It is no secret that at every level of any business, effective leadership is vital for success. However, what makes a leader successful? Academic research shows that there are many ways to lead, but being a “servant leader” appears to be particularly effective.

What is Servant Leadership?

At the heart of servant leadership is the notion of going beyond one’s self-interest. As such, it is a style of leadership that focuses on putting others first. This includes an emphasis on the empowerment and development of people – allowing one’s followers opportunities for self-development and the autonomy to do things their way. Humility is also a key characteristic. Servant leaders are open to admitting that they can benefit from the expertise of others. They actively seek the contributions and opinions of others. For servant leaders, it is important to create an atmosphere of trust where employees feel accepted and are free to make mistakes, and know that they will not be rejected. A servant leader’s way of providing direction is to make work dynamic, and tailored to their followers’ abilities, needs, and input.

Another important aspect of servant leadership is known as stewardship. Servant leaders should be stewards of their environment. Such stewardship includes a focus on doing the right thing for one’s wider community, even if this might go against the immediate interests of one’s company. This may seem counter intuitive, but times are changing, and so are our views on leadership behavior. The modern world demands more ethical, people-centered management. Leadership inspired by the ideas from servant leadership may very well be what organizations need now.

Does it work?

Recently, my colleagues and I conducted a meta-analysis looking at the effects of servant leadership in the workplace. This involved statistically analysing all the academic research examining the effects of servant leadership. Our findings were powerful: When followers perceived their boss to be a servant leader, it brings about real positives within the workplace. We compared the effects of servant leaders with several other leadership styles, and found that servant leaders are especially likely to develop the trust of their followers, empower them, and create a culture that is perceived as fair. In turn, this means that servant leaders are more likely to have followers who are willing to go above and beyond for the company, leading to higher levels of performance, creativity, and discretionary effort at work.

Isn’t this obvious?

It may seem obvious to say that leaders who put others first will see the benefits. However, research also tells us that humble leaders are rare, and we tend to see confident, outgoing, and even narcissistic people as more leader-like. Servant leaders do not fit the typical mold of how many people see a leader, and as such, may not be promoted or selected as a leader in the first place. It is time to move away from the ideas of heroic leaders who have all the answers. We hope that continued academic research will help to emphasise the importance of servant leadership.

Who are we?

The research was carried out by Dr Allan Lee at the University of Exeter (UK), Dr Joanne Lyubovnikova from Aston Business School (UK), and Drs Amy Wei Tian and Caroline Knight from Curtin University, Perth (Australia). It is published in the peer-reviewed academic Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. If you would like more information please email [email protected]