The verbs “serving” and “leading” might sound weird in one sentence. To serve is submissive while leading is assertive and takes charge. The overall perception is that a servant should serve the leader. But servant leadership is a powerhouse leadership style that is showing impact globally and winning ground in the newest leadership research. The goal of this post is to share how you as a leader can apply servant leadership within your life and organisation.

“The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” ~ Robert K. Greenleaf

To Serve or Not To Serve

What do UPS, Ritz Carlton, Whole Foods, Starbucks and the San Antonio Spurs have in common? They’re all multi billion dollar companies and they all have a leadership style and culture that can be defined as servant leadership. In recent research performed by Edward Hess, the leaders of these iconic companies were analysed and showed they all had similar characteristics:

  • Lead by example
  • People-centric
  • Value service to others and believe in stewardship
  • Humble and passionate operators that understand the details of the business
  • Believe that every employee should be treated with respect and have the opportunity to do meaningful work
  • Don’t abuse power, humiliate or devalue people

Servant leaders understand that behaviours either build trust (check this post about building trust) or destroy it, and without trust one can’t generally achieve anything. They believe that if you create the right values and culture normal people can do extraordinary things.

Breaking the myth

A lot of leaders think that being people focused and bottomline focused don’t mix well. One of the reasons is that there still is some misconception around servant leadership and being people focused. Some common misconceptions are:

  • Servant leaders are softies and push-arounds that employees will take advantage of which then results in anarchy.
  • Servant leaders are bosses that always smile and take orders from their employees.
  • Servant leaders can’t handle tough situations or work under high pressure.

But the opposite is true, just like legend Sir Richard Branson says:

“Clients don’t come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients.” ~ Sir Richard Branson

Research shows that people-centric environments and high performance are not mutually exclusive. Employees in the above mentioned companies have high emotional engagement, loyalty and productivity, and outperform the competition on a daily basis over long periods of time. Employee satisfaction drives customer satisfaction and loyalty which eventually will drive the bottomline. Now that we have more background on the success of servant leadership, below are 4 reasons why you should be considering servant leadership.

Reasons to Consider Servant Leadership

1: Servant leadership drives confidence and high performance

Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2011), Jia Hu & Dr. Liden studied 304 employees representing 71 teams in 5 banks. They concluded that servant leaders facilitate team confidence, affirming the strengths and potential of the team and providing development support. An interesting outcome was that servant leaders significantly produced higher performance teams.

2: Servant leadership creates helping and creative employees

Servan leaders create a culture which cultivates creativity and solidarity (employees that want to help each other). Employees of servant leaders are more helping and creative than those working with leaders who scored lower on servant leadership. Source: Neubert, Kacmar, Carlson, Chonko, & Roberts, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2008.

3: Higher job satisfaction

In a study at five-hospitals across 17 departments, 253 nurses who perceived that their nurse managers had a higher servant leadership orientation demonstrated significantly greater job satisfaction. Source: Jenkins & Stewart, “The importance of a servant leader orientation,” Health Care Management Review, 2010

4: Higher organisation effectiveness

Dr. Robert Liden, Professor of Management at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), has conducted many studies on the topic that links servant leadership to building strong teams and collaboration. Servant leaders are open for change and therefore more effective than the traditional top down leaders.

Final thoughts

For every business usually the priority is to bring top and bottom line numbers. But long term success means to focus on different aspects of the business. Before focusing on building relationships with your customers, don’t forget to build a relationship with your employees first.

How would you describe your leadership style? Are you already implementing some aspects of servant leadership?

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