What is servant leadership?
The Servant Leadership concept was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970’s. At that moment in time, it was a revolutionary concept. Now, Servant Leadership is coming to the front of the scene due to the evolution of the workforce’s needs and demands toward their bosses and their organizations.
Robert K. Greenleaf writes: “The difference [between the servant leader and the traditional leadership] manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” 
Why is this leadership style important now?
In one of the largest studies of burnout, Gallup found the biggest source was “unfair treatment at work.” Other factors that contributed to burnout were an unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressure. Those five causes have one thing in common: the manager. A person who is considered a bad boss might ignore their team, disrespect them or never support them. Environments like that can make anyone miserable. A manager’s effect on a workplace is so significant that Gallup can predict 70% of the variance in team engagement just by getting to know the boss.
Moreover, a recent Gartner survey found that when an organization acts on today’s social issues, the proportion of workers who were considered highly engaged increased from 40% to 60%.  As a result, businesses with engaged workers have 23% higher profit compared with business units with miserable workers. Basically, it is good for businesses to have highly engaged employees.
New generations are sensitive to this concept; they require more and more of a real commitment from organizations to meet their values such as environmental protection, a culture of coaching, and societal engagement. Therefore, it’s time to change the leadership style to attract co-workers in today’s “war of talents,” especially among the new generations entering the workforce.
What does Servant Leadership entail?
Servant Leadership is based on the serving-others principle to ensure their well-being while also developing their capacity to be a servant to others. The objective of this theory is to spread the following principles throughout the whole organization to allow the larger community to strive.
Greenleaf’s 10 principles of Servant Leadership are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.
As you can see, this leadership style requires demonstrating characteristics such as empathy, listening, stewardship, and commitment to the personal growth of others. The Servant Leader listens, coaches, and shares decision-making with their coworkers to generate empowerment, autonomy, and engagement.
Awareness is about being open to “sense the environment,” for example, promoting ethics at work and respecting others’ values. The conceptualization and foresight concepts are about daring to bring innovation and following own’s intuition to for imagining an emergent future. The Servant Leader is also engaged in developing the community at large with a holistic approach to work. It’s about how the leader can develop the coworkers to have an impact on the community.
These characteristics are more than simple principles. To be effective, they need to be embodied and visible in the everyday work environment. They require constant work and self-awareness from the leader in order to avoid falling into the pitfall of “I know it all, I decide, I have power, and I tell people what to do without checking their engagement.”
Servant Leadership promotes ethics at work with behaviors such as respect, honesty, fairness, and integrity. Simple to say, it is more difficult to practice in a world that pushes co-workers to overly ambitious results in challenging economic times (Ukraine’s war, inflation, supply chain shortages…) with increased stress. A work environment, which, after the incredibly demanding pressure due to Covid, didn’t give people time to rest and recover.
How do you combine positive results and the Servant Leader’s principles when the leader is in the middle of these contradictory requirements?
The above question is something many leaders may struggle with as they try to become better managers. Below, I will share some guidelines to make sure managers are on the right path to effectively use Servant Leadership.
First of all Servant Leadership and results are not contradictory. By doing both, you will generate better results. The natural tendency of a leader in stressful situations is to control more, to push their collaborator to do more, and to be too “hands-on.” The obvious outcome is more stress on the leaders, who in turn put more stress on their own teams.
On the contrary, if the leader delegates and empowers their team, team members feel more accountable, and results can be reached in a more harmonious way.
For example, I coach the General Manager of an industrial coatings manufacturer. He had the tendency of handling all the difficult situations managed by his collaborators. As a result, he was close to burnout and said, “I feel I cannot focus on strategic matters, which would improve our workload and generate more sustainable outcomes in the long term.” During the coaching sessions, he worked on delegation and empowerment of his team, who felt more motivated in solving issues since they were learning and acquiring more skills. Consequently, this change of behavior generated a virtuous circle because the General Manager had more time for strategy and therefore for generating results.
Secondly, in this complex and stressful world, I suggest being gentle with yourself. Being a Servant Leader is demanding and sometimes the 10 principles are not part of the company culture. You can’t manage to be a Servant Leader in some of your work situations? Let it go and think about how you could do better the next time. Feeling bad about your failures is useless; the past is the past. Look at the future and praise yourself for your achievements.
Third, proceed step by step and focus on one principle at a time. This will allow you to see your progression and to educate your environment little by little.
Sarah, a young brilliant trader in a global bank, taught an older peer something new, who at first resented her attitude and was resistant to the changes she proposed. With some coaching support, she learned how to treat them with respect and how to build solutions with them. Consequently, the changes have been implemented smoothly with the agreement of the whole department.
When this new behavior has been adopted, she started working on the empowerment of her team, step by step.
Here are some questions you may reflect upon to check if you are a real Servant Leader:
- What am I in service of? Myself, my team, my organization, my family, or my friends?
- How do I contribute to my team’s, friends’, and family’s well-being?
- Am I empowering my team, my colleagues, and my children?
- Am I treating everybody with respect?
- Am I considering this question in a holistic approach by reflecting on the consequences on the surrounding people, and activities, and not just my activity?
- Do I really listen to others and take their opinions into account?
- Am I empathetic with people around me when they tell me their struggles?
- Am I gentle with myself, or do I push myself too hard?
Start step by step and you will find this journey rewarding for yourself and your team!
 Gallup: State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report
 Quoted by Deloitte’s State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report
 Gallup: State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report