Servant Leadership: Characteristics, Benefits & Drawbacks

Servant Leadership: Characteristics, Benefits & Drawbacks

When it comes to leadership styles, there’s no one-size-fits-all. Yet, in the heart of many successful businesses, you’ll often find a secret weapon: servant leadership. Yes, you read it right. Not the autocratic, not the bureaucratic, but a leadership style that’s rooted in the act of serving others. Unconventional? Maybe. Effective?

Absolutely. This approach flips the traditional style of leadership model on its head, and it’s about time we delve into its nitty-gritty. Buckle up as we explore the characteristics, benefits, and even potential pitfalls of this type of leadership and how to apply it successfully at your workplace.

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a style of leadership where the main goal of the leader is to serve. The term was coined by Robert Greenleaf, a researcher who was skeptical about traditional leadership styles. He popularized the term in a 1970s essay titled “The Servant as Leader.”

It’s a sharp departure from the traditional style of leadership notion where the leader’s primary focus is the thriving success of the business. Instead, a servant leader focuses on the team’s needs, focusing on the growth and well-being of their community and the people in it.

The leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. It’s not about viewing your employees as workers, but as human beings who can grow, develop, and achieve remarkable success, given the right guidance.

This management style encourages collaboration, growth, and well-being, as well as ethical use of power. It’s a leadership that says “Let’s grow together.”

Benefits of Servant Leadership Style

Servant leadership is a leadership style that brings a multitude of benefits to both leaders and the teams they serve. Let’s unpack a few:

  • Enhanced Team Morale. When leaders genuinely care for their people, it’s a morale booster. Servant leaders foster an atmosphere of trust and respect, which significantly contributes to a positive work culture.
  • Increased Employee Engagement. Servant leadership puts employees first and fosters a supportive environment where employees feel valued. This sense of appreciation fuels engagement, leading to increased productivity and success.
  • Greater Team Collaboration. Servant leaders act as facilitators rather than dictators. They encourage open communication, promoting a collaborative approach, which often results in innovative solutions.
  • Improved Employee Retention. Companies with servant leadership also tend to see lower turnover rates. When employees feel their needs are met, they are more likely to stay loyal to the organization.
  • Holistic Development. Servant leaders don’t just focus on an employee’s professional growth but take a vested interest in their personal development too. This comprehensive approach helps build dedicated, well-rounded teams.

How Servant Leadership Works?

Servant leadership prioritizes employees, fostering their commitment and engagement to drive the organization’s growth. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, resulting in higher performance and engaged, thriving teams.

Consider the leader as a gardener. The role of the gardener isn’t to grow plants but to create the optimal environment where plants flourish. They prepare the soil, provide the necessary nutrients, ensure the right amount of sunlight and water, and protect the plants from harmful pests. Similarly, this model of leadership can help foster an environment where their team members can grow, innovate, and achieve their full potential. They tune into individual needs, provide the right resources, remove obstacles, and guide their team toward shared goals.

Servant leadership seeks to help others succeed. It’s a long game, requiring patience, empathy, and a genuine concern for others. It’s not about wielding power, but about empowering others. It’s about actively listening, showing empathy, and cultivating a culture of trust and cooperation. Transparency, accessibility, and good communication skills are valued and decision-making is often shared with the team.

10 Characteristics of Servant Leaders - Brad Sugars

10 Characteristics of Servant Leaders

Let’s unpack what servant leadership looks like by going through some key traits that make this leadership style truly transformative.

1. Empathy

Empathy refers to the leader’s ability to understand and share the feelings and perspectives of their team members. It’s about stepping into their shoes and seeing things from their viewpoint. Empathetic leaders don’t just sympathize; they tune into subtle hints, read between the lines, and perceive the emotions of their team. This deep understanding allows them to make decisions that take into account their team’s feelings and situations, fostering a sense of belonging and mutual respect. It is empathy that makes the team members feel genuinely cared for, boosting their morale and productivity.

2. Listening

To become an effective servant leader, one must posses active listening skills. It’s not merely about hearing words, but fully engaging in the conversation, understanding the nuances, and sensing the emotions behind those words. Servant leaders listen with intent, respect, and patience, striving to grasp the underlying messages. By doing so, they foster open communication and trust, inspiring team members to share their ideas, concerns, and feedback without hesitation. This two-way communication channel allows leaders to make informed decisions, resolve conflicts, and guide their teams more effectively.

3. Healing

A successful servant leader recognizes the importance of healing in building a strong, resilient team. This goes beyond addressing physical ailments to include emotional and psychological healing. The workplace can often be a source of stress, and a servant leader is tuned into the emotional well-being of their team. They create a supportive environment where team members feel comfortable expressing their concerns and anxieties.

