Five decades ago, Robert Greenleaf proposed a radical yet simple idea: in order for leaders to truly be great, they need to serve the people they lead—and not the other way around. Instead of an “I say ‘jump,’ you say ‘how high?’” attitude, servant leaders empower, engage, inspire, and listen. They facilitate others’ success, and don’t obstruct it.
Greenleaf’s lesson should be a no-brainer, but businesses remain slow to adopt his paradigm-shifting principles. A recent survey by Randstad US found that 60 percent of employees have left a job or are considering leaving because they don’t like their direct supervisors—likely at least in part because those supervisors are not following the principles of servant leadership. The same survey found that 59 percent of respondents feel that their organizations place profits ahead of how employees are treated.
Greenleaf, in his initial essays on the subject, hoped the corporate world, as well as a wide variety of organizations and communities, would come to embrace his servant leadership principles. Over the past decade, several forward-thinking companies such as Southwest Airlines, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Toro, and Starbucks have demonstrated the power of this practice, signaling the tide is beginning to turn.
Stuck in the Status Quo
Not every traditional leader is a tyrant intent on imposing their will on acquiescing subordinates. And many leaders do genuinely care for their employees. Yet, the idea that employees are cogs in the machine and need to accept their supervisors’ instruction without question continues to guide many well-meaning, well-liked managers and executives. After all, this approach has worked well for decades, even centuries, to “get the job done”—so why risk a different philosophy, and potentially more work, just to make employees happier?
Escaping this traditional mindset—that managers are omnipotent and employees must know their subordinate place—is difficult because many don’t see a need for servant leadership in the workplace. Things such as company culture and increased job satisfaction “don’t directly affect the bottom line,” and adopting such concerns can be seen as a waste of time and energy.
In their book, The Serving Leader: Five Powerful Actions to Transform Your Team, Business, and Community, authors Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert call for upending this traditional organizational pyramid. As they note, “This task has two dimensions: The Serving Leader moves to the bottom of the pyramid and the Serving Leader concentrates on building up others.” This flip is at the heart of servant leadership and well worth the effort.
A Smart Shift to Serve
Workplace expectations have shifted over the years, with employees no longer settling for the old supervisor-subordinate mindset. A variety of factors have contributed to this evolution—millennial career goals (especially in the last year or two, as reported by the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey), the digital and sometimes remote workplace, the fluctuating economy—but these expectations generally have common themes:
Employees desire a sense of purpose in their organizations and want to know their work is valued as an important contribution to the overall success of the company.
Employees want their work to mean something. Whether that something is contributing to the greater good, gaining personal satisfaction, or even improving the organization’s bottom line, workers excel when they believe in what they’re doing.
Employee satisfaction is more critical than ever. People today won’t hesitate to jump to another job to fulfill goals beyond money, thus putting organizations on the spot to attract and retain talent. The aforementioned Deloitte survey confirms that this is not a millennial phase, with 61 percent of Generation Z respondents saying they would leave a job within two years if given the choice.
Employees want to feel trusted and also be able to trust that their managers have their best interests at heart.
Knowing this, servant leadership perfectly positions itself to help organizations develop, nurture, and uplift their employees and meet these expectations. Furthermore, trust—which, in other work environments, might be sorely lacking—will emerge. In an essay he contributed to Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results, Simon Sinek writes, “When a leader gets the environment right, the normal human response is trust and cooperation. When they get it wrong, cynicism, paranoia, mistrust, and self-interest prevail.” Servant leadership diminishes the negatives Sinek lists because the leader’s actions are rooted in others’ success and meeting their expectations. And when others succeed, subsequently, so too do their leaders. In today’s competitive and always evolving workplace, this can prove the difference between great organizations and ones that are simply muddling through.
A Plan for Servant Leadership
Though one might think every company would be subscribing to this transformative strategy, as already alluded to, resistance to the servant leadership model is common. Perhaps the most prevalent reason for resistance is that servant leadership doesn’t happen overnight: Leaders used to leading in an autocratic way have a lot of self-work to do in order to evolve their leadership style. This will inevitably take time, and patience and is no easy feat.
Jennings and Stahl-Wert, in The Serving Leader, detail five steps for becoming a servant leader:
Upend the pyramid: Be willing to change the fundamental leader/subordinate relationship.
Raise the bar: Boost your own commitment and expectations for servant leadership, and your example will inspire others to do the same.
Blaze the trail: Teach others while removing obstacles from their paths.
Build on strength: Focus on what you and your team do well to help diminish other shortcomings.
Run to great purpose: Build a foundation for all your actions as a servant leader—and the work your employees do—to grow from.
Why Servant Leadership Matters
Five decades have brought plenty of change and innovation to how organizations operate and succeed. During that time, hierarchical leadership has slowed, and the workplace is finally beginning to see the value of service to the people who, at an organization’s core, are responsible for its success or failure.
Brené Brown, in her contribution to Servant Leadership in Action, writes: “Given what I’ve learned from research and what I’ve observed over the past decade as I’ve worked with leaders from companies of all sizes and types, I believe we have to completely reexamine the idea of engagement. To reignite creativity, innovation, and learning, leaders must dare to rehumanize education and work. This means understanding how scarcity is affecting the way we lead and work, learning how to engage with vulnerability, and recognizing and combating shame.” Such understanding takes time and a philosophy shift, but the benefits are far-reaching for everyone in the organization and can lead us into a future guided by service.