The concept of servant leadership isn’t new. The phrase was first made popular by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader”. The concept was radical— no longer should all the power in a company emanate from the top of the pyramid. Instead, the servant leader flips the power pyramid, sharing the power, serving those he employs, and focusing on the growth and welfare of those in his company. A servant leader strives to empower and inspire employees to attain their full potential.
Many of the most successful companies have some type of servant leadership style as their management concept. In his Washington Post article, Edward D. Hess states that the character traits most commonly thought of for successful business leaders, i. e., highly and selectively educated, charismatic, having a forceful personality, were not present in the leadership of the most highly performing companies. Instead, Hess says, these leaders exemplified the traits of the servant leader.
Most business leadership styles fall into one of three categories: autocratic, participative, or laissez-faire. In an autocratic, or top-down leadership, owners and top executives make all the decisions, retain all power, and have exacting expectations of their employees. The laissez-faire management style could be described as negligent in that the management has little to no dealings with the day-to-day operations of the company. Employees simply do the work as they can. In the participative style, employees are involved and invested in the decision-making process of the company, tasks are delegated, and employees are given some increased responsibility.
A servant leadership style is most akin to the participative style of management. A servant leader strives to ensure the happiness and well-being of his or her employees. The servant leader will put others’ needs first and work to ensure that employees are developing and performing to their full potential. Robert K. Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”
According to Larry Spears, President & CEO of the Larry C. Spears Center for Servant-Leadership, Inc., there are ten characteristics of the servant leader: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. Many of today’s most successful businesses operate under a servant leadership model. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, says, “As we look ahead…leaders will be those who empower people.” The servant leader builds his or her company by investing time and resources into its employees. This leader cares about his employees and believes that employees should be treated with respect.
Everyone knows the old adage “actions speak louder than words.” The servant leader brings these words to life by leading by example. These types of owners or managers are heavily involved and aware of the details of their businesses. A servant leader takes the time to have conversations with employees, be an example of polite manners by saying “thank you” or “please”, showing that team members are valued by listening to their suggestions, or taking the time to work alongside of them.
Writing for the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership blog, James Lemoine explains that servant leaders have many priorities including the performance of the company, the success of their team, each team member’s well-being, and the value offered both to their customers and their community. Lemoine states that servant leaders “drive amazing performance in their organizations by and through developing followers, customers, and communities” and that is what makes them different from the traditional leadership models.
There are several advantages to adopting the servant leadership model for your business. The servant leadership style is more personalized and helps build a team atmosphere within a diverse workforce. With this style of management, contractors are focused on the employees’ well-being, and they give considerable attention to the needs of their employees. This focus builds a reciprocal feeling of loyalty to the company from the employees. The servant leader model provides opportunity for all employees to give input for company policies and projects. Allowing for a wide variety of ideas increases employee involvement with and commitment to the company. The high degree of trust and responsibility given to employees in a business managed by a servant leader builder generates a strong and positive bond between the employees and the company. This bond results in higher than normal employee morale and job satisfaction. Employees are more productive when they are satisfied with their jobs.
Companies that employ a servant leadership model have “flipped the script” so to speak. Home Depot CFO Carol Tome describes their management philosophy as an inverted pyramid with the executives on the bottom and the store associates on the top. Tome states that the execs “bear the responsibility” of their decisions. While not strictly a servant leadership model, Home Depot’s emphasis on treating their staff and store associates as equal partners in the business helped them weather the recession of the mid-2000s. Even