Nearly 50 years after Robert K. Greenleaf pioneered the concept of servant leadership, its key characteristics speak more loudly to today's growing millennial workforce than to any other. Greenleaf wrote that the servant leader “focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”
Regardless of age or generation, everyone is searching for purpose in the workplace, so it’s no surprise that more and more business leaders are using servant leadership characteristics to achieve greater success for their organizations and the people that work for them.
According to Larry Spears, a widely-recognized servant leadership expert and president of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, there has been a rapid shift away from traditional autocratic and hierarchical models of leadership. Cheryl Polote-Williamson, an author and entrepreneur, drives this point home, saying that it’s critical to “let others see you serve and encourage them to join you.”
Here are some of the key servant leadership characteristics that help servant leaders get results:
Creating a workplace culture that serves a higher purpose.
What motivates your employees to succeed? Bonuses and promotions help, but people yearn to have a positive impact on the world through their work. Short-term individual goals are a poor substitute for the higher purpose that servant leadership helps foster.
In Servant Leadership in Action, a collection of essays from 44 renowned servant leadership experts and practitioners edited by leadership expert Ken Blanchard and his longtime editor Renee Broadwell, Blanchard explains that individuals serve their own interests unless they’re given a more compelling vision to serve. Unfortunately, research shows that a majority of business leaders today make decisions based on fear and anxiety. Fear is not a compelling vision, and a workplace culture rooted in fear prevents leadership development and hinders employee performance.
Thus Blanchard divides servant leadership into two main elements that bring purpose to the workplace: visionary/direction (leadership) and implementation/operational (servant). With a compelling vision and direction in place, goals and strategic initiatives can be viewed as parts of a higher purpose—not as threats.
From there, the implementation/operational element of servant leadership calls for flipping the traditional, hierarchical pyramid. In other words, the traditional pyramid is focused on what members of an organization can do for their managers or leadership teams. When the pyramid is flipped, employees become responsible rather than responsive to their leaders.
“This creates a very different environment for implementation,” Blanchard writes. “If you work for your people as servant leaders do, what is the purpose of being a manager? To help your people become eagles rather than ducks and soar above the crowd—accomplishing goals, solving problems and living according to the vision.”
Building a culture of trust that allows employees to shine.
Many leaders make decisions about whom to trust without considering who trusts them. Trust is a two-way street, and flipping the hierarchical pyramid is a great trust-building exercise.
Need proof? Best-selling author and leadership expert Simon Sinek illustrates this point in his essay in Servant Leadership in Action using the April 2017 incident in which United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked flight. The passenger was badly injured, and the public’s outpouring of empathy and support for the passenger on social media created a public relations disaster for United.
In his essay, Sinek writes that crew members likely knew what they were doing was wrong. However, a “fear-based environment” prevented crew members from speaking out. They feared the consequences of breaking the rules—even though they knew the rules were wrong.
Only when people feel that they can make mistakes or break rules without fear of consequences, Sinek adds, can they become their “most productive, innovative and cooperative selves.” Ultimately, United’s corporate policies didn’t give their employees room to shine in that moment.
Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and fellow contributor to Servant Leadership in Action, agrees that servant leadership can’t coexist with a culture of shame or fear. Courage is the foundation of servant leadership; shame, meanwhile, breeds fear.
“Shame crushes our tolerance for vulnerability, thereby killing engagement, innovation, creativity, productivity, and trust,” Brown writes. “And worst of all, if we don’t know what we’re looking for, shame can ravage our organizations before we see one outward sign of a problem.”
Celebrating individuality, wholeness, and well-being.
Too often, leaders and employees give too much of themselves to their work. Whether it’s late nights, skipped lunches, or emailing clients while at a soccer game, personal sacrifices abound. And those sacrifices come at a cost. That’s why self-care is a key servant leadership characteristic.
Failing to recognize and celebrate individuality in the workplace isn’t merely a heartless leadership style—it’s an also an ineffective one. James Ferrell, co-founder and managing partner of the Arbinger Institute, gets to the heart of the matter in his contribution to Servant Leadership in Action. Servant leaders, he writes, are viewed as “precious” not because they do things for us but rather because they take time to “see and value” people as individuals.
Seeing and valuing people as individuals involves taking time to figure out what makes them tick, what challenges them, and what motivates them. In her best-selling book Dare to Serve, Cheryl Bachelder, the CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, explains how the simple act of listening helped her turn the franchise around. "Listening and learning provided the path to a superior outcome," she writes. "It's not a natural instinct, but a [leader] pauses—listens carefully and learns continuously—before taking action."
Servant leaders must also take time to celebrate and nurture their own individuality and well-being. Raj Sisodia, co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism movement and best-selling author, details the qualities of the conscious leader in his essay in Servant Leadership in Action using the apt acronym S.E.L.F.L.E.S.S.:
- Long-term orientation
- Emotional intelligence
- Systems intelligence
- Spiritual intelligence
The idea is that the servant leader is a whole person, not fragmented or closed off in any way. That, in turn, inspires others to be whole as well.
Servant leadership is more relevant today than ever before. Today’s leaders and employees being groomed for leadership positions are seeing the positive effects that celebrating individuality, building a culture based on trust, and implementing a vision that serves a higher purpose can have on an organization.
Are any of these servant leadership characteristics present in your organization or team? Let us know in the comments.