Servant leadership: the principles and characteristics of a people-first approach

Good leadership has always been about more than directing work. It involves inspiring, empowering and nurturing the people who make that work possible.

This philosophy lies at the heart of servant leadership, a shift in the traditional understanding of leadership roles.

Robert Greenleaf introduced the concept of servant leadership in 1970. In simple terms, it prioritizes serving others. The focus is on fostering the growth, development and wellbeing of individuals and teams within an organization. Servant leaders place the needs of their employees first. They create an environment that empowers and supports team members to reach their full potential.

Servant leadership emphasizes empathy, trust and collaboration. In this way, it challenges traditional notions of power and authority. The approach builds strong, engaged and high-performing teams.

In this article, we’ll explore servant leadership in greater detail. You’ll learn how it compares with traditional leadership styles and its main principles and characteristics. We've also included a list of pros and cons to help you decide whether this leadership style is right for you.

Servant leadership vs. traditional leadership

There are many styles of leadership. Each has its own characteristics.

Traditional leadership – also known as autocratic or command and control leadership – employs a very top-down approach. In an autocratic leadership structure, leaders are at the top of a rigid hierarchy. They maintain strict control over decision-making, rarely seeking or considering input from subordinates.

Autocratic leaders prioritize organizational goals such as growth, efficiency, productivity and profit. This is often at the expense of employee autonomy, creativity and job satisfaction. Employees follow the leader’s decisions without question, and communication typically flows downward through the hierarchy.

Servant leadership inverts this focus. Servant leaders aren’t concerned with accumulating or exercising power. Instead, they focus on their team members’ needs, growth and wellbeing. Servant leaders strive to help all their team members grow, motivating them to achieve their best.

On an organizational level, it shifts the focus from short-term profits to long-term value creation, prioritizing ethical practices and community engagement. The leadership style positively impacts all stakeholders, building a culture of social responsibility, sustainability and employee wellbeing. Ultimately, it contributes to the organization’s success and resilience in the face of challenges.

Principles of servant leadership

The principles of servant leadership are the method’s underlying philosophy. They lay the foundation for the leadership style.

Here are some of the important principles:

  • Service-first mindset: prioritizing the needs of others above personal gain.
  • Empowerment and growth: building an environment that supports personal and professional development.
  • Social responsibility: making decisions that benefit all stakeholders, including the least privileged.

10 characteristics of servant leadership

Let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of servant leadership. These embody the principles of a service-first mindset, empowerment and growth, and social responsibility.

Consider how to put each of these characteristics to work in your organization to successfully implement this leadership method:

Listening

Servant leaders place a high value on active listening. This means fully concentrating on what people are saying to you. You’ll need to ensure you correctly understand what they say and respond meaningfully.

Active listening provides the foundation for all the characteristics that follow. When servant leaders actively listen to their team members, seeking to understand their needs, concerns and ideas, they create a safe space for open communication and value other people’s input.

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share other people’s thoughts and feelings, regardless of whether you agree with them or not. It’s an important skill for any leader because it requires you to break down your own biases and truly understand where someone is coming from.

It’s a requirement for servant leaders. They strive to understand and empathize with their employees’ experiences and perspectives. They show compassion and recognize the unique challenges each individual faces.

Healing

Healing involves the emotional, mental and spiritual health of individuals within the organization.

Servant leaders recognize that employees have complex lives inside and outside of work. They understand that personal challenges, conflicts and stress can impact an individual’s wellbeing and performance.

This is why they create a supportive, empathetic and nurturing environment where team members feel safe to express their concerns and vulnerabilities and ask for support. They listen actively to offer guidance and provide resources to help team members navigate difficult situations.

Showing genuine care and concern enables them to build trust and foster a sense of belonging within their team.

Awareness

This characteristic comes in two forms:

  1. self-awareness, and
  2. awareness of organizational dynamics.

Self-awareness is critical for a servant leader. It provides clarity into their own strengths, weaknesses and biases.

Organizational awareness, on the other hand, helps the leader stay aware of the needs,​​ concerns and dynamics within their team and organization. This knowledge enables them to demonstrate empathy and emotional intelligence in their interactions. They can also make informed decisions, anticipate challenges and create an environment that supports their team members’ growth and wellbeing.

Persuasion

Even in traditional leadership styles, persuasion is better than authority for managing people. A leader capable of persuading people to see things their way can create buy-in. They will also be less likely to destroy morale by commanding people to do things they don’t want to do.

