Staying Power of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership is often labeled as a softer and less effective style of leadership. The idea of allotting more time to things like engagement, listening, and establishing more meaningful relationships is tough for some to swallow. Opponents feel this time is better served (pun intended) by focusing on results over growth and development. Others feel the term servant leadership has grown stale and doesn’t take into account newer research and contemporary leadership thinking.

In the world of investment, those who are looking to increase their wealth are cautioned about past behavior being indicative of future results. The purpose of this white paper is to show that while the principles of servant leadership remain the same, they continue to not only change but transform organizations and their members.

Adapt or Die

On what seems like a daily basis, authors tell leaders they need to become more empathetic, more compassionate, or more resonant. Some feel the need to replace the term servant leader with service leader or the unselfish leader. Others caution leaders to move quickly, to adapt to a changing world, to be agile and resilient. Only the strong and versatile survive. Change is inevitable. Be ready for it and get used to it.

Servant leadership was founded on many of the same principles which now seem to be considered contemporary thinking or evolutionary leadership breakthroughs. It is true that we are experiencing one of the most diverse workforces in history, immense competitive pressure in the marketplace, and rapidly changing technology. Some would say that servant leadership has been passed by; swallowed up by the elements described above. However, those who truly understand servant leadership know it continues to align quite well with said elements.

In our same-day-delivery, instant-gratification world, servant leadership is seen as slow to produce or better still, lacking in a focus on results. Neither could be further from the truth. While servant leaders understand it takes time to witness certain results, this doesn’t necessarily imply a slow-moving approach. In fact, servant leaders have to move quickly to balance their priorities for others and the organization, as well as their own growth.

Servant leaders strive for the greater good. They want to see the organization succeed at the collective hands of all its members. It isn’t leadership absent of results. Rather, it places a greater emphasis on the process formulated to generate results as opposed to the results themselves. Results aren’t just an end sum game. Results can be seen in how methods become more efficient, in how teams gel with one another, and how relationships are forged; all of which contribute mightily to the end game.

Author Simon Sinek taught us to start with the ‘why’. Answering the question of why servant leaders lead the way they do is actually quite simple. It’s to engage, educate, create powerful relationships, and develop transformational change. As Simek would say, profits are a result; not an answer to why things are done a certain way. If you ask a servant leader why they put the needs of others before their own, they would tell you because that is the true definition of leadership.

We Wear Our Emotions on Our Sleeves

Humans have and always will be emotional beings. Servant leaders have known this for decades. For the longest time, employees were instructed to leave their problems at the door and not to mix work and home lives. Some leaders may still champion a similar philosophy. Servant leaders know this simply isn’t possible.

As emotional beings, there is a need to share feelings, to be praised and recognized, and to be understood. There are those who feel they are good listeners and then those who actually are good listeners. Some leaders say they can empathize with their followers, but is that really the case? Servant leaders make skills like listening and empathizing priorities; so much so that stating one’s proficiency in either area needn’t be offered because it’s recognized easily and quickly.

Furthermore, servant leaders know their own emotions can have a significant impact on their overall effectiveness. While the term emotional intelligence tends to get more of the attention, critical components of EI such as listening, awareness, and empathy have always been staples of servant leadership. How can a leader truly understand the emotions of others until they’ve studied their own? As one begins to understand their own responses, triggers, or behaviors; they start to identify similar or opposite behaviors in others. This starts with humility. Servant leaders are humble enough to identify with their own emotional needs so they are better poised to address the needs of others.

The Times (and Needs), They are A-Changin’

Along with one of the most diverse workforces in history, comes an evolution in employee needs. Once upon a time, and maybe still true today in some organizations, motivation was accomplished through the exclusive use of extrinsic rewards such as pay, benefits, and vacation time. Needs for stability, pensions, and even work itself represented the top priorities. Employees may not have enjoyed their work or had the best relationship with the organization’s leadership, but they remained loyal nonetheless. Their own happiness and satisfaction were cast aside for things like job security and seniority.

