The phrase “servant leadership” may not be familiar to a large number of individuals or corporations, but it’s a belief system that is already widely embraced by some of the most successful organizations in the world. Its essence is a focus on individuals and a decentralized organizational structure. It also emphasizes other core values that encourage innovation and the development of leaders that must first focus on serving all stakeholders in an organization. Below is a discussion of servant leadership and why it can be an important driver for entities and individuals that embrace its core concepts.
What Is Servant Leadership?
The term servant leadership is attributed to an essay written by Robert Greenleaf in 1970.
Greenleaf’s essay was entitled “The Servant as Leader” and stemmed from concerns over the merits of a centralized organizational structure as a management style to successfully run companies. Since Greenleaf’s death, his center has continued his mission of promoting awareness of servant leadership and how it can improve corporate cultures.
Greenleaf was suspicious of those focused on leading first, “perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions,” he said in his essay. Instead, he recommended making serving a priority, with the intent of “making sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”
His focus was from an individual perspective. As he put it, “caring for persons, the abler and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built.” He believed that this responsibility had shifted over time to institutions, which were “often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt.”
Servant Leadership Definition
In essence, servant leadership represents a decentralized structure that focuses on employee empowerment and encourages innovation. This means having the upper management share key decision-making powers with employees who work directly with clients and customers; they are arguably better aware of what is needed to remain competitive because of their knowledge of what is occurring on the “front lines” of the business.
Perhaps most importantly, servant leadership is focused on serving all stakeholders in the corporation. This includes employees, customers and the community in general. It is seen as an evolution of a traditional corporate measure that emphasizes growing shareholder returns over time.
A criticism of this measure is that it can be at the expense of the other stakeholders, especially if profit is the only driver of corporate success and leads to the trampling of other stakeholders that are vital to the long-term survival of an organization.
The Primary Characteristic
Larry Spears listed a number of essential characteristics that he saw as defining servant leadership. For firms to remain competitive, listening is crucial. Employees must stay connected to customers and industry developments and they need to listen and remain receptive to clients. This is because those external parties frequently have significant insight into product successes and changes that could grow into challenges or ruin a firm if not addressed. Additionally, persuasion is suggested through consensus-building and stands in direct contrast to tactics that are considered more about command and control. Coercive tactics that are pushed through from more centralized organizations can be especially destructive.
From an employee development perspective, empathy means takes the point of view that customers and colleagues have good intentions. It emphasizes open-mindedness in hearing decisions. Healing might seem too soft for many corporate cultures, but at its core, it emphasizes the development of individuals from both personal and professional perspectives. For instance, encouraging learning, development and constructive feedback along with the completion of job tasks is the focus of this characteristic. Foresight is similar to awareness but stresses the ability to use past lessons for success going forward. A commitment to the growth of people is also warranted, as is an emphasis on developing talent.
Servant leadership has many useful concepts that can be applied to businesses to help them run more effectively and efficiently. For investors, it can be used to identify firms that have the best chances for success while operating in intensely competitive industries.
Servant leadership is obviously wary of a centralized, command-and-control style, but there are still going to be many instances where it is the most effective way to manage certain business operations. It’s up to organizations to strike the right balance between centralized and decentralized activities. Overall though, servant leadership is important for its holistic views of corporations, individuals and communities, and how to protect and encourage their well-being.