Is Servant Leadership the Most Effective Type of Management?

The phrase “servant leadership” was first used by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf, a longtime director of management development at AT&T, defined a servant leader as someone who feels naturally inclined to serve others, and who then consciously aspires to serve in a leadership role.

This mindset, which directly opposes more traditional views of leadership that focus on accumulating and exerting power, has grown in popularity over the years. Today, it is considered by many to be the best form of leadership.

But is servant leadership really the most effective management style? Here, we look at what it means to be a servant leader, what servant leadership looks like in the workplace, and how servant leadership compares to other management styles.

What Is a Servant Leader?

Servant leaders focus on the growth and well being of their employees above all else. They consider themselves “first among equals” (rather than above others) and are willing to teach as well as learn. Servant leaders draw on the strengths of their employees and allow others to do what they do best instead of forcing a specific plan of action. They take equal responsibility for successes and failures, and are willing to step aside to let others lead when necessary.

Servant Leadership Qualities

In his essay, Greenleaf defines five key servant leadership qualities:
  1. Listening
  2. Persuasion
  3. Access to intuition and foresight
  4. Use of language (communication)
  5. Pragmatic measurements of outcomes

The first, listening, is the most important tool of a servant leader. Servant leaders must take the time to actively seek out the opinions and ideas of their followers, absorb what is being said, and then move forward appropriately. This builds mutual respect and shows that the leader is willing to grow alongside his or her followers.

Persuasion often has a negative connotation and conjures images of arm-twisting and trickery. That’s not the case here. Persuasion in relation to servant leadership means a servant leader uses his or her influence to point followers in the most beneficial direction for the team. They take various ideas and goals and combine them into one action plan that best fits a situation.

The last three qualities — access to intuition and foresight, use of language, and pragmatic measurements of outcomes — are less action oriented and more individualistic. They require practice and effort, and are areas in which a successful servant leader is always looking to grow.

Basically, these qualities mean that servant leaders gauge individual situations and respond to them in unique, rather than blanketed, ways. They are perceptive and go out of their way to effectively communicate their vision to followers. By asking questions, listening, thinking ahead, and taking every factor into consideration, servant leaders are then able to anticipate the needs of their followers and guide them toward an outcome that fosters growth, contentedness, and encouragement.

How Servant Leadership Affects the Workplace

A lot of literature talks about what an individual needs to do to be a servant leader. But what about the whole workplace? A workplace practicing servant leadership focuses on individuals and a decentralized organizational structure, according to Larry Spears, president and CEO of the Larry C. Spears Center for Servant-Leadership, Inc. It serves all stakeholders in the corporation, everyone from the managers all the way to the customers. When properly implemented across the board in a workplace, servant leadership emphasizes relationships over returns.

Servant leadership in the workplace means the qualities of a servant leader — listening, persuasion, intuition and foresight, communication, pragmatic measurement of outcomes — are applied in employee–customer relationships as well as manager–employee relationships. Employees need to stay connected to customers and industry developments, listen and remain receptive to clients, and practice empathy by taking the point of view of a customer.

When a company employs servant leadership across the board it can help the business run more effectively and efficiently. A good example of this is Johnson & Johnson (J&J), whose mission statement puts the needs and well being of the customer first. This means that J&J's upper management takes the time to serve employees and develop leaders who believe that what is good for the customer is good for business. That, in turn, motivates them to create products of high quality and value.

How Servant Leadership Compares to Other Leadership Styles

There is no definitive list of leadership styles. Some experts consider Daniel Goleman’s 2000 Harvard Business Review study, Leadership That Gets Results, the ultimate compilation. The study, conducted over three years with 3,000 mid-level managers, uncovered six leadership styles that the majority of managers use. The six styles, as well as examples of each servant leadership style, are:
  1. The Pacesetter Leader expects and models excellence and self-direction, sets high standards for performance, and is focused on doing things better and faster Example: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon
  2. The Authoritative Leader moves people toward a new set of shared goals, articulating where a group is going but not how it will get there Example: Martha Stewart
  3. The Affiliative Leader emphasizes the importance of team work and creates harmony in a group by connecting people to each other

  4. Example: Joe Torre, former manager of the New York Yankees (1996–2007)
  5. The Coaching Leader employs a one-on-one style focused on developing individuals, showing them how to improve performance, and helping to connect personal goals to the goals of the organization
    Example: Andrew Carnegie (mentored Charles Schwab, first president of U.S. Steel)
  6. The Coercive Leader (or Military Style) demands immediate compliance, rarely involves praise, and frequently employs criticism; leads with a “do as I say” mentality
    Example: Tom Coughlin, head coach of the New York Giants
  7. The Democratic Leader builds consensus through participation, draws on peoples’ knowledge and skills, and creates a group commitment to resulting goals
    Example: Dwight D. Eisenhower

In addition to these six, The Center for Association Leadership outlines its own set of leadership styles. These are based on Louis Mobley’s teaching that leadership is based in experience and habit, not intellect. Mobley was the director of IBM’s executive school in the 1950s and ‘60s, and taught that great leaders don’t know different things from everyone else, but they think in different ways.

The Center’s list includes the following six leadership styles, in addition to the Pacesetter and Coercer styