Servant Leadership: An Organizational Paradigm Shift

Servant leadership is by no means a new concept, but it is most certainly a revolutionary one. Servant leadership involves taking the traditional leadership model and turning it on its head. The newly restructured hierarchy places the employees at the very top and the leaders at the bottom. In short, the leaders serve the employees who rest above them. This may seem like the worst possible scenario for most traditional leaders. However, this is the most idyllic situation for genuine servant leaders. This is without question a groundbreaking approach to leadership and is most definitely a paradigm shift for most organizations. The real question is whether your organization is ready to take the leap.

True servant leadership embodies and conveys a serve-first mindset. They are intent on empowering and helping those who work for them. Servant leaders don’t command – they serve, show humility instead of exerting their authority. Most importantly, they’re always on the lookout to improve the development of their team. Servant leaders actively seek out ways to unlock the potential, creativity, and an overall sense of purpose of their employees.

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The result of adopting servant leadership is that performance typically goes through the roof! Some may even say that the overall impact is simply magical…

Traditional Leadership vs. Servant Leadership

Many organizational leadership experts often describe traditional business leaders as managers tasked with overseeing a basic transaction. This transaction is one where employees maintain a certain performance level, and in exchange, they receive a salary and benefits. In most cases, these managers are position-based leaders – they exert authority based solely on the fact that they’re the boss.

Servant Leadership

On the contrary, the servant leader goes above & beyond the rudimentary transactional aspects of management. They do so by actively developing and aligning their employee’s sense of purpose with the company’s overall mission.

The Benefits of Servant Leadership

The benefits of adopting this new view of leadership are quite bountiful, according to servant leadership advocates. An empowered employee will deliver better results and incorporate more innovative tactics. Furthermore, employees also feel more engaged and purpose-driven within a servant leadership power structure. This sense of empowerment, in turn, increases an organization’s retention and reduces turnover costs. The real beauty is that well-trained employees continue to develop as future leaders. This also helps ensure the long-term health of the organization.

This sense of empowerment, in turn, increases an organization’s retention and reduces turnover costs. The real beauty is that well-trained employees continue to develop as future leaders. This also helps ensure the long-term health of the organization.

To reap these benefits, experts believe that several things need to happen. The very foundation of servant leadership assumes the presence of an unselfish mindset. Servant leaders must put others before themselves and recognize that it is not all about them. Furthermore, the overall organization needs to exude a culture in which this type of leadership can thrive. Finally, there are certain behaviors that servant leaders must exhibit regularly. Leaders can preach about a certain mindset all they want. However, they must practice it for it to catch on in a meaningful and lasting way truly. For servant leaders, the behavior isn’t just what gets done, but how it gets done.

What You’ll Learn About Servant Leadership

The following explores servant leadership’s art and practice—specifically, its philosophy and goals and best practices for leaders who aspire to become superb servant leaders. We will also touch on servant leadership’s impact on the overall future of leadership altogether.

The Origins & Applications of Servant Leadership

Many consider servant leadership a relatively universal concept since it has roots in both Eastern and Western cultures. In the East, scholars credit 5th century BC Chinese philosophers such as Laozi. Lazoi asserted that when the best leaders finished their work, their people would claim that they did it themselves.

Robert Greenleaf & Pat Falotico

Robert Greenleaf is credited with establishing the foundation of servant leadership when he published his essay, The Servant as Leader. Before his death in 1990, Greenleaf founded the Atlanta-based Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Pat Falotico now heads up the center after a 31-year career at IBM.

Herb Kelleher

Many leadership experts claim that Southwest Airlines was the epitome of an organization fueled by servant leadership while under the guidance of Herb Kelleher. Kelleher’s philosophy hinged on putting employees first. In doing so, Southwest Airlines thrived due to a highly engaged workforce, low-turnover, and 35+ years of profitability. This sort of success was unheard of in the airline industry during a rather turbulent era for commercial aviation.

Art Barter

Art Barter, who founded the Servant Leadership Institute, came to engage with servant leadership via a more roundabout means. He connected with the servant leader approach while working for organizations that did not follow its practices. He spent the majority of his career working for public companies that believed in the power model. The power model’s essence stems from what employees can do for their managers within a given timeframe. Barter then connected with the work of management guru and servant leader advocate Ken Blanchard. When Barter took the helm at Datron World Communications in 2004, he set his sights on practicing servant leadership. In doing so, the company’s revenue grew from $10M to $200M in just six years. That in itself is more than enough proof to adopt servant leadership, in my opinion.

