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A Small Business Guide to Servant Leadership

Rhiân Davies
By: Rhiân Davies

Our Small Business Expert

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Within organizations, you’ll find many styles of management. In this small business guide, we’ll go through the characteristics of servant leaders and examples of servant leadership in action.

Effective people management is key to running a successful organization. Successfully managing teams of individuals often requires more than corporate training and development courses. In fact, most who take on leadership roles develop their style of leadership based on their own experiences and personalities.

“The great leader is seen as servant first ...”
— Robert K. Greenleaf

It’s common for those newly placed in management positions to try to work out what kind of leadership style they embody in order to try and identify areas of improvement and take tips from other successful leadership styles.

In this article, we’ll focus on servant leadership. Servant leadership is a style of management ruled by a people-first mindset. This type of leadership style focuses on employee satisfaction, with the intention of attaining better business results. We’ll go through common characteristics of the servant leadership approach to help you determine whether this employee management style suits you and your organization.

Overview: What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership theory was first explored by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.”

In this essay, Greenleaf explains that servant leaders are those who put the needs of their team members first. It’s the very idea that leaders serve their teams rather than lead, which is a direct contrast to traditional manager/employee relationships in which employees are expected to serve and be led by senior management.

An image showing two triangular hierarchies of servant leadership and traditional leadership.

The servant leadership hierarchy turns the traditional management hierarchy on its head. Image source: Author

The theory of servant leadership turns the idea of traditional workplace leadership on its head. Servant leaders are focused on empowering and uplifting those who work for them rather than commanding them from a position of power and authority.

The concept of servant leadership also aims to increase retention rates and avoid common progressive discipline tactics by creating a healthy workplace where employees are satisfied and motivated.

The 10 most important characteristics of servant leaders

Not every servant leader has the same personality, but there are a few key attributes that most will embody. Here are 10 key servant leader characteristics.

1. Empathy

Servant leaders work to understand and empathize with others. Being aware of and trying to understand how others feel and what their concerns and needs are -- even though they might not feel the same way -- is a key attribute of a servant leader. Evaluating situations from another’s perspective is important as it helps to build trust within a manager-employee relationship.

2. Humility

Humble servant leaders do not promote themselves but work to put their teams first. They’ll also treat everyone the same, regardless of their seniority, role, or title. Their humility means that they’re able to recognize their own weaknesses and see them as an opportunity for their own growth and also the growth of the people they manage.

3. Self-awareness

Self-awareness demonstrates a higher level of emotional intelligence, which is a key leadership skill. While power-oriented leaders tend to ignore their shortcomings, servant leaders are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and also how their decisions or behavior might affect or appear to their team.

4. Emotional intelligence

Similar to the self-awareness attribute of servant leaders, emotional intelligence means that they can understand not only their own emotions but the emotions of their team members and how those emotions motivate and drive behavior.

Leaders who are emotionally intelligent are able to create safe working environments where employees feel comfortable about sharing opinions and know they will be listened to and considered.

5. Persuasiveness

Servant leaders are able to use persuasion rather than their authority to direct their teams. Instead of forcing employees to follow orders, servant leaders are effective at building consensus, and they rely on open dialogue to help employees understand why an action or directive is beneficial for them as individuals and as a team.

6. Trustworthiness

Workplace power dynamics can often breed distrust if improperly managed. Servant leaders seek to build trust as a priority. They do this by communicating openly and freely and trusting in their employees’ capabilities. A trustworthy leader encourages employees to be committed to their role and their organization, to be honest in return, and to help build a healthy culture within their teams.

7. Commitment to others’ growth

Servant leaders are committed to helping their team members’ growth both professionally and personally, and they see this growth as beneficial to them as leaders. They passionately care about actively helping their employees develop and will seek out ways to help them achieve both their career and personal goals. This benefits morale and business growth, and it’s great for keeping employee retention rates high.

8. Focus on community building

Servant leaders aren’t only interested in building teams; they’re also focused on creating and building communities. They’re able to bring teams together to work toward a common goal and purpose and create a sense of belonging and team spirit. Servant leaders recognize the value of team members building individual relationships with each other and how this can help a business thrive.

9. Ability to empower others

Servant leaders are invested in their employees’ development and empower them to help them grow. They do this by delegating authority and responsibility rather than tasks, soliciting ideas from their employees about how to achieve their goals and how they can support them, and providing constructive feedback at regular intervals.

10. Integrity

Integrity is another key characteristic of servant leaders. They act ethically, voice what they believe, and are very reliable and consistent. Employees are rarely surprised by their actions because servant leaders are able to garner trust and are known for their dependability.

Examples of servant leadership

What does servant leadership look like in action? Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • A leader who actively reaches out to check whether employees are facing any roadblocks or challenges: Instead of chastising employees for missing a deadline or not delivering exactly what they should have, servant leaders will ask their direct reports whether there’s something making work difficult and will mention specific examples (cross-departmental collaboration, software challenges, bottlenecks, etc.). They’ll also commit to helping the employee where they can while making it clear they likely won’t be able to solve every issue.
  • A leader who’s committed to publicly celebrating their employees’ successes: In a previous job, my manager created a Slack channel dedicated to giving members of the team shout-outs for their wins, ideas, and any awards they received. They even gave big shout-outs on birthdays within this channel and kicked off the birthday celebration by listing the reasons this person made a great colleague and highlighting their achievements throughout the year. This manager also regularly uploaded kudos to our HR software so that these could be recognized in our performance reviews.
  • A leader who doesn’t just communicate changes but also the reasons behind them: A servant leader doesn’t leave their employees wondering how company changes or announcements might affect them. For example, when a CEO announces changes to certain policies, servant leaders will actively schedule a meeting or send out an email detailing exactly why these changes are being made, how they’ll be implemented, and how their employees will be affected.

Are servant leaders too good to be true?

Critics of the servant leadership approach often assert that leaders should be leaders and not friends with their direct reports. However, countless studies reveal that many people leave their jobs because of a bad relationship with their manager, with poor communication, lack of support, and lack of trust being common examples of “bad boss” attributes.

There are many styles of leadership, and although I’ve experienced many of them, I have to speak to the benefits of having a servant leader. It can sometimes feel like having a friend, but that’s the beauty of this style of management. I felt much more committed and motivated in my job when I had a friendly, empathetic manager than I did when I’ve had insecure, power-wielding managers.

The kicker? I lasted way longer in roles with servant leaders before looking for new employment, which also speaks to how this style of leadership impacts turnover rates.

Personality will always be a key factor in leadership styles, so it’s important to bear this in mind when hiring for leadership roles.

Our Small Business Expert