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First conceptualized by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader, servant leadership puts the needs of others over gaining power. Greenleaf developed the concept after witnessing two different types of leaders: those who were in it for themselves and those who were in it for others.

Implementing servant leadership in your business can improve internal operations and empower employees. But how do you become a servant leader?

“We need to meaningfully involve others in the process of fulfilling our leadership responsibilities, and this usually means taking the time to be a good listener, to truly hear what others think and seek to do themselves, and to meaningfully involve them in the decision-making.”

Dr. Neal R. Berte, Servant Leadership Reflections

What is servant leadership?

Traditional leadership styles focus on attaining power and control, whereas servant leadership focuses on the ways a leader can be a supporting role for others. As a servant leader, your goal should be to provide employees with the tools and skills they need to be successful.

Other leadership styles prioritize one individual’s needs and wants above anyone else’s. Practicing servant leadership focuses on bringing all employees into the decision-making process and encourages the success of all above individual accomplishments.

Who can be a servant leader?

Any leader willing to put in the work to change habits is capable of assuming a servant leadership style. Some leaders may already be incorporating servant leadership principles without knowing it. 

A simple way to assess where you are in your journey toward servant leadership is to start by asking yourself: Do I focus more on my own needs or do I listen to others?

If you listen to others and prioritize their needs and ideas, you already are practicing servant leadership. Refining those skills through training and education will improve your approach to leadership which can increase your business’ bottom line.

If you find yourself focusing more on your own needs, you still can shift your focus and mindset toward servant leadership qualities. Hard work is inevitable in your mission to become a servant leader, but the payoff ultimately will be worth it.

Why prioritize servant leadership?

Servant leadership works to increase the bottom line of organizations by creating synergy across departments.

Executives and business owners who view leadership with an effort toward building up teammates instead of controlling employees will give employees a more empowering role model. This allows them to take on productive behaviors that help get ahead and allows focus on working harmoniously with others.

When leadership focuses on the needs and wants of others, employees are happier. With a servant leadership style, employees feel like their ideas and skills are valued. The support of an active servant leader can provide an employee with the opportunity to flourish and realize their potential. All of these elements come together to create a company culture that retains employees for longer and encourages servant leadership throughout the organization.

Successful leaders using servant leadership

Many impactful business leaders have developed their companies into the largest in the world using servant leadership styles. 

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, took a single Seattle coffee shop and transformed it into a 20,000 store franchise. Schultz saw the value of prioritizing employees at every level, providing every employee, including part-timers, with health care. Employee surveys are also conducted to find solutions to problems and gain new ideas.

Colleen Barrett, President Emerita of Southwest Airlines says, “Our entire philosophy of leadership is quite simple: treat your people right, and good things will happen.” She has helped develop policies and guidelines with the help of employees from across the company. She still encourages these employees to use their own abilities to find solutions to problems.

The 5 characteristics of a servant leader

Servant leadership requires continuous development of yourself. When working on developing your skills as a servant leader, focus on these characteristics.

  1. Empathy. A servant leader should always strive to understand others. Knowing your team provides you with a basis of knowledge that allows you to better support their needs. 
  2. Listening. Communication skills are emphasized in other leadership styles and while those remain important, being able to actively listen is key to successful servant leadership. Not only does active listening make employees feel valued and comfortable, but it can provide you with new insights and ideas. 
  3. Self-awareness. Being conscious of your own abilities and faults enables you to have a better understanding of how you can benefit your team. Seeing yourself from an outside perspective can also help to remove bias in decision-making.
  4. Humility. To be humble is to serve the needs of others before your own. Humility acknowledges that you have flaws and strengths, the same as everyone else. 
  5. Integrity. Consistency in actions between values and morals is needed to have integrity. In order to keep values and actions aligned, you must focus on the decision-making process, thinking through the impacts and consequences of each decision thoroughly from many perspectives.

How to develop a servant leader

Starting your servant leadership journey can be an overwhelming task, but the benefits you will gain from the process will far outweigh the difficulties. 

If you haven’t already, do a self-audit of your leadership style. Be honest with yourself about what your leadership style is currently like and how proficient you are in the characteristics. Start today in your work toward servant leadership. Open up more to listening to what others say and ask questions to get to know them better. 

Be introspective as you begin your work toward becoming a servant leader. As you are implementing servant leadership strategies, analyze how you are thinking and feeling about the process. Understand that all servant leaders must consistently be working on and refining their skills.

If the process of gaining a servant leadership mindset isn’t something you feel you can achieve alone, work with a coach or consultant.

Bill Smith is an expert in servant leadership, using it himself to develop his family company as CEO. If you are looking for support on how to incorporate servant leadership into your daily practice, contact Bill today for a free strategy session.