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What Is Servant Leadership and How to Apply It

By Bethany VanBenschoten

Many people who hear the term ‘servant leadership’ for the first time are confused. Servants aren’t thought of as leaders and leaders aren’t usually supposed to be servants. However, this seeming contradiction is actually why the name was chosen.

For most of history, leadership was defined by title and wealth. People were born into leadership and led from a hierarchical position.

Luckily, theories and practices like servant leadership have proven that anyone can be a leader and true leaders are rarely defined by title or wealth. In fact, often the best leaders are those who spend time serving others to empower them, regardless of their status or position.

People gravitate towards positivity, and this type of leadership is defined by actions of listening, developing trust, and building relationships while still possessing and showing the traditional leadership skills of persuasion, foresight, and guiding a team to achieve a goal.

Below, we’ll dive into what servant leadership is, how it started, and how you can develop the skills needed to become a servant leader.

 

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a style based on the desire to serve and give to your community. By putting the needs of others first, you empower people to perform at their best. When members of the community see your passion and your commitment through your actions, they want to be connected to you.

Servant leadership goes against the beliefs that leadership is defined as hierarchical, patriarchal, and related to wealth or status. Instead, as the name implies, it is focused on serving others to help them grow, often without the title or recognition that comes with many leadership roles.

Robert Greenleaf, the creator of the servant leadership theory, chose that name because it is contradictory and the polar opposite of typical leadership theories.

 

Origins of Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf created the theory of servant leadership in 1970 at the age of 66. At the time, he was working at AT&T, where he had risen from lineman into organizational management.

Originally, Greenleaf came up with the idea to benefit the organization, so that everyone could come together on common ground, from entry-level employees to middle managers and all the way up to senior leadership. This empowered administrators to feel comfortable speaking their mind and presenting new ideas. It also gave management an opportunity to show their vulnerabilities, something many managers and leaders still struggle with today.

Since its creation, those in higher education and research fields have analyzed why servant leadership is so successful. Many believe it is because servant leaders are so aware of what’s going on around them. They care deeply about the welfare of their team members, they are focused on developing relationships, and they are actively supporting others to improve.

To help teach others how to become servant leaders, here are 10 principles of servant leadership that are focused on personal decisions and how you interact with others.

 

What Are the 10 Characteristics of Servant Leadership?

Larry Spears, longtime President and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center, came up with 10 characteristics or principles of servant leadership. He viewed these as essential for servant leaders to develop in order to empower those they serve. 

He believed these characteristics were fundamental to moving away from the autocratic and hierarchical leadership models of the past and replaced with one built on relationships and trust.

Many researchers feel that these principles are themselves in a hierarchy. As you read through each of the 10 characteristics, you’ll see how they naturally build upon one another. Don’t try to jump ahead to number 10 without first acquiring the skills in numbers one through nine.

#1: Listening

Based on the introduction, the fact that listening is the first, most important step shouldn’t be surprising. But to accomplish this step, you must understand the difference between hearing and actually processing.

We all know how often people claim they’re listening, but really just waiting for their turn to speak. Those are people who are talking TO the other person. On the other hand, servant leaders are focused on developing their communication skills by actually listening and communicating WITH the other person.

You’ll know if you practiced listening properly if you’re able to process what was said and then apply it to the situation at hand.


#2: Empathy

As a servant leader, this step is about building trust and letting your followers know that you’re their equal. During this stage, you are showing through your actions that:

  • There is no hierarchy.

  • You’re equals and we’re in this together.

  • You are choosing to go through this with them.

These actions develop trust naturally through empathy. You are demonstrating that you are their peer, that you’re vulnerable, and that you want to support them.


#3: Healing

At this point, it’s time to turn your attention inwards. This stage touches on your personal development to make sure you have a sound mindset in order to start leading and giving to others.

Some of the key areas for you to focus on are:

  • Work/life balance

  • Self-care

  • Mental and physical health

If you are not healthy, or properly taking care of yourself, then how can you care for others? You must take the time to get to a healthy point, both mentally and physically. Then you’re ready to serve and give.


#4: Awareness

The next step continues the focus on your own well being through self-reflection. As a servant leader, you must be aware of what’s happening around you, with your team, and future threats and opportunities. You also need to be self-aware. To be the best leader, you need to understand your values and who you are.

During this stage, you need to spend time reflecting on your goals, their impact on the community and team, and how you bring them with you on this journey to make sure everyone’s still open and giving at their capacity.

You cannot do this effectively if you haven’t taken the time to understand your own motivations and goals.


