What is Servant Leadership? 5 Must-Have Principles

Successful leadership is this generation’s Holy Grail. Wherever we turn, there are leadership courses, coaching, and success stories all describing a strong and charismatic manager or leader who calls the shots and propels a company into the stratosphere.

But is that image of leadership missing something? According to a recent Gallup study, the answer is yes. Gallup found that only one in four employees “strongly agree” that they are provided with meaningful feedback, and only 21% of employees “strongly agree” they are managed in a way that “motivates them to do outstanding work”.

Part 1

What is Servant Leadership?

The idea of servant leadership is ancient. Philosophers such as Lao Tzu, Chanakya, Cicero, Plutarch and Xenophon reference and explore it in their writings. It surfaces in many religious texts, such as the Bible. But it was Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 who coined the term in his essay “The Servant as Leader”:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

In short, servant leadership principles emphasize facilitation and helping employees grow and harness their maximum potential, empowering both individual team members and the company to be successful.

Related: Servant Leadership Principles with Examples

Part 2

Exploring the Concept of Servant Leadership

From forty years of researched management, education, and development Greenleaf wrote “The Servant and the Leader”. During this time, he became concerned that the traditional authoritarian and autocratic model of corporate leadership wasn’t actually working. Instead, he thought the most successful leaders focused on serving their team and bringing out the best in them.
To spread his message, he founded the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership and worked with companies for many years helping them to develop servant leaders. In 1998, writer and philosopher Larry Spears distilled Greenleaf’s ideas into ten key servant leadership traits: listening, empathy, stewardship, foresight, persuasion, conceptualization, awareness, healing, commitment to the growth and development of people, and building community.

  Key Leadership Skills You Need (to Lead a Team)

Greenleaf and Spears are not alone in challenging commonly accepted views of what makes a great leader.

After researching the history of 15 outstanding companies and comparing them to their peers, Jim Collins concluded in his book Good to Great that the best leaders were modest and self-effacing, rather than the stereotypical ‘charismatic’ and autocratic CEO. .
In their writings on successful companies and great leadership, both Collins and Greenleaf placed enormous value on creating an open environment where employees are empowered, respected, and invited to share their opinions and insights. Unsurprisingly, such an environment pays dividends in the form of engaged and motivated employees who can unite together to work toward the company’s goals.

However, servant leadership has its pitfalls:


While it encourages shared responsibility between the everyone, it may be difficult in times of crisis or tight deadlines to consult with everyone or rely on group consensus. Cultivating servant leadership in your company will also often require a huge shift in individual employees’ attitudes and the overall company culture. It takes time, dedicated resources, and support from people at every level of a company to actively work toward promoting servant leaders and a servant leadership model.
But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. So if your company is committed to adopting servant leadership characteristics and reaping the rewards, here are some tips and best practices.

Part 3

Servant Leadership: 5 Must-Have Principles

As mentioned above, the main servant leadership traits are:

– empathy, healing

– commitment to the growth and development of people, foresight, stewardship

– listening, persuasion

– building community

– conceptualization, awareness

The five must-have servant leadership principles are:

  1. Support your team

    Ensure your team members have all the support, knowledge, skills and resources that they need to do their jobs. If they don’t, do what you can to assist them, whether that’s adding a new team member or providing tailored training or coaching. A great tool to help you support your team is the regular one-on-one meeting, which allows your employees an opportunity to let you know when they need assistance or discuss any current issues or challenges.

    You should also focus on creating an open and honest environment where team members can easily raise and discuss issues, and provide them with all the tools they need to support communication. You can do this in Status by creating an open topic encouraging team members to talk about their pain points.

  2. Grow your people

    Commit to the growth of your people by encouraging their professional and personal development. Try to learn as much as possible about each team member’s skills and their goals and aspirations, and draw upon this knowledge when assigning roles or tasks. At a certain point in your team members’ development, it’s also critical to challenge them to implement what they’ve learned by providing them with more responsibility and accountability. Let them know that it’s up to them to meet their targets or achieve the desired project results, but that you’re happy to support them as they learn.
    So instead of pitching in or micromanaging and robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to solve a problem, step back and focus on coaching and mentoring. This includes giving and receiving regular feedback on their performance, including honest feedback when things go wrong.

    One way to do this is to implement a private daily or weekly report so that you can both keep track of what’s been done, and the team member has a private space in which they can ask you questions.

    Don’t forget to also celebrate achievements!

  3. Listen

    It can be difficult to step back and let others learn and fail and perhaps do things in a different way to how you might have done them. This is particularly the case if you’ve always been a perfectionist. But part of being a servant leader is letting go of an autocratic approach. Instead, try to embrace servant leadership activities and actions such as seeking the opinions of your team members on big decisions, particularly where those decisions involve their own work, and consider any relevant feedback.

    Learn to set aside your beliefs and preconceptions and listen to their suggestions. When you do make decisions, take the time to explain the reasoning behind it to your team. While this may be difficult and time-consuming in the short-term, in the long run, it will create a transparent and respectful environment that builds trust.

  4. Build a community

    Share your company’s goals and mission and how everyone’s efforts contribute to the bigger picture. Try to find a balance between focusing on the team’s short-term KPIs or daily accomplishments and the company’s overall longer-term goals. To do this, you’ll have to keep on top of everything that’s going on in the company, so having your team leads provide you with a weekly or monthly report may help.

    When everyone understands how their current work is contributing toward the company’s mission, it can be incredibly motivating. As part of this, encourage your team members and employees to help each other reach their individual and team goals. This not only encourages responsibility, it also helps the team and your company to grow together. You can support this by encouraging both team and interdepartmental communication.

  5. Reflect and learn

    Take time to regularly learn from past experiences, both as a team and individually. At a team level, it’s a good idea to reflect at the end of every project or regularly throughout the year on what went well and what could have gone better so the team can improve and grow.

    At an individual level, you should also regularly reflect on your own strengths, weaknesses, values and leadership skills. This includes asking for direct feedback from your team members and learning from them, and in general building a culture of two-way communication where constructive criticism is freely given and received.



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