While the characteristics of a good leader are evergreen, the challenges of recent years—including the Covid-19 pandemic—have required business leaders to reinvent themselves. Specifically, there is a stronger emphasis on servant leadership. This style of leadership prioritizes the growth and well-being of employees, giving them the support they need to flourish. Its goal is to foster an inclusive environment that places employees first rather than focusing primarily on the success of the company or organization.
Businesses and nonprofit organizations are leaning away from more traditional, hierarchical models of leadership and turning toward servant leadership as a shift to being in a more inclusive relationship with their employees. Servant leadership seeks to involve others in decision-making and is based on caring, ethical behavior and boosting workers’ growth while improving their quality of life and that of the company.
Servant leadership can help foster trust, accountability, growth and inclusion among workers. This will lead to increased productivity and happier customers and will help your business flourish.
The theory of servant leadership was started by Robert K. Greenleaf, who in 1970 wrote a popular essay titled “The Servant as Leader,” noting: “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first.”
Greenleaf believed that the most important characteristic of a servant leader is to make it a priority to serve rather than lead. Larry Spears, the former president of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, outlines the qualities that a servant leader needs to have as empathy, listening, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to people’s growth and building community.
Proponents of this style of leadership say that improving the emotional health of employees will empower them to foster the same kind of nurturing in their coworkers. A key aspect of this style of leadership is the acceptance of others in an environment where everyone has a sense of purpose. By creating an empathetic attitude, employees can learn from their mistakes and channel those lessons into their personal and professional growth.
Servant leaders are always mindful of the needs of others. But because in the workplace, leaders are expected to make decisions that benefit the company and not necessarily their teams, it can be difficult to put others’ needs first. They may feel that they are giving up power or being perceived as selfish or too soft on employees.
According to researchers James Sipe and Don Frick, also coauthors of Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership: Practicing the Wisdom of Leading by Serving, the following are the seven important elements of servant leadership:
• Strong character. A servant leader maintains integrity, makes decisions based on ethics and principles, displays humility, and seeks to serve a higher purpose in the organization.
• Puts people first. Successful servant leaders demonstrate care and concern for others and help employees meet their goals while encouraging personal growth.
• Excellent communicator. Communication skills are integral to any business leader, but especially a servant leader. Make a point of listening to and speaking with workers and inviting their feedback.
• Strong collaborator. Servant leadership means keeping an eye on the future and anticipating anything that might impact the organization. Maintain a positive vision and take decisive action when necessary.
• Has foresight. The servant leader must be a visionary, able to imagine possibilities and anticipate the future, with the courage to take action when necessary.
• Strategic thinker. Servant leaders must be comfortable navigating complex environments and be adaptable to change.
• Leader with moral authority. It is critical to establish trust and confidence in your workplace. Establish employees’ trust and confidence by adhering to quality standards, accepting and delegating responsibility, and fostering a culture that makes room for accountability.
Some examples of servant leaders in business include the likes of Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, who dealt with the pandemic’s effect on his workforce by announcing that he would take a 100 percent pay cut for six months during the crisis. Bastien put his employees’ needs before his and the company’s shareholders. This can only be achieved by nurturing motivated, engaged employees.
When Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, took over the restaurant chain in 2007, it was struggling financially. In her book, Dare to Serve, Bachelder tells the story of how she created a servant leadership culture as a means to change Popeyes’ fortunes. Her successful endeavor led to higher sales, profits and increased market share. This helped the chain’s sale to Restaurant Brands International, owner of Burger King and Tim Hortons, a Canada-based restaurant chain.
And when Bill Gates founded Microsoft, his goal wasn’t to create a billion-dollar company with thousands of employees; his dream was to put a computer on every desk.
Equally crucial in servant leadership is understanding the need to develop the next generation of leaders. Baby boomers are heading toward retirement, so they must teach millennials how to be accomplished leaders. A white paper published by the Human Resources Professional Association found that the average millennial worker has a different set of values than older employees. The survey reported that 90.3 percent of respondents felt millennials had different motivations in the workplace.
Fostering leadership can include coaching, mentorship and growth. A servant leader should take the time to show younger members of their team words of encouragement and answer these budding leaders’ questions. Great servant leaders give back. They pull together a diverse group of workers—and this in turn will create diverse, inspired, engaged leaders.