Leadership is a complex concept that has evolved over time, with various styles and approaches emerging over time as organizations seek new ways to inspire and motivate their teams. One such approach that has gained traction in recent years is servant leadership. This leadership philosophy, which places the needs of others at the fore, has proven to be a powerful tool for building strong, motivated, and successful teams. For instance, in Not for Ourselves Alone, Hakim J. Lucas who currently serves as the 13th President of Virginia Union University demonstrates the role that servant leadership played in the success of early pioneers, Bishop Payne (Wilberforce) and President Robert (Morehouse), in driving their respective colleges “to effectively educate Black men and women” (p. 110), just to name one example.
In this blog, we will explore the key principles of servant leadership and five tips for workplace leaders looking to embrace this transformative leadership style.
KEY PRINCIPLES OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP
One of the fundamental principles of servant leadership is active and empathetic listening. Servant leaders prioritize hearing and truly understanding the concerns, ideas, and needs of their team members. They listen more, talk less. They listen without judgment, staying open and receptive to constructive and challenging feedback from others. By actively listening, servant leaders co-create an environment of trust, collegiality, collaboration, and open communication. Empathetic listening gives way to employees feeling heard, valued, and cared about, all of which translates into positive gains. When employees feel their voice is heard, they are 4.6 times more likely to feel workplace belonging.
Research shows that successful servant leaders have the awareness, agility, mastery, and emotional intelligence to listen actively and intently. But it’s important to note that leaders on the cutting edge don’t just listen with their ears. They utilize business intelligence, data analytics, and key metrics to drive transformations, (re)solve tensions, and understand people’s needs, aspirations, and accomplishments.
Empathy is at the core of servant leadership. Leaders must be able to see the world from and through the “eyes” of their team, truly striving to understand their challenges, emotions, joys, and aspirations. Empathetic servant leaders demonstrate compassion, patience, and care, which empowers them to better serve their teams. In practice, such leaders move beyond empathy for empathy’s sake to modeling such behaviors in ways that foster a service-oriented work culture where people go out of their way for others. By demonstrating empathy, servant leaders can build meaningful connections and provide the support their team members need.
Importantly, servant leaders are healers in the sense that they aim to remove barriers, address conflict, and champion proactive steps that support their team members by removing bottlenecks, pain points, and choke holds wherever they occur. Healing, then, is not limited to physical ailments but also extends to organizational, psychological, and procedural health and well-being. By organizational health, I am referring to an institution’s ability to align around a common vision—crafted at the hands of many, execute a plan around that vision, and sustain itself through agility, innovation, and optimized productivity, according to sources.
Toxic workplaces compromise performance and deny employees access to a safe, secure, and supportive environment. Servant leaders understand this point and frequently create safe or courageous spaces where team members can work cooperatively to address their concerns, air their perspectives, seek reconciliation, recover from work-induced traumas, and/or find support in challenging times.
Instead of relying on authoritarian approaches, servant leaders use the power of principled persuasion and influence (not coercion) to lead their teams through collaboration, co-operation (i.e., cooperation), and shared vision. Turning the traditional hierarchy on its head, servant leadership encourages buy-in from team members by involving them in decision-making processes, making them feel valued, and empowering them to contribute to the organization’s goals. In practice, leaders might establish advisory boards, staff councils, and employee resource groups (ERGs) with enough authority and resources to help hold people accountable, catalyze organizational transformation, and drive incremental progress toward achievement of larger goals and key performance indicators (KPIs).
A crucial aspect of servant leadership is nurturing the growth and development of team members. Leaders invest time, energy, and effort in coaching, mentoring, and providing opportunities for learning, continuous self-improvement, and development of others. Rather than using a “one and done” approach to training, servant leadership promotes a learning culture where learning occurs in every nook and cranny of the organization. Learning and growth are ubiquitous, celebrated, rewarded, and become part of the group’s DNA.
Servant leadership is an approach to leadership that produces positive gains with undeniable evidence. While obviously important, gains are never the sole motivation. Servant leaders prioritize people over profit, growth alongside gains, and improvement just as much as impact. These commitments help team members reach their full potential by fostering conditions that nurture creativity, experimentation, innovation, upskilling, re-tooling, and so much more. Leaders reframe failure as an opportunity to learn, not something to avoid. Failure is defined as a natural part of the journey to success. And consequently, staff might be advised to “fail…fail fast…but fail forward,” as President Lucas often says, referring to the learning that results from course corrections, incremental improvements, and pivots on a play.
TIPS FOR WORKPLACE LEADERS
1. Foster Open Communication
Create an environment where team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns. Encourage open and honest dialogue, and actively listen to what your team has to say.
2. Lead by Example
Exemplify the behaviors and values you expect from your team. Your actions should align with the organization’s vision, mission, core values, and the principles of servant leadership, setting the standard for others to follow. Simply, project what you expect!
3. Empower Your Team
Give your team members what they need to accomplish the task at hand or longer-term goals. In some cases, this might mean the autonomy to make decisions within their areas of responsibility. In others, it might require the time, space, and structure (e.g., policies) to hold others accountable. Empowerment builds confidence, fosters growth, and leads to a sense of ownership among team members.
4. Prioritize Employee Well-being
Promote a healthy work-life balance and provide resources for physical and emotional well-being. Of course this might conjure up ideas of on-site fitness centers, discounted gym memberships, ergonomic office furniture, health benefits, and telehealth services, to name a few. But this also has direct implications for equity-minded workplace policies and practices such as childcare, educational assistance, stress reduction programs, flexible work hours, reduced work weeks, and a range of paid and unpaid leave benefits (e.g., FMLA, sick, parental, compassionate), similar to ‘promising practices’ described elsewhere. Demonstrating genuine concern for your team’s well-being creates a positive work environment.
5. Serve First
Remember that the core of servant leadership is a commitment to serving the needs of others. Make it your mission to support your team members in their pursuit of success and personal growth. This can be done by actively listening to their concerns and ideas, providing guidance and mentorship, and empowering them to take ownership of their work. Additionally, it is important to create a culture of trust and collaboration, where everyone feels valued and included. Celebrate small wins. Incentivize collaboration and boost high-performing teams through friendly competitions. Help everyone see how their work contributes to larger goals.
Servant leadership is a powerful and transformative approach to leadership that emphasizes the well-being and growth of team members. By actively listening, empathizing, healing, and supporting the growth of others, leaders can inspire trust, collaboration, cooperation, and success within their organizations. By embracing these key principles and following the tips provided, workplace leaders can co-create inclusive, supportive, learning-centered work environments where individuals and teams feel a sense of belonging, thrive, and reach their full potential.