Transformational Leadership vs. Servant Leadership: 3 Key Differences

by Maren Fox

March 15, 2019

Great leadership isn’t only about the select few at the top—it can be found at all levels and in all manner of leadership styles. Increasingly, individuals and organizations are finding success with transformational leadership and servant leadership. Many people think these styles are the same. However, though similar, they offer different strategies and practices that can make up your unique leadership style. Learning the differences between the two can better prepare you for your leadership development journey toward creating your own style that also incorporates your values and strengths.  

First, the Basics

Transformational leadership believes in the power of encouraging everyone in the organization to hone their individuality and contribute on the basis of their passion and lived experiences. Leaders and managers create connections with employees, invite enthusiastic input, and provide support and positive motivation. Transformational leadership, at its core, looks at each team member and employee and supports positive transformations from within to benefit the good of the whole. It sees each person as a leader-in-training and aims to facilitate and nurture their growth.

Servant leadership relies on the principle that managers exist to serve their employees, instead of the other way around. Leaders believe their own interests take a back seat to the needs, hopes, and goals of their employees. Because of this, employees experience higher levels of trust with their bosses and feel safe to suggest ideas, pursue professional development, and have honest conversations.

Difference No. 1: Influence

Transformational leadership values employees in that it aims to guide and inspire them to unlock their potential to benefit the company. People aren’t cogs in the machine so much as they are potential superheroes, doing their part to make the organization a more dynamic and, yes, a more profitable place. When done right, transformational leadership also makes the organization a better place to work—employees reap the rewards of shared success and are constantly thinking about their essential contributions and growth potential.

Servant leadership, with its emphasis on listening and support, treats employees not only as heroes, but also almost as customers. An employee who feels a sense of purpose, value, and job satisfaction because of the conversations they’re having with their servant leader will naturally be more productive. Ultimately, the manager is responsible for ensuring that happiness exists and is sustained. Employees with servant leaders know their bosses will always be there, providing whatever they need to thrive—even if it’s just a listening ear or a bit of friendly advice.

Difference No. 2: Orientation

Servant leadership orients itself differently from transformational leadership in that the former faces toward the employee with an emphasis on service. All positions in the company are lifted toward a greater good in the name of serving one another. In other words, when a servant leader sets the example of facing and serving others, the whole organization feels the culture of service as a result, and therefore celebrates and values each other equally. In an essay from the book Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results, Tom Mullins writes, “Celebrating your people demonstrates that you value them and you acknowledge their part in making the victory possible. Simply put, your people need to feel valued and affirmed by their leader.”

Transformational leadership is aimed at the bigger picture, focusing on not just the employees, but also the purpose of the entire company. Transformational leaders look at how people can grow and transform both themselves and the organization via shared yet individual priorities, and seeks alignment between the two. The greater good is approached first, and then strategies are instituted on how to engage and empower employees to achieve that good.

Difference No. 3: Underlying Goals

Transformational leadership believes that employees are the drivers of achieving overarching goals—whether those goals are organizational, developmental, personal, or anything in between. We explored this concept in a recent profile of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who made ambitious plans for his company and gave his workforce, from execs to front-line employees, the means and the confidence to execute those plans in any innovative ways they could. The subsequent success was astounding.

Although larger goals are still incredibly important with servant leadership, the focus on individual goals provides the means to achieve any organizational goals. If employees feel stagnant or unhappy, servant leaders have failed, and any company-wide success is hollow because they came at the expense of workers rather than as a primary result of their efforts.

Two Styles in Tandem

In exploring the differences between transformational leadership and servant leadership, we don’t mean to suggest that one is better than the other. Moreover, this isn’t a one-or-the-other proposition—organizations and their managers can incorporate both into their overarching leadership philosophy.

Authors Jon Katzenbach, James Thomas, and Gretchen Anderson write in their new book, The Critical Few: Energize Your Company’s Culture by Choosing What Really Matters, “If you are truly interested in having your company transform—if you genuinely want a high-performance organization with a broad cadre of people committed to the success of the enterprise—then you need to become conversant with the emotions, behaviors, and deep-seated attitudes that exist in your company. You need to know what employees feel strongly about, both positively and negatively.”

Both transformational and servant leadership fit this bill, as do other leadership philosophies that organizations of all kinds have found success with. Leaders don’t need to be rigid with their management styles; they can pick and choose elements from a variety of approaches that are most effective for their personal preferences, their workplace, their employees, and their goals.

Topics: You, Leadership, Servant Leadership

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