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What Is Servant Leadership?

There’s a lot of talk these days about servant leadership—and for good reason. But before you join the conversation, ask yourself one question: Are you a boss or a leader?

And if you think those two things are the same, definitely read on!

At EntreLeadership, we talk a lot about being more than a boss—you know, the person who just makes all the rules and signs all the paychecks. But it’s easy to assume being “in charge” is all it takes to be a leader.

The truth is, great leadership isn’t about a fancy title at all—it’s about influence, your ability to positively affect someone or something. That’s something we can all have, but the way you go about building influence is important.

One of the best ways we’ve found is through servant leadership. In fact, it’s one of the guiding principles of our leadership coaching!

And all you need to get started is a serve-first (read: unselfish) mindset.

What Is Servant Leadership?

In the simplest terms, servant leadership is about putting your team first and yourself second.

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It starts and ends with your desire to serve, which is not to be confused with being subservient. Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the term in his essay The Servant as Leader published in 1970, writing, “The servant-leader is servant first . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage and unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

Picture a typical organizational chart. You know, the one with the leader in the ivory tower at the tip-top and the lowly employees at the bottom. Servant leaders turn that pyramid on its head, creating a new order where the needs and well-being of the team matter most. As a result, servant leadership has nothing to do with building fame, wielding power, or micromanaging tasks.

Instead, servant leaders are fiercely committed to the growth and empowerment of the team, as well as to building community in the workplace and with customers.

What Are the Top 5 Qualities of a Servant Leader?

Good news: Servant leaders don’t need a special degree or have to be on the job for a set number of years. But they do need a unique blend of personal traits. Hint: Start with a hearty dose of humility and read on.

Integrity: Actions always speak louder than words—period. Servant leaders tell the truth, do what they say they’ll do, and treat everyone with a caring heart. When in doubt, follow the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31 NIV).

Related: 5 Core Values of Great Leaders

Empathy: Servant leaders understand that everything starts and ends with their team—and that requires them to have an open mind, understand the point of view of others, and value the input and opinions of their team.

Listening: To develop a close relationship with your team or customers, they must truly feel heard. And that means asking good questions and paying attention are a must—we’re talking distraction-free, put-your-phone-away, laser-focused listening.

Self-awareness: The ability to really look at yourself—to really know your own strengths and weakness—goes a long way toward understanding the needs and behavior of others. Added bonus? Research suggests self-awareness plays a huge part in success.1

Persuasion: Servant leaders know the only way to grow a quality team and build unity is through the power of persuasion. It’s like Dave always says: “If you want employees, then boss them around; if you want team members, explain why you do what you do.”

What Are the Benefits of Servant Leadership?

What do companies like Chick-fil-A, Nordstrom and Southwest Airlines all have in common? Servant leadership! And based on their unprecedented growth and stellar reputations, the approach is paying off—big time. 

But the benefits of servant leadership go well beyond higher profits. Here are the top three:

Extraordinary performance: An empowered team is a happy team, and happy people are more productive (often by as much as 20%), more innovative, and more creative. That’s what we call a win-win!

• Lower turnover: Servant leadership creates team members that are more engaged and purpose-driven—and, you guessed it, less likely to leave for a better opportunity. Not only does lower turnover create more unity, but it also saves time, money, and sometimes your sanity.

• A rock-solid culture: Trust is both a defining part of servant leadership and an end result. And that’s a great thing because an organization with high levels of trust among team members and leadership can’t help but strengthen the culture (and increase efficiency too). Oh, and by the way, trusted employees make incredible future leaders.

So, What’s the Downside of Servant Leadership?

You might be wondering if the secret sauce of servant leadership is too good to be true—and that’s a valid question. Servant leadership is super effective, but it’s important to be on the lookout for these possible pitfalls:

Ignoring poor performance: We’ve said that servant leaders put the needs of their team first, but that doesn’t include excusing or overlooking underperforming employees in the name of empathy. That’s what Dave Ramsey says in his bestselling book EntreLeadership. He calls it “sanctioning incompetence,” and the result isn’t pretty. For starters, ignoring poor performance discourages the rest of the team and kills morale.

Compassion fatigue: Empathy, like anything else, is a limited resource, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Yes, a hallmark of servant leadership is caring deeply for your team, but not at the expense of your own well-being. Make sure you put some healthy boundaries in place.

Encouraging entitlement: Supporting and encouraging your team does not mean over-helping, catering to ridiculous requests, or giving anyone special privileges. Servant leaders model the type of behavior they expect from their team members—without exception. The last thing you want to do is encourage an entitlement mentality.

Being a Better Leader Starts With You

We’re not going to sugarcoat it: Becoming a servant leader isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work, perseverance and—like anything else worthwhile—time. But before you can start empowering your team, you need to take a good long look at the leader you are today. Self-awareness is key, remember?

Check out our Leadership Growth Assessment—complete it for yourself and have a team member rate you. Then have an open and honest conversation about it. Doing so sends a clear message to your team that well-intentioned feedback is both welcome and encouraged. See, you’re on your way to servant leadership already.

Ramsey Solutions

About the author

Ramsey Solutions

Ramsey Solutions has been committed to helping people regain control of their money, build wealth, grow their leadership skills, and enhance their lives through personal development since 1992. Millions of people have used our financial advice through 22 books (including 12 national bestsellers) published by Ramsey Press, as well as two syndicated radio shows and 10 podcasts, which have over 17 million weekly listeners.

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