Servant Leadership Characteristics and Why They Are Effective

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Posted by Maren Fox - 17 January, 2018

Nearly 50 years after Robert K. Greenleaf pioneered servant leadership, its key characteristics speak more to today's workforce than any generation before. He wrote that the servant leader “focuses on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”

A 2017 Deloitte study found that millennials yearn for influence, accountability, and purpose in their careers. But regardless of your age or the fancy name given to your generation, everyone is searching for purpose in the workplace. We all want to make a real difference in our community.

The parallels are undeniable. It’s no wonder that more and more business leaders are using servant leadership to achieve greater success for their organizations and the people that work for them. Larry Spears, a widely-recognized servant leadership expert and President of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, has said there has been a rapid shift away from traditional autocratic and hierarchical models of leadership. Cheryl Williamson, a business contributor for Forbes, has driven this point home when she said that it is critical to “let others see you serve and encourage them to join you.”

We’ll take a look at some of the key servant leadership characteristics that help leaders get results.

Creating a workplace culture that serves a higher purpose.

What motivates your employees to succeed? Bonuses and promotions help, sure. But people yearn to have a positive impact on the world through their work. Serving short-term individual goals is a poor substitute—servant leadership helps foster a higher purpose.  

In Servant Leadership in Action, legendary leadership expert and bestselling author Ken 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. Workplace cultures based in fear prevent new leadership development and hinder performance.

Blanchard, meanwhile, divides servant leadership into two main elements that bring purpose to the workplace. Those elements are 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 everyday without once considering who trusts them. But trust is a two-way street. And, in order for employees to truly shine, trust has to flow in both directions. Flipping the hierarchical pyramid is a great trust-building exercise.

Need proof? Bestselling author and leadership expert Simon Sinek points to the April 2017 incident in which United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked flight to illustrate. 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 Servant Leadership in Action, 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 consequences of breaking the rules—even though they knew the rules were wrong.

Only when people feel 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 at a soccer match, 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. Depersonalization in the workplace has been found to lead to diminished accomplishments, lack of motivation, and higher turnover.

James Ferrell, managing partner of the Arbinger Institute, gets to the heart of the matter in his contribution to Servant Leadership in Action. He explores why servant leaders are viewed as “so precious.” It’s not because they do things for us, Ferrell writes. It’s because they take time to “see and value” people as individuals.

And seeing and valuing people as individuals is taking time to figure what makes them tick, what challenges them, and what motivates them. Cheryl Bachelder, who became CEO of Popeyes in 2007, explains how the simple act of listening helped her turn the franchise around in her 2015 bestselling book Dare to Serve.

But servant leaders must also take time to celebrate and nurture their own individuality and well-being as well. Raj Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism co-founder and bestselling author, embodies the idea of selfless leadership in the acronym SELFLESS:

  • Strength
  • Enthusiasm
  • Love
  • Flexibility
  • 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 persons as well.

Servant leadership is more relevant today than ever before. Today’s leaders and employees currently 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 characteristics present in your organization or team? Let us know in the comments below.

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Topics: Your Team, Leadership, Servant Leadership


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