It’s easy to assume being in charge is all it takes to be a leader. But the truth is, great leadership is about influence—aka the ability to positively affect someone or something.
And one of the best ways to build influence is through servant leadership.
There’s a lot of talk these days about servant leadership—and for good reason. But what is it really, how do you do it, and is it an effective way to lead a team?
All you need to get started is a value-driven mindset. In other words, ask yourself: How can I add value to the lives of others?
What Is Servant Leadership?
When you break it down, servant leadership simply means you prioritize empowering and growing your team. You focus on what you can do for others instead of what they can do for you.
Robert K. Greenleaf came up with the term in his essay The Servant as Leader, 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.”
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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 their team, as well as providing real value for their customers.
Related: What Is Transformational Leadership?
Top 10 Qualities of a Servant Leader
Good news: Servant leaders don’t need a special degree, and it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been on the job. But they do need a unique blend of personal traits. Hint: They’re all attainable. Start with a hearty dose of humility and read on. According to an essay by Larry C. Spears, former president and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, these are the 10 essential characteristics of servant leadership:
- 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.
- 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.
- Healing: Remember that people are people—not machines. They bring their hurts with them to work every day. A servant leader recognizes the opportunity they have to help others heal.
- Awareness: Self-awareness, that is. The ability to really look at yourself—to really know your own strengths and weaknesses—goes a long way toward understanding the needs and behavior of others.
- 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.”
- Vision casting: In his essay, Larry refers to this as conceptualization. Basically, servant leaders practice dreaming worthy dreams for their business. They seek to accomplish a vision that benefits more than just their bottom line. They want to help the world.
- Foresight: Servant leaders evaluate the past and make decisions with careful attention to potential outcomes and how they’ll affect different people. Nobody can predict the future (wouldn’t that be nice?), but you can do your due diligence. Think about the kind of impact your decision will have on others before taking action.
- Stewardship: Your attitude toward money and material things changes when you view them as something you’ve been given to use for the benefit of others.
- Commitment to the growth of people: Believe that people have value beyond their work or what they can do for you. This is one of the central characteristics of a servant leader.
- Building community: Business owners have the opportunity to provide people with much-needed community by encouraging genuine connection in the workplace.
5 Ways to Implement Servant Leadership
- Invest in team development: Most business owners would agree that team development is important—but it falls through the cracks way too often. Help your team grow by setting aside time and money to teach them valuable, practical skills. You could take them to a conference, have them watch the EntreLeadership Summit livestream, or pay for a certification.
- Seek out feedback: Act with empathy and practice your listening skills by seeking out input and feedback from your team. Invite people to share their honest thoughts and opinions about a new project, how the business could improve, or what would make them feel more fulfilled in their role.
- Leverage each team member’s strengths: Most companies just expect people to fill a cookie-cutter job description. But what if you started tailoring responsibilities to your team’s strengths and passions? Yes, the job needs to get done, but people don’t have to be mindless cogs in a wheel. In fact, research shows that strength-based team development can increase profit by up to 29%.1
- Delegate: Help your team grow into servant leaders too! Delegate responsibilities and empower them to make decisions. We know delegation can get tricky because you don’t want people to bite off more than they can chew. Check out this podcast episode where Dave explains the do’s and don’ts of delegation so you can get it right in your business.
- Remove distractions during conversations: Be all-in when you’re having a meeting or a one-on-one. Listen actively when someone is speaking and try to understand. To serve others you have to become aware of their needs—which means you have to do a lot of listening. So close the laptop, put your phone away, and make some eye contact for goodness’ sake! Okay, end rant.
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. Case in point: Putting employees first at Southwest Airlines has resulted in more than 35 years of success.
And 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 13%)2. They’re also more innovative and 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 another 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 team members who trust each other and their leaders can’t help but strengthen the culture (and increase efficiency too). Oh, and by the way, trusted team members make incredible future leaders.
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. Start by looking for ways to empower your team. This Leadership Growth Assessment can help you evaluate a team member’s strengths and weaknesses and guide you through a few steps to help them grow.
See, you’re on your way to servant leadership already!