and the broader local and global community.

In her book Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others, Cheryl Bachelder details how Popeyes Louisiana Chicken focused on servant leadership with franchise owners first, which inevitably spread the service philosophy throughout the company and eventually to customers. She writes, “At Popeyes, we discovered the performance power of serving others by focusing first on our franchise owners. This success has given us conviction about the importance of serving every constituent in our company well—the restaurant manager, the employee, the guest, the vendor partner, the investor, the board. Dare-to-Serve Leadership is a mindset for approaching every constituent.” Servant leadership is infectious, and once it takes hold, it inspires others to serve and make others valued.

A culture of servant leadership delivers powerful results for the organization—but individual impacts are just as important a driver for adopting the concept. In their introduction to Servant Leadership in Action, Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell write, “Our dream is that someday, everywhere, everyone will be impacted by someone who is a servant leader. Self-serving leaders will be a thing of the past. Leaders throughout the world will be people who, in Robert K. Greenleaf’s terms, ‘serve first and lead second.’”

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