This might mean providing resources for mental health, encouraging work-life balance, or simply offering a listening ear when needed. This approach goes a long way in fostering trust, ensuring team members feel valued and cared for on a personal level.

4. Foresight the Future

Foresight, or the ability to anticipate the future, is a defining characteristic of a servant leader. This trait goes beyond simple prediction; it’s about understanding the implications of present decisions and actions, foreseeing potential challenges, and identifying opportunities for growth and innovation. Foresight allows servant leaders to make strategic choices, steering their teams in the right direction and positioning them for future success.

Informed by past experiences and present realities, these leaders can visualize the future landscape of their industry or company, making them proactive rather than reactive. This forward-thinking approach keeps their teams agile, ready to adapt, and primed for success, no matter what the future holds.

5. Possesses Awareness

Servant leadership requires awareness. This goes beyond self-awareness to an understanding of the workplace dynamics, team strengths and weaknesses, and broader industry trends. Servant leaders are in tune with their environment and their team, able to recognize subtleties and undercurrents that may impact the work climate. They are conscious of how their decisions and actions affect others, and they consider this in their decision-making process.

This heightened sense of awareness enables them to respond effectively to different situations, whether it’s managing a conflict, motivating a team member, or adapting to a new market trend.

6. Persuasion

Instead of relying on authoritative commands or coercion, they use persuasion to influence the team’s actions and decisions. This involves presenting compelling arguments, leading by example, and generating consensus around ideas. By persuading rather than ordering, servant leaders foster a sense of autonomy and involvement among team members. They feel part of the process, more committed to the shared goals, and more responsible for the outcomes.

The power of persuasion also lies in its ability to inspire change, encourage innovation, and engender trust. It’s about motivating the team to believe in the vision, aligning their energies towards it, and fostering an environment where everyone feels inspired to contribute their best.

7. Empower Others

Empowering others is at the core of servant leadership in the workplace. It’s about giving your team the tools, resources, and confidence they need to succeed. This means nurturing their knowledge and skills, fostering their independence, and supporting their professional growth. Servant leaders don’t hoard power; they distribute it. They create opportunities for their team to take on responsibilities, make decisions, and contribute their unique perspectives and ideas.

They provide constructive feedback, recognize efforts, and celebrate successes, which boosts morale and fosters a sense of ownership among team members. This empowerment not only leads to higher productivity and creativity but also creates a culture of trust, collaboration, and mutual respect. By empowering others, servant leaders build a strength-based team that is resilient, innovative, and ready to take on the challenges that come their way.

8. Conceptualization

Conceptualization is one of the key characteristics of servant leadership. This involves the ability to see the bigger picture, to think beyond the day-to-day operations, and to envision what could be. It’s about dreaming big, setting ambitious goals, and understanding the steps needed to get there.

Servant leaders excel in this visionary thinking; they can conceptualize a future that is not only innovative and successful, but also aligns with the values, strengths, and aspirations of their team. They don’t just set these visions, they also communicate them effectively, creating a shared understanding and enthusiasm among team members. This in turn drives motivation and commitment, as everyone feels part of a larger, meaningful journey.

9. Setting a Vision

Setting a vision is a fundamental task for any servant leader. This is about defining the path to an aspirational future, a direction that inspires and motivates the team to reach their highest potential. Servant leaders don’t just set a vision for the company, they communicate it in a way that connects with each member of the team on a deeply personal level.

This involves painting a vivid picture of the future, highlighting how each role contributes to this grand vision, and reinforcing the shared values that guide their journey. The vision set by servant leaders is not just a distant dream, but a tangible destination that infuses everyday tasks with purpose and meaning.

10. Commitment to the Growth of Other Team Members

A deep-rooted commitment to the growth of team members is what truly sets apart a servant leader. They view their team not just as employees but as individuals with unique talents, aspirations, and potential. Servant leaders act as catalysts for their team’s development, investing time and resources in nurturing their abilities, expanding their knowledge, and fostering their professional and personal growth.

This involves providing opportunities for continuous learning, setting challenging yet achievable goals, and offering constructive feedback. They create an environment that encourages risk-taking and innovation, empowering their team to step out of their comfort zones, learn from their mistakes, and grow.

The Perceived Downside of Practicing Servant Leadership - Brad Sugars

What is The Perceived Downside of Practicing Servant Leadership?

While servant leadership undoubtedly has its advantages, it is not without potential downsides. Here are some perceived downsides associated with this effective leadership style:

1. Time-intensive

Servant leaders need a significant amount of time to establish relationships, understand individual needs, and cater to the personal and professional development of each team member. In fast-paced business environments, some might view this as inefficient or impractical.

2. Risk of Being Overly Lenient

In their quest to serve and support, servant leaders may run the risk of being overly lenient. There’s a delicate balance to maintain between empowering others and ensuring accountability. If not carefully managed, this could potentially lead to a lack of discipline or low-performance standards.

3. Potential for Misinterpretation

The term “servant” may be misunderstood by some, potentially leading to a perception of weakness or subservience. This could affect the servant leader’s authority or respect within the team, particularly if the principles of servant leadership are not properly communicated and understood.

4. Difficulty in Decision Making

As servant leaders often seek consensus before making decisions, this could potentially slow down the decision-making process. In situations that require swift and decisive action, this could lead to delays and missed opportunities.

5. Not Suitable for Every Organization

Lastly, servant leadership may not fit every organizational culture or business model. Companies with a more traditional, hierarchical structure may find it challenging to adopt this transformational leadership style effectively.

Servant Leadership vs. Traditional Leadership

When comparing servant leadership to traditional leadership styles, there are some key differences to consider. Traditional leadership often operates on a top-down model, where power and authority primarily rest with the leader, and directions flow from the top tier downwards. In this model, the leader’s main focus is on achieving organizational goals, often with less emphasis on the development and well-being of individual teammates.

On the other hand, servant leadership flips this model on its head. One of the main attributes of servant leadership is prioritization of the needs, development, and growth of their teammates above all else. They believe that by fostering an environment of trust, respect, and empowerment, the team will naturally become more motivated, productive, and innovative, ultimately driving the organization toward its objectives.

In the traditional model, decisions are mostly made at the top and communicated down the chain. However, servant leaders prefer a more collaborative approach, involving teammates in decision-making to foster a sense of ownership and commitment.

It’s also important to note that while traditional leaders often aim to maintain the status quo, servant leaders encourage new ideas, and drive changes that align with their team’s values and the organization’s vision.

Both styles have their merits and are suitable for different contexts. However, in an era where people increasingly value empathy, collaboration, and personal growth in their work, servant leadership behavior holds a unique appeal. By leading with a service mindset, leaders can cultivate a high-performance culture grounded in mutual trust, shared purpose, and collective success.


What is Robert Greenleaf’s theory of servant leadership?

The Robert Greenleaf theory of servant leadership is a leadership philosophy that prioritizes serving others, including employees, customers, and communities. Introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, the theory posits that the best leaders are those who put the needs of their team before their own. They focus on the personal and professional growth of their team members, encouraging them to become the best that they can be.

This is achieved by listening to their team, practicing empathy, and helping them develop and perform as highly as possible. Greenleaf’s theory fundamentally changed the way leadership is understood, shifting the focus from the leader as a commanding figure, to the leader as a servant of their team.

What are the principles of servant leadership theory?

The 10 principles of servant leadership theory are outlined by Robert Greenleaf and further developed by Larry Spears, former president of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, both of whom are renowned for their work on this leadership style. They identified ten key principles that define servant leadership:

  • Listening: Servant leaders actively listen to their teammates, acknowledging their thoughts, ideas, and concerns.
  • Empathy: They strive to understand and empathize with others. They recognize and accept people for their unique and special individualities.
  • Healing: They create an environment that promotes personal and professional growth, fostering a sense of well-being among teammates.
  • Awareness: They have a deep understanding of themselves, their team, and their surroundings, enabling them to make informed decisions.
  • Persuasion: Instead of asserting authority, successful leaders rely on their skills of persuasion to influence their team.
  • Conceptualization: They are visionaries, able to see beyond day-to-day realities and understand the bigger picture.
  • Foresight: They anticipate the future consequences of any decision based on past experiences and present realities.
  • Stewardship: They view their leadership role as a steward, entrusted with managing the team and resources for the greater good.
  • Commitment to the Growth of People: They are committed to nurturing their team’s personal and professional growth.
  • Building Community: They strive to build a community within the organization, fostering a sense of belonging and shared purpose.

What is servant leadership in organizational behavior?

Servant leadership in organizational behavior refers to a leadership style where the leader prioritizes the needs of the team, promotes a culture of sharing power, and puts service to others before self-interest. The leader spends time understanding and empathizing with the team members, fostering a supportive environment that encourages personal and professional growth. The goal is to enhance the team’s sense of joy in their work, improve collaboration, and ultimately, increase organizational effectiveness.

Servant leaders also strive to create a community within the organization, nurturing a sense of shared purpose and belonging. This leadership approach is believed to lead to higher team morale, increased productivity, and improved employee retention.

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