While part of the workforce still employs a similar form of prioritization, there is a growing number of employees who desire to be incentivized and motivated differently. In addition to fair pay and attractive benefits, more and more employees are looking for a daily reminder of their worth to the organization. They look to their supervisor to affirm their role and how they contribute to the mission. They want to work with a higher purpose; for themselves and those they serve. And they need to be fueled with recognition for their efforts; something to propel them forward and inspire them to do their very best.

Under the very premise of putting others before themselves, servant leaders have the right mindset to meet these needs. Leading with a purpose and growth mindset helps others to do the same. They’ve learned how to provide that perfect blend of challenge and support with which to create employees who learn, grow, and feel empowered. The former pushes them to develop new skills, make better decisions, and become better problem solvers. Whereas the latter represents the praise and encouragement they need to remain engaged and invigorated.

All too often, the terms manager and leader are used interchangeably. Yet, they are not one in the same. Fulfilling needs like purpose and worth are not a product of management. They are fulfilled by learning about others; by understanding their needs and passions; by providing the appropriate resources; and through a genuine caring that reveals a priority for collective success. As we like to say; you manage things, you lead people.

Diversity and Inclusion…Check.

Putting others first means showing an appreciation for the thoughts, perspectives, and needs of everyone.

Servant leaders aren’t forcing themselves to hire for diversity or to be more inclusive leaders because they already lead in a way that shows mutual respect and welcomes input from all. The terms diversity and inclusion have become politicized by a media that focuses more heavily on the absence of both.

Servant leaders don’t call press conferences to state their organizations are hoping to grow their Black or Hispanic leadership by X percent in the next 10 years. Rather, value is seen and placed heavily on interaction and relationships which are genuine and respectful. Hiring for diversity and championing inclusion aren’t carried out as strategic objectives, they are seen as standard servant leadership practices. Servant leaders needn’t become more diverse and inclusive. The rest of the world needs to understand that treating people fairly and giving a voice to all is simply the right thing to do.

Where’s the Accountability?

Another myth about servant leadership is that employees aren’t held accountable. But if you think about it, doing so would actually be the antithesis for much of what servant leadership entails. Supporting, encouraging, and helping others to grow cannot be absent of accountability. Servant leaders strive to set clear expectations. They communicate those expectations in a way that makes them easily understood. They provide the right resources and environment to be conducive to success.

Accountability should coincide with regular engagement. Some leaders don’t engage until an employee makes a mistake or falls short of expectations. Such discussions might also not take place until the employee’s performance appraisal has come due. When carried out in this fashion, the leader does a real disservice to the employee. Something which could have been discussed weeks or months prior was tabled for one reason or another. Had regular or even timely discussion taken place, the employee could have been notified much sooner and began working to correct the issue.

Finally, servant leaders understand that not holding people accountable sends the wrong message. It can hint at favoritism. It can hurt the ability for employees to trust a leader that says one thing and then does another. It can hurt morale to where employees who are meeting expectations become frustrated at either a double standard or what feels like an unappreciated effort or waste of time; neither of which is a sentiment a servant leader wants to convey.

Service Above All Else

Be open to change.
Understand the role that emotion plays.
Be aware of the shift in employee needs.
Show value in all perspectives.
Hold others accountable.

All of these tenets can be tied back to service. But to some, that word carries a negative connotation because they misunderstand its real meaning. It’s not about the weak submitting to the strong. It’s not about accepting a life of indebtedness. And it’s not about foregoing your own ideas because they don’t mesh with an outward mindset.

Service is about the big picture; not just the bottom line. It strives to understand the needs of all involved. It’s about looking for new opportunities or options when needs change or processes become less effective or obsolete. It’s about making human connections, regular and meaningful engagement, and building relationships in an effort to create a safe environment where people don’t just feel they can share; they want to share.

When sharing does take place, service is about showing respect to the thoughts and ideas presented. Rich, respectful, and candid discussion takes place, and healthy dissension and debate are welcomed. And when
decisions are made, processes are implemented, and expectations are set; service is about ensuring responsibilities are met in order to keep people and organizations moving forward.

If you take the time to digest what was written here today, to really learn about servant leadership; you will find this so-called “weak” style can actually bring about very powerful transformations.

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