Servant leadership

Many of you may have heard the term ‘Servant leadership’ as it has been around for a long time. The term was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1978 and it refers to a specific style of leadership which can be aligned very much to a transformational leadership style. It also contains elements of affiliative, democratic and coaching leadership as outlined by Goleman. 

Some people do get confused with the title, imagining situations where the factory workers run the factory but this is not the case. If we consider that leadership consists of two fundamental elements; vision and implementation. The leadership part of the Servant Leadership title is involved with the vision element where the servant element refers to the implementation. In short, it is the leader’s role to outline the vision, communicate carefully and clearly where the team is going, and facilitate the building of the strategy to get there. Of course, depending on the leader’s personal style this should be a very democratic process anyway. It is up to the team to implement the strategy and it is at this point that the leader guides and supports his / her team in their implementation. 

An important characteristic of servant leaders is that they focus heavily on the individual. In this sense it is very closely aligned to the coaching style outlined by Goleman. Servant Leaders help people to progress in their roles and also in their careers. And in doing this they build huge amounts of trust and camaraderie within their teams, really cultivating the environment that facilitates teams becoming high functioning. 

An interesting and important characteristic of servant leadership is also that they look to build the community outside of their organisation. So in a sense they are far more outward looking than other leadership styles. They do this because they believe in the ‘higher’ purpose of their organisation and want to create a team that holds influence further than just the organisation itself. You could look at this as a leadership style that is fundamentally based on a set of values which can transcend the organisation. 

So how do you build yourself into a servant leader? In this module we will look at seven things you can do to help you along this path.. 

The first is to learn the skill of active listening. This means really knowing HOW to listen not only to the words that someone is telling you, but also to observe their behaviour and response to certain things. As you develop this skill you will begin to understand your team members on a far deeper level and this will make it easier to coach them into the best team member they can be. Great leaders are good at reading body language and build this into their understanding of people all the time.

The second is to really work on and develop your empathy skills. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes as often as you can, and through doing so, build a deep understanding of what each role within your team involves and understand the relationship dynamics that exist within your team. Over time you will understand what makes each member tick and you will be able to effectively lead this person to become the best team member that they can become. 

The third is to focus on developing your team members professionally. This is such an important element of leadership. As Richard Branson said, “Train people up so that they can leave you, treat them well enough so that they don’t want to.” By focussing on this you will build trust with each individual and they will pay it back in spades through dedication to your team’s goals. 

The fourth area is to focus on developing your emotional intelligence.  By doing this you will increase how ‘in-tune’ you are with your team and its functions. You will be able to identify where you need to improve, make adjustments etc. in line with your objectives. But most importantly it will allow you to keep an eye on the harmony of the team, knowing where to input, or become involved, to have that important conversation or just to allow your team that much needed break.

Next up we have the development of your skills of influence. Leadership is all about influence and as the leader of a team you will be required to persuade your team to go in certain directions and to undertake certain duties or tasks at particular times. Being adept in the art of persuasion is fundamental to being successful as a leader at any level of the organisation, including middle and lower level leadership. In fact it could be argued that your skills of influence are even more important for lower level leadership positions because they have to influence up as well as down. 

Build your skills of being able to hold a big picture in your head. As a servant leader you are not only looking after each individual in your team, but you are also ensuring that your team as a collective, is driving towards a vision or set of goals. Having the ability to keep a big picture in mind will give you the framework within which to hold conversations, give targets, undertake appraisals and so on. 

And finally make sure you are receptive to feedback. Good leaders never consider themselves to be experts in leadership, they will tend to be far more reflective than that. And in order to reflect you need to be able to hear critique, both positive and negative and through this, learn to improve your practice accordingly. 

There is a lot of literature and video content on servant leadership, and it is well worth a watch or a read. In a sense it is very much like distributed leadership in the sense that it is more of a mindset than a style. However, by adopting a mindset of servant leader, and reflecting on your leadership practice as you develop into your role, your team will benefit and your outputs will consequently improve.  

Point of Reflection:

Think about the most empathetic leader you have worked with. How did you feel working for him/her and what impact has this had on your leadership journey?

Personal Development Activity:

Ranking Activity (60 mins)

  1. In your leadership journal, rank the seven skills that will help you develop your ‘servant leadership’ in order 1-7, 1 being your strongest skill and 7 being your weakest. 
  2. Now focus on the top two. What are the particular behaviours that you exhibit that made you score these highly?
  3. Now focus on your bottom two. What behaviours do you feel you need to do to push these further up the rankings?
  4. Give yourself a task of committing to doing a particular thing that will help improve each of your bottom two scoring items. Give yourself the timeframe of 1 week in which to complete it.
  5. Report your outcomes on the Learning Community platform for discussion with your peers.