Servant leadership is a mainstay of corporate cultures worldwide. Like most leadership phenomena, it evokes both passionate adoration and scoffing.
There are good reasons for both.
In this post, we’ll look at how a concept introduced in a 1970 essay transformed into the quintessential management theory of our age. We’ll also address its misconceptions and explore its practical application.
What is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership is a management philosophy in which the primary goal of the leader is to serve their direct reports. This means that the personal and professional growth of their reports is the most important responsibility of any leader, above any other strategic goal.
Right off the bat, you can sense why servant leadership tends to divide opinions. A lot of people are skeptical of its “holier than thou” undertones, which are reminiscent of crowd appeasement by politicians. This skepticism isn’t unfounded and stems from real-life observations of a mismatch between the words and actions of leaders. Others doubt the practical feasibility of a leadership style that prioritizes employees over shareholders.
Despite that, servant leadership is a powerful and necessary philosophy. Before diving deep into it, let’s understand its origin and the reason behind its popularity.
Origin and Adoption
Inspired by Herman Hesse’s 1932 book – Journey to the East, Robert K. Greenleaf published an essay in 1970 titled The Servant as Leader. While the notion of serving the masses is as old as civilization itself, Robert was the first one to present it as a management philosophy.
The creators of Agile Manifesto understood that software engineering, like most knowledge work, is a creative process. The industrial revolution era approach to managing labor wasn’t nurturing employees to develop innovative products.
There were many attempts to create a practical solution that incorporated the values of the Agile manifesto, and Scrum emerged as the undisputed champion. Now to fill leadership positions in a Scrum team, organizations needed leaders who don’t simply tell people what to do and then follow up, but who could clear blockers for self-organizing teams.
As IT companies started influencing the broader business culture, servant leadership became more than just an academic philosophy. It became more relevant than ever.
5 Principles of Servant Leadership
“Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” – Robert K. Greenleaf
While there is understandably some subjectivity of opinion on how leaders should serve their teams, there are some universal principles of servant leadership:
By being active listeners, servant leaders cultivate a culture of empathy in their teams. They understand that humans make mistakes, have off days, and aren’t always at their best. The team returns the favor by having a high degree of trust in their leadership. Trust in leadership is one of the most striking indicators of a servant leader.
Just as in Scrum, Scrum Masters don’t dictate priorities, servant leaders don’t micromanage their team. Instead, they focus on creating self-organizing teams that take ownership of their work. They back their team to take risks, fail, and then learn from their mistakes.
Another visible sign of servant leadership is transparency in the team culture. As the development of employees is the topmost priority, servant leaders foster a culture where information is accessible and knowledge sharing is encouraged.
As servant leaders refrain from top-down directives, their teams are great at collaboration. Such leaders encourage their team to solve problems, not by handing solutions on a platter but by clearing the obstacles in the process. They also don’t discourage the team from communicating and collaborating with other teams in the organization.
Lastly, servant leaders sow the seeds for the next generation of leaders by mentoring and coaching their team. They identify people with leadership potential and actively work towards preparing their own replacement.
Misconceptions of Servant Leadership
There are many misconceptions associated with servant leadership. Dispelling these myths is critical to convince executives about its practical feasibility.
Myth #1 – Servant leadership requires selfless altruism
Servant leadership calls for leaders to serve their team and their interests. This can seem improbable to some skeptics because it’s unreasonable to expect selfless behavior from any person.
But servant leadership doesn’t ask you to be selfless. It implies that working toward the success of your team is the best way to fulfilling your leadership aspirations. Servant leaders don’t give up on their dreams. They simply understand that helping their team achieve their goals is both the correct and the most effective way to fulfill their own goals.
Myth #2 – Servant leadership is bad for the business
Servant leadership prioritizes employees over other stakeholders. However, this doesn’t mean that it is an anti-stakeholder philosophy.
In traditional leadership, business KPIs such as revenue and stock prices have been seen as the most important indicators of success, even if they come at the cost of employee satisfaction. Servant leaders understand that by focusing on the growth of employees, businesses can achieve better and more sustainable performance. That’s why shareholder value is no longer the main objective of America’s biggest companies.
Myth #3 – Servant leaders allow their team to do whatever they want
It’s true that servant leaders give their teams autonomy and refrain from micromanaging. But that doesn’t mean that their teams don’t have any consequences for their actions.
Servant leaders support their team and coach them in different aspects of the job. But it’s a myth that they don’t fire people. They understand that sometimes it’s necessary to let go of some teammates, for the benefit of both the existing team and the affected individuals.
If an employee is negatively affecting the morale and culture of the team, servant leaders must fire them if they are unwilling to change.
Myth #4 – Servant leadership only works in certain cultures
One can’t deny that different cultures appreciate different values in leadership. Traditional management education often focused on the two extremes – American and Japanese models, to highlight contrasts in management styles. So, is it true that servant leadership only works in certain cultures?
The answer is no. Servant leadership revolves around universal values. Who doesn’t want an empathic, trustworthy, and supportive mentor? This explains why servant leadership isn’t just restricted to American companies, but getting popular worldwide.
Remote work has further strengthened the role of servant leaders because many aspects of traditional leadership such as hands-on prioritization and micromanagement are difficult to execute remotely. It’s even more essential for remote teams to feel supported and connected.
By embracing the values of servant leadership such as empathy, trust, and collaboration, managers/consultants can make employees the masters of their destiny. This helps in transforming organizations from traditional companies to platforms for growth.
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