It isn’t surprising that many who opt to work in mission-driven sectors like education and healthcare are attracted to the idea of serving others, or that many organizations in these fields are led by a servant leader. But a growing body of evidence shows that servant leadership can increase job satisfaction, positively influence sales and profits, and strengthen relationships with vendors and other business partners in sectors like commerce, tech, and finance.
Servant leaders prioritize the needs of other stakeholders—customers, shareholders, and direct reports—over their own. When it comes to hiring and employee development, this management approach focuses on maximizing the abilities, potential, and wellbeing of direct reports.
How does a management philosophy focused on service to others lead to economic growth and improved productivity? By focusing on increasing value for all stakeholders, servant leaders create a culture that fosters happier and more highly motivated employees and more satisfied and evangelical customers.
Foundations of Servant Leadership
Following a decades-long career in management with AT&T, author Robert Greenleaf introduced the servant leader as manager in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader” where he argued that some of the most effective business leaders intuitively employed this stakeholder-focused practice to nurture successful teams and organizations.
This ran counter to the more established management theories of the day, which often claimed that the best way to build a successful business was to hire executives whose personal ambitions would motivate them to demand higher levels of productivity from their employees. In contrast, Greenleaf argued that the best business leaders he had worked with had been generous mentors motivated more by external values, such as customer value or ethical business practice, than by personal gain.
The five habits below highlight some of the key traits of servant leaders. By developing these management strategies, you can leverage some of the most useful aspects of servant leadership to strengthen your team’s cohesion, help your employees reach their fullest potential, and accomplish your business goals.
1. Focus on Persuasion and Buy-in
A servant leader doesn’t rely on their hierarchical position to motivate their team or issue commands. Instead, they elicit input, empowering their direct reports to make decisions and take risks when appropriate, and use persuasion to create buy in on teamwide actions.
To achieve this, servant leaders tend to be excellent communicators who know how to use to help make the technical accessible for customers and C-suite priorities tangible to customer-facing and in-the-trenches employees.
2. Prioritize Stakeholders
As a manager, servant leaders are power sharers rather than power holders. They tend to favor decentralized organizational structure over highly hierarchical teams. Their main aim as supervisors is to nurture the talents and leadership potential of colleagues and direct reports. When these leaders work in sales or product development they are apt to encourage a customer-first approach in their employees and look for this quality in their hiring. They pay attention to how they communicate these values, underscoring a team approach by using “we” and “us” rather than “you” and “me.”
3. Promote Employee Wellbeing
Business owners and executives who adhere to servant leadership principles invest in initiatives designed to promote employee wellbeing and workplace wellness, such as paid time off (PTO), robust health benefits, and access to employee assistance programs (EAP). Middle managers may not have as much power to implement these policies, but they can advocate for them. In the meantime, they maximize the tools they do have to support their direct reports through crisis and encourage self-care.
A servant leader can be particularly effective in fortifying the resiliency of organizations and those who work for them during times of crisis. There are significant overlaps between crisis management best practices and stakeholder-focused leadership.
4. Serve as an Ally
As workforce managers, leaders who practice servant leadership see their role as nurturing rather than transactional. For this reason, they are likely to meet one-on-one with employees more often than other leaders, and to spend those meetings focusing on the employees’ goals, capabilities, and challenges. In response, they are likely to invest in upskilling to ensure employees have the skills they need to advance and reach their full potential.
These leaders often serve as mentors, sponsors, and allies to those in the workforce who have traditionally faced challenges. For example, a servant leader might be particularly attuned to advancing the career of an employee who is the first in their family to graduate from college and attain, and therefore need to navigate, a professional role and career path. Similarly, they might be more likely than other managers to want to contribute to their company’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
5. Elicit Ample Employee Feedback
Once you’ve started employing these practices, you can use frequent employee feedback via anonymous surveys to learn what is working and where you need to improve your approach. You can also use in-person feedback to drive collaboration, innovation, and risk-taking.
When Servant Leadership Make Sense—and When It Doesn’t
Organizations with community-focused missions, such as medical technology, and customer-focused sectors like retail are natural candidates for a service management approach. But not all fields lend themselves to this management style. For example, a servant leader might tend to be less effective than a leader with a more direct approach in a high-stakes situation that calls for quick decision making. Emergency rooms and battlefields come to mind.
These leaders also need to be cautious that their tendency to protect their direct reports from outside criticism isn’t preventing their team members from the learning and growth that comes from accountability. Most managers will need to combine a servant approach with leadership styles and management approaches to meet all the expectations of their leadership role.
For example, a revered doctor may serve as a servant leader, exemplifying patient care and helping medical students and junior staff learn how to implement best practices in both the technical aspects of medicine and bedside manner. But that same leader may need to periodically exercise a more direct style to direct her team to implement an emergency procedure where seconds count.
But in most environments, the approach can be effective, and if you happen to be a manager with excellent listening skills, a high level of empathy, and a desire to help others reach their potential, adopting a service management style may prove to be transformative for your organization.
Learn More About Effective Leadership and Management Best Practices
Now that you understand how servant leadership improves employee performance and boosts retention rates, learn about other strategies than can help you grow your business, such as the latest hiring news and management how-tos.