Five people sit around a wood-topped conference table. At the head of the table, a man in glasses sits in front of an open laptop, talking to the woman to his left.
Servant leadership involves placing employees above their leaders in the business hierarchy, creating opportunities for better focus and an empowered team. — Getty Images/g-stockstudio

Managers are always seeking new leadership approaches to motivate their teams. A common type of leadership many managers find success with is servant leadership, which involves a more synergistic relationship within a team and promotes innovation and leadership qualities in employees.

Advocates of servant leadership say it encourages better communication and improves the overall workflow of an organization. Here’s how to implement this leadership style in your workplace.

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a philosophy that flips the business hierarchy, positioning the employees at the top and the leader at the bottom. This system encourages the leader to have a “serve first” mindset, empowering those who work for them. Servant leaders are less interested in having authority over a group and more focused on the task or project at hand while promoting their employees’ agency.

Performance in these types of work environments tends to improve as managers develop employees to align their sense of purpose with the company mission. Employees also feel as though their manager is a part of the team, doing the work with them rather than acting as an authority figure. This positioning makes it easier for an employee to build good communication skills with their manager.

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Characteristics of servant leaders

There are many different ways a manager can approach servant leadership. However, all servant leaders share a few common characteristics:

  • Self-awareness: Servant leaders recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, admit when they’re wrong and hold themselves accountable when necessary.
  • Inclusivity: These leaders want every member of their team to have a sense of belonging and use their voice to have an impact.
  • Empathy: Servant leaders aim to understand what their teammates are experiencing and feeling in order to better guide them in the right direction.
  • Role modeling: Leading by example shows employees no work is above or below them and they should always be helping out their peers when possible.
  • Foresight: Leaders should always consider how they can improve and who among their team would make a great leader.

Servant leadership isn't only used in business; many significant historical figures have adopted it as a philosophy as well.

Benefits

Servant leadership is believed to increase productivity because it builds a deeper trust between employees and their managers. The theory is that when employees know they're valued by their manager, they are better able to focus on company goals rather than protecting their status.

Drawbacks

The concept of servant leadership can be initially difficult to communicate and implement. Employees may see their leader as someone who is micromanaging rather than being helpful. It also takes time to establish boundaries between employees and their managers. Servant leaders still need to lead and point their team members in the right direction. If they're too relaxed, employees may perceive them as weak or ineffective.

Being a servant leader is also time-consuming, as managers aren't only overseeing work — they are an active part of it. This can lead to slower productivity as their time is split between larger macro goals and small microtasks.

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Published March 21, 2022