#5: Persuasion

Some people misunderstand persuasion and believe it is very similar to convincing someone to do something they don’t want to do. But you’re not looking to convince someone to see what you see. Instead, persuasion is getting them to see what you see through their own intuitive sense based on your actions.

This is a prime example of why these first five principles are a hierarchy and must be completed in order. You aren’t able to persuade someone to follow you without first understanding your own motivations, finding mental health, and so on. Even if your end goal is great, you wouldn’t have demonstrated that you are there to serve the other person, and you’d still be talking TO them from a hierarchical position.

Without first mastering the first four steps, you’ll still be trying to convince someone, because you wouldn’t have established trust or spent time listening to them to understand their motivations. You persuade someone through consistent actions that reveal your true nature.


#6: Conceptualization

As a leader, you need to have a vision and understand what the end goal is. In other words, you must be able to articulate an answer to the question, “Where are we headed?”

As a servant leader, you’re leading your team or organization somewhere. Where is that and what does a positive outcome look like? What are the milestones worth celebrating along the way?

You may have a long-term vision for what the future of the organization looks like, but you must present that to the team in a manner that builds upon the first five characteristics. Otherwise, you will not be able to articulate the goals and help others to see the same vision.


#7: Foresight

Closely tied to conceptualization, foresight extends beyond articulating the end goals. It’s also about creating a map and timeline for how to get there. This requires a special presence to understand what has happened in the past, what is happening in the present, and the consequences of your decision.

To have foresight and effectively communicate it, you must always be processing information and changes to expectations, then have the ability to clearly deliver a message on how that impacts your projections. Often, this is one of the 10 characteristics of servant leadership that people struggle with the most because it seems to be a little vague.

However, when you see it in action and when you feel it, you understand it. To achieve foresight, you must rely on data, qualitative information, and your intuition based on past experiences to communicate the goals, the process and methods you’ll use, and the timeline. You also need to heavily rely on your listening skills, because your team members will likely have some foresight of their own.


#8: Stewardship

Servant leaders empower others to achieve goals as a team and organization. Stewardship is a key component of that because it focuses on trust that has been developed as the lifeblood of the organization.

A steward is the person leading the way in a dark tunnel and holding the light to help others see... but it’s impossible for a leader to be everywhere at all once, to oversee all the key elements and decisions being made on a regular basis.

Peter Block, an American author, consultant, and speaker in the areas of organization development, community building, and civic engagement, suggests that stewardship is about “accountability without control or compliance.”

In other words, every member of a team or organization does their best to serve the needs of others, not because they have to, but because they want to in order to help the team.


#9: Commitment to the Growth of Others

Over the years, the concept of helping others grow has become an important part in every leadership theory; true leaders want to help others succeed. Servant leaders focus on this at least as often, if not moreso, than other leadership models because they are focused on building others up.

True leadership isn’t about being in charge all the time. For instance, if you’re currently in college, you are only going to be here for about four years. If you are a leader of an organization, part of your responsibility is preparing those who come after you with the knowledge and skills you have acquired so that the organization can continue successfully long after you’ve moved on.

In the workplace, the same concept applies. If you’re the CEO, you cannot be responsible for every action. To grow the organization, you also cannot be the only leader. In other words, every task and every project cannot go through you. Instead, you must develop leaders throughout the organization and empower them to make decisions that will help the team.

Your goal is to learn how to be a leader, live those characteristics, and then teach others how to become the leader. Often, the hardest part comes last--though it can also be most rewarding--which is to stand back and let the leaders you’ve developed flourish.


#10: Building Communities

Finally, servant leaders need to empower the community as a whole. That community can be a small team inside a large organization, your town, or even your own company.

When you have reached this 10th principle, you are committed to building connections within the organization so that again, you’re not the focus. Instead, teammates have that same bond to others and can reach out to them instead of all relationships revolving around you.

This spider web of connections encourages empathy among people, not just flowing between you and the rest of the team. This type of relationship-building between members of the community builds trust and moves the organization forward at the same pace. Now, the team will be more fruitful because they are all comfortable communicating with one another and can easily get and stay on the same page.

Servant Leadership in the Modern Workplace

It should come as no surprise that servant leadership has become one of the most popular leadership styles in the modern workplace. While this movement has been gaining steam since Greenleaf first published it, the popularity has taken off in recent years because people are looking for more from their employers.

In the past, many managers and businesses operated on a transactional basis with employees. Employees maintained a desired level of performance and in return received a salary and benefits. But this doesn’t maximize output from employees. It only provides a floor.

Instead, millennials and members of Gen Z are looking for more. They’re looking for a connection to the goals and mission of the organization. They’re looking for ways to build their career by being empowered and mentored. But they’re also focused on the leadership of the organization they work for. Who are they? What do they stand for? Are they someone I want to work for?

We’ve seen this over and over again in recent years as employees stage walkouts or post on social media when the organization doesn’t align with their personal beliefs. However, applying servant leadership helps to provide that connection, empower employees, and show what an organization stands for.

Southwest Airlines and Servant Leadership

One of the most popular examples of the impact that servant leadership can have on an organization is Southwest Airlines. In 1971, they had three airplanes, 12 daily flights, and nearly 200 employees. In 2020, they have:

  • 736 airplanes

  • 4,000 daily flights (pre-pandemic)

  • 61,000 employees

  • 47 consecutive years of profitability

Additionally, they have had 0 involuntary furloughs or lay offs in the history of the company, even through the pandemic. How did they achieve this level of success?

Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher developed the philosophy of putting employees first. He understood that in order for the company to be successful, each employee needed to be empowered and trusted to make the right decisions. By giving each employee ownership of the outcome and a mission (give freedom to their customers), every employee understood their goal.

To achieve their success, Southwest reimagined their:

  • Hiring and onboarding process.

  • Talent development while at the company.

  • Relationships throughout the organization.

The key ingredient, though, starts at the top. It is focused on Kelleher relinquishing power, enabling employees to take ownership of certain projects, and encouraging them, even after mistakes. This has built a deep level of trust throughout the organization.

 

Pros and Cons of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership starts with an unselfish mindset. Leaders are handing over control and power, something many have worked for years to achieve. But those who truly understand the mission of helping others succeed become the best leaders. 

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other pros and cons of servant leadership.

Benefits

Besides the many benefits discussed throughout this article, one of the key benefits is that servant leadership really helps the leader because they are forced to take the time to:

  • Better understand themselves.
  • Learn how to effectively communicate their passions and mission with others.
  • Discover humility that they may not have found otherwise.

Many look at servant leadership as a growth activity because they need to relearn their outlook on leadership. Additionally, they’re putting themselves out there, showing vulnerability, and purposely acting and saying that they’re not at the highest level, they don’t know everything, and can’t do everything themselves. They are part of the team and are in a position to empower everyone else on that team to reach their full potential. 

This creates a level of trust with others that previous autocratic and hierarchical leadership models did not achieve, nor did they seek to achieve it or give it any importance in the first place. 

Challenges

While servant leadership has been proven to be an exceptionally effective leadership style, the first challenge is the negative connotation that the name implies. Of course, it was purposely designed to showcase the fact that the best leaders serve their community, but some people go back to the sense that servants aren’t the ones who should be in charge.

To become a servant leader, you must change your mindset, which is an obstacle that many people have faced, even those who have gone on to fully embrace the concept. A servant is not a leader in traditional teachings, but by redefining and rediscovering what a leader is and does, you’ll see the servant leader mentality is better suited to lead by developing strong relationships built on trust.

 

Become a Servant Leader

Anyone can be a leader. Everyone has leadership skills within them, they’re all just at differing developmental stages. It takes time to practice and strengthen them; you must invest in developing those skills and committing to growth. Becoming a servant leader means putting the needs of others before your own and continuously developing the 10 characteristics listed above.

And don’t forget that everyone learns at a different pace. Keep learning, growing, and serving others. You can also check out some of the resources below to learn how you can become a servant leader.

Servant Leadership Resources:

The Robert K. Greenleaf Center

2014 Southwest Airlines Keynote

MindTools Servant Leadership Guide

The Spears Center for Servant Leadership

Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders

The Modern Servant Leader 

The Art of Servant Leadership - SHRM


Bethany VanBenschoten began her professional higher education career at Utica College in May 2011 and is now Assistant Director for Leadership Development, and also is active in the Utica College Chapter of the National Society of Leadership and Success, American Cancer Society- On Campus, and is Recording Secretary on the Professional Staff Advisory Committee.  Her Master's Degree is from Syracuse University 2011 in Higher Education and Bachelor's Degree, Le Moyne College 2009, Mathematics/Computer Sciences and Secondary/Special Education. She is a dedicated watcher of the Food Network and HGTV, enjoys bowling and mini golf, likes to take road trips to beautiful places with her husband Jason and son Teddy, and enjoys the country life.