What is Servant Leadership?

Culture

June 13, 2022

Marco Palomino

X min

5 min

Servant leadership is gaining popularity in all types of organizations. Here’s a mini guide to the concept to help demystify this trend.

What is Servant Leadership?
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Let’s face it, your leadership style can be hard to define, yet it’s a question you’ve probably been asked in a job interview. That’s because leadership style is one of the best ways to determine whether someone will be a good cultural fit (or cultural add).  

Servant leadership is one approach that’s gaining popularity in all types of organizations. Here’s a mini guide to the concept to help demystify this trend.

First, who are servant leaders?

Servant leaders have a serve-first mindset. They ask how they can serve their employees, instead of micromanaging or imposing on them. They unlock the employee’s potential and creativity and let them run with projects because they trust them. That is key – to become a servant leader, you must trust your employees.  

The history of servant leadership  

Before we explore the many benefits servant leadership can bring to your organization, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t a new concept. In fact, it's been around for centuries as a philosophy.  

The term servant leadership came from Robert K. Greenleaf’s 1970 essay ‘The Servant as a Leader’. In this essay, Greenleaf introduces several ideals, philosophies and values that revisit the main role of a leader in a modern organization.

However, while Greenleaf revitalized the concept of servant leadership, he didn’t create it. The philosophy itself is considered ancient history. Historical figures such as Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are examples of servant leadership in practice. But in fact, servant leadership could be brought back even further. Let’s journey back to 600 B.C to ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu when he said: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Now that we know that servant leadership is a concept that has existed for a while, let’s get into its key differentiators from the traditional approach.

What’s a traditional approach?

“Traditional leadership is more about what the employee can do for the organization,” says Michelle Thomas, Director, Development & Architecture at Kudos. “You are a cog in the machine to earn the money, and they want to know what you’re doing to help earn those dollars. Traditional leaders will consider if you are worth keeping or if you’re actually an expense for the organization.”  

“Servant leadership is the complete opposite,” she continues. “It’s what can we do for you to make you happy, so you are a happy, productive member of this organization because the most productive teams are the happiest teams. The teams I’ve led that were collaborative, and happy  - the teams that would have a good time together - those were the best teams and the highest performing,” says Thomas.

Servant leaders know that a motivated employee will bring better results to the organization. They use their skills and position to help individuals complete their tasks with ease. They provide the tools to employees to stay motivated and engaged, while also going above and beyond to better the person rather than the “employee.” This includes their mental health, physical health, and career development. For example, chances are that your employees already know how things work in your organization. So, why not take that into consideration and instead of telling them what to do or how to do it, you ask them “How can I help you make your job less stressful?” Once you switch it up and listen to them, you’ll be left with a better boss-employee relationship.  

Now that we know what key differences exist between traditional and servant leadership, let’s focus on benefits any organization will see by having and supporting servant leaders, especially organizations doing it on a larger scale.

The benefits of servant leadership

  1. Employee retention
    When employees feel valued, and their development is supported by caring and charismatic leaders, you have a higher chance of keeping them. A recent Gallup study found that 52% of employees believed their manager could have helped them stay. Also, having happier employees will result in better productivity and a more positive work environment, which helps to aleviate another significant issue organizations are managing these days – burnout.  
  1. Better relationships between teams
    Servant leadership works both ways, team members managed by servant leaders will build the relationships between the rest of teams in the organization. According to a Harvard Business Review article, open communication will set up clear expectations on what everyone needs in the organization. Having servant leaders creates healthier relationships between employees because they don’t feel like they’re competing for the boss’s approval. Instead, they will collaborate with each other, increasing productivity.  
  1. Improved diversity
    Data from Deloitte shows that only 11% of employees feel they can be their authentic selves at work. Servant leaders typically possess many qualities that contribute to a diverse workplace. They build trust in their followers; they are active listeners to what employees have to say and ultimately, they care for their team’s advancement in the organization. A more diverse and inclusive workplace starts where the decisions are made.  
  1. Enhanced creativity
    A top-rated skill by LinkedIn, creativity is an important element in the success of any organization. Individuals who are creative at work will benefit the organization in the short, medium and long term. Servant leadership inspires creativity by encouraging a service mentality; they make employees feel safe, allowing them to set their creative thoughts free.
  1. Employee growth and development
    According to LinkedIn, almost three-fourths of leaders agree that learning and development has become essential in their organization. Servant leaders are long term thinkers. They invest in their employees, and they encourage their success. By providing a positive work environment where employees can ask questions, servant leaders help employees to succeed.  

Servant leadership in action

Now that we’ve explored the many benefits, let’s dive into successful organizations that are currently using this fascinating leadership method.  

What do Marriott International, Starbucks, Google and Whole Foods have in common? They are all applying a servant leadership approach in their day-to-day operations. Whether it’s to offer you the best possible stay away from home or to help you decide on how to season your thanksgiving turkey, organizations across the globe have started to realize that in order to keep talent, they need to empower and recognize employees for what they do.  

Google, for instance, knows that when employees feel appreciated, the clients will benefit. Google understands that perks and recognition are no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a must. The technological giant’s CEO makes sure to set up calls with all teams, creating a better relationship between employees and leadership.  

Starbucks has been working on culture for decades. The largest coffee chain in the world has made sure to treat customers like celebrities, and it’s not a coincidence that every employee working there treats you that way.  

Howard Schultz, former president of Starbucks, worked hard on employee engagement.  Schultz created forums where employees had the opportunity to speak up. He had realized early on that the way leaders treat employees will directly impact on how employees treat the customers.

Marriott International walks the talk; besides being a world leader in the hotel industry, Marriott is a place where employees can enjoy free education, mentorship and the opportunity to move up within the organization. In fact, many general managers at Marriott started as hourly workers. Marriott embraces key Servant Leadership values; the business isn’t just about the guests – they make it mainly about the employees.

Whole Foods and John Mackey’s leadership: according to the cofounder and CEO of this $17 billion corporation, leaders are made, not born. They are made by practicing, says Mackey, who understands that if a leader wants to see results, they need to put the people first.  

By using Servant Leadership conviction, Mackey has proved that a leader can be strong and caring at the same time.  

How do you become a Servant Leader?

Let’s look at key attributes you will need to develop:

  1. Be humble and listen
    Servant leadership starts and ends with listening and understanding. In order to listen you need to be humble, you can’t assume to know it all and call yourself a servant leader. It simply won’t work. Take the time to know your team and appreciate them for what they do.  
  1. Engage, but nicely
    Without communication, it’s impossible to gain or maintain someone’s trust. This applies both in life and at the office. At Kudos, we pride ourselves on engagement because we know when teams feel valued, productivity skyrockets.  
  1. Foster growth
    Servant leaders simply want employees to succeed. A leader that makes employees feel confident, strengthens their working relationship. Plus, you will see higher employee retention rates.  
  1. Recognize Often
    Servant leaders always go the extra mile to have an impact beyond their direct team. Servant leaders want the entire organization to feel part of something special. An Employee recognition platform like Kudos, can give your leaders and team a place to share recognition widely, and often.  

Looking ahead

Servant Leadership goes beyond a style of leadership, it is a mindset. Building a relationship with your team that goes beyond the “what are you working on?” will help you cultivate the culture you want at your organization.  

As Michelle Thomas from Kudos says, “make sure that your people are happy, they have what they need to be fulfilled at work. It’s not just a job to them. They want to know that they’re contributing, making a difference, and to me, that’s what servant leadership is all about.”

About Kudos

Kudos is an employee engagement, culture, and analytics platform, that harnesses the power of peer-to-peer recognition, values reinforcement, and open communication to help organizations boost employee engagement, reduce turnover, improve culture, and drive productivity and performance. Kudos uses unique proprietary methodologies to deliver essential people analytics on culture, performance, equity, and inclusion, providing organizations with deep insights and a clear understanding of their workforce.

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