Servant Leadership Best Practices

Gurus on the topic offer a range of best practice tips for executives who aim to become successful servant leaders. However, most experts agree on one core principle. Successful servant leadership starts with a leader’s willingness to serve their staff, which serves and benefits the overarching organization. This serve-first mentality can be put into action from the beginning, during an employee’s onboarding phase, according to Michael Timmes, a leadership expert, consultant, and coach with Insperity.

According to Timmes, the servant leader ought to inquire about the new hire’s observations, impressions, and opinions. This shows that the servant leader is genuinely interested and values the employee’s input from the get-go.


Servant Leadership & Talent Development

From that point forward, the servant leader maintains a steady focus on talent development. Timmes explains how servant leaders take folks early in their careers and think of them as the leaders of the future. He goes on to discuss how if a manager is not spending at least 25% of their time developing future leaders, then “(they’re) not really fulfilling (their) responsibilities as a leader.”

Servant leaders enhance this talent development process in several ways. One of the keys is to leverage the employee’s strengths. Employees typically perform best on tasks they are most passionate about. However, most managers fail to figure this out. “We don’t take the time to ask them – ‘What do you really want to do? What really excites you?'” says Barter.

We don’t take the time to ask them – ‘What do you really want to do? What really excites you?‘” – Art Barter

Another way to supplement the talent development process is to gradually relinquish power. Such that employees can take the lead on certain projects and take ownership of their initiatives.

This can be difficult for some leaders since they connect leadership with control. They feel that they should be responsible for everything under their purview. Therein lies a paradox. Leaders who are able to let go of control typically find that they are actually in more control. This is because they have harnessed the resources and talents of their employees. This accomplishment can, in turn, guide operations more efficiently than one person can do so on their own.

This is a vital requirement of effective servant leadership according to Falotico. She tells leaders to “get over yourself” and realize that business objectives, no matter what they are, will not be achieved without sharing the overall load and the associated responsibilities.

Question Close & Listen Closer

If serving your employees is the central pillar of servant leadership, then there are two essential practices toward achieving that goal: close listening and asking searching questions. Asking the right questions is the secret sauce of great coaching and is vital for servant leaders.

Servant leaders develop relationships with employees primarily by listening closely and by asking many questions ranging from their personal and professional background to their assessment of t08he firm’s culture. If an employee is struggling, leaders should inquire as to what might be impeding their progress. Even questions pertaining to minor operations, such as the best use of time during meetings, are both meaningful and helpful.

The overall emphasis on questions is a two-way avenue. It is equally important that employees feel comfortable asking their servant leader questions without worrying that their leader might feel threatened or criticized. These are the questions that help drive the development and growth of the employee-servant leader relationship.

Leadership Listen and Learn

Carefully asking questions ties in nicely with another critical practice – listening to understand. This means listening silently listening to the employee and making a genuine effort to understand their point of view. Even if this causes the leader to feel the need to disagree or interject, servant leaders wait until the employee has finished their thought(s). If need be, the leader can succinctly summarize what the employee has expressed, as a way to communicate their understanding.

This will strike some as nothing more than common courtesy. However, listening to understand is becoming far harder with the rise of technology and the decrease of attention spans, according to subject matter experts. For instance, a leader who keeps their iPhone on their desk, and glances at it repeatedly during a conversation, is not listening to understand.

Humility, Trust, and Encouragement

Servant leaders can certainly do more than simply listen to their employees. Better yet, they can encourage them to strive for more. In many ways, encouragement is the epitome of a servant leader. Furthermore, it is an extremely powerful tool.

Regardless of the type of interaction with employees, servant leaders always show encouragement and humility with an even-keeled attitude. Servant leaders don’t see themselves as better than anybody else. In practice, this means that when an employee makes an honest mistake, the leader doesn’t treat them as a child in need of a scolding.

Instead, servant leaders initiate and engage in a respectful conversation. This demonstrates trust in the employee to make the necessary course corrections.

Trust is a hallmark trait and a defining outcome of servant leadership according to Stephen M.R. Covey of the Covey Leadership Center.

According to Covey, it’s important to remember that servant leaders are both servants and leaders.  While servant leaders do serve, the role still requires the other elements of leadership – such as character and competence. In this instance, competence means that a leader has an established history of high ability and achieving results, with skills that are relevant. Character means that results and accomplishments are achieved with moral integrity and sound ethics.

Trust is also an essential prerequisite for servant leaders since the leaders must trust that employees are worth serving and that both they and the organization will benefit from their contributions. Practicing servant-leadership fosters trust in the employees, who are then inspired by their manager’s competence and character and further convinced by their manager’s serve-first practice that they have the employee’s best interests at heart.

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