Persuasion enables servant leaders to maintain influence and instill a positive culture within the company. They rely on persuasion and collaboration rather than authority to encourage and motivate their team members, building consensus and inspiring others to work toward common goals.

Conceptualization

Servant leaders are visionaries who can conceptualize the future while balancing immediate realities with long-term goals. They articulate a clear, inspiring vision that motivates employees and guides the company forward.

Without this approach, leaders will struggle to inspire innovation and drive change.

Foresight

Conceptualizing a vision for the future will fall flat without anticipating how changes made today will impact the organization in the future. A servant leader must consider past events, current realities and the potential consequences of decisions to navigate past uncertainty and create a compelling vision that’s on track to succeed.

Stewardship

While a traditional leader may view themselves as the captain of a ship, a servant leader views themselves as a caretaker. They believe it’s their job to make decisions that sustain and enhance the organization’s long-term health and reputation.

This involves managing all the company’s resources for the greater good, whether they are human, financial or physical. They prioritize every stakeholder’s wellbeing and success.

Commitment to the growth of others

Servant leaders must be deeply committed to the personal and professional growth of every individual who works for them. They provide opportunities for learning and development by recognizing and nurturing potential in everyone.

Building community

Building a sense of belonging and community is central to servant leadership. Leaders work to create a culture of trust, mutual support and collaboration.

If a servant leader does their job correctly, everyone will feel part of something larger than themselves. This communal approach strengthens relationships, enhances communication and encourages a collective commitment to the organization’s goals and values.

What does servant leadership look like in practice?

Servant leadership is more than just a set of principles or even a set of actions. It’s a mindset that influences every interaction and decision.

Let’s move away from the theory and look at a few examples of how servant leadership might manifest itself in the real world.

A good example is the highest leader in the hierarchy: the CEO. This type of leader might be largely invisible to employees under a traditional leadership style. They would typically focus on maintaining authority and control, expecting employees to follow instructions without question.

A servant CEO, in contrast, spends as much time as possible on the front lines. They regularly speak with employees and aim to understand the challenges they face. In doing so, they brainstorm ideas about how to address these issues directly with staff, treating them as equals in the discussion.

A mid-level servant manager, perhaps a team leader, knows their team’s professional development is important to the development of the company itself. They advocate for and secure resources that can aid their team members’ professional development – even if they have to allocate resources from budgets that are more directly tied to short-term profits.

This aligns with the core principles of servant leadership, including that other people’s development should be a higher priority than immediate profitability. It sets up the company for better long-term profitability by creating a more loyal and knowledgeable staff.

Pros and cons of servant leadership

Servant leadership can be a powerful force in the right company and with the right leader. However, it isn’t suitable in all cases.

Here is a list of pros and cons that can help you decide how well this method will work for you:

Pros

  • Enhanced employee engagement and job satisfaction: when employees are highly engaged, valued and supported, there is lower turnover and increased motivation.
  • Improved innovation and creativity: servant leadership encourages diverse input and collaborative problem-solving.
  • Greater adaptability and resilience in the face of change: servant leaders empower their team members to take ownership of their work and make decisions, which helps create a more agile and responsive organization.
  • Enhanced brand reputation and customer satisfaction: organizations that embrace servant leadership often develop a strong reputation for ethical behavior, social responsibility and employee wellbeing.

Cons

  • Potential for perceived weakness: some may view the servant leadership approach as less authoritative, potentially undermining the leader’s ability to make tough decisions. However, this is a misunderstanding of the style. A strong servant leader understands how to use authority when needed and relies on building trust and influence over power to assume that authority.
  • Focusing on individual development and community building can require significant time and resources: a servant leader must be able to focus on long-term benefits and demonstrate to others how this philosophy will positively influence the organization over time.
  • Shifting an existing organizational culture to one of servant leadership can be challenging: this is especially true in traditionally hierarchical organizations. Like any culture change, the organization will need to decide how it wants to develop its values within the organization and the community at large.

Develop your leadership skills with Pip Decks

Servant leaders create a positive and empowering work environment that fosters innovation, collaboration and long-term success. They prioritize employees’ needs, growth and wellbeing.

As organizations face increasing challenges and uncertainties, servant leaders can help employees navigate these complexities while nurturing a culture of trust, adaptability and continuous improvement.

Discover tips and tricks to help you become a confident, empowered and empathetic leader with Pip Decks. From Team Tactics to Storyteller Tactics, Pip Decks contain decades of wisdom distilled into simple yet powerful templates that solve almost any leadership challenge.


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