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Servant leadership: what is it?

Published 26th July 2017 by Investors in People
Servant leader at work

There are so many leadership styles around that most people have lost count - from transactional to laissez-faire and transformational, all are based on different theories and beliefs and aim to achieve different goals.

Servant leadership is relatively new but the principles have been around for thousands of years. It’s becoming more popular due to structural changes in the workplace and societal trends, so it’s worth understanding how it works and the benefits it can bring.

Servant leadership definition

Servant leaders ultimately seek to cultivate a deep understanding of the personal needs, emotions, fears and skills of different stakeholders in the organisation. This understanding allows the servant leader to assist and empower these people to be the very best they can be.

Servant leaders therefore become, according to Osland, Kolb & Rubin (2001), “stewards who are responsible for serving, developing, and transforming the organisation and its people.”

It’s a selfless style: Boyatzis & McKee (2005) say that servant leadership is underpinned by the idea that leaders put aside self-interest and focus on the collective interest of other stakeholders.

Hale and Fields (2007) build on this point about self-interest, arguing that servant leadership is about “emphasising leadership behaviours that focus on follower development, and de-emphasising glorification of the leader."

This makes servant leadership different from traditional leadership models that place weight on the personal skills and qualities of the leader, such as heroic leadership and authoritative leadership.

Servant leadership history: why did it arise?

Rivkin, Diestel & Schmidt (2014) say that trust in leadership has been in decline, due to organisational scandals - like Enron - and the role that leadership played in facilitating the global financial crisis.

At the same time, the authors point out, there has been growing recognition that certain leadership styles can lead to unethical behaviour, which has pushed research to focus on leadership styles that “promote socially responsible and moral behaviour.”

Graham (2001) adds that of the more modern and progressive leadership styles, servant leadership has a particularly clear moral compass, which aligns with increasing interest in organisations as moral actors.

And Rivkin et al (2014) point out that of all the leadership styles that have a moral element - which include authentic leadership and ethical leadership - servant leadership focuses on the success of multiple stakeholders, which aligns with the multi-stakeholder view of organisational success that tends to predominate nowadays.

Finally, as we become far more interested in employee psychological health and wellbeing because of its impact on human productivity in the workplace, we must re-examine the role of leadership on mental wellbeing.

As Kuoppala et al (2008) point out, the quality and nature of leadership is linked to employee psychological health, yet Barling et al (2008) say that models like transformational leadership are primarily beneficial for the leader or organisation regardless of the strain put on the employee.

Naturally, servant leadership - with its focus on the needs of others - stands out when organisations focus on the psychological needs of their staff.

Servant leadership: features and traits of servant leaders

Larry C Spears, former president of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, outlines 10 characteristics of servant leadership: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community.

For a full overview of how each of these characteristics present in servant leadership and what behaviours they encompass, take a look at a paper written by Spears on the topic [PDF].

And for a complementary overview of different attributes, skills and behaviours that are considered key to servant leadership, this paper [PDF] from Olesia, Namusonge, Iravo (2014) is a useful read.

Don’t forget that, as with all leadership styles, the theory and practice of servant leadership are fluid, and there are no set characteristics of servant leaders that are universally agreed.

Servant leadership: what are the positive effects?

Rivkin et al (2014) found that servant leadership positively impacted long-term psychological wellbeing. They also found that servant leadership reduced the daily “ego depletion” - mental frazzledness - and subsequent recuperation time needed by employees.

Chinomona, Mashiloane & Pooe (2013) say that servant leadership “positively influences employee trust in the leader [PDF] and employee commitment to the organisation in a significant way.”

Meanwhile, van Dierendonck (2011) found a link between servant leadership and improved job attitude and performance.

This finding is supported by Liden et al (2013). They studied servant leadership in restaurants and shops and found that servant leadership created a serving culture, which is “positively related both to restaurant performance and employee job performance, creativity, and customer service behaviors.”

Servant leadership can also impact on wider organisational factors like talent management. Yukl (2010), for example, says that servant leadership builds on the organisation’s ability to retain employees because it helps nurture and sustain an employee-oriented culture [PDF].

Overall, the research is kind to servant leadership, although there is criticism, for example on a perceived tendency to prioritise self-development over alignment with organisational goals. Transformational leadership, by contrast, has many qualities in common with servant leadership, but the leader’s ultimate focus is on aligning employee action with organisational goals.

Are you a servant leader or do you know anyone who is? Let us know what you think about servant leadership in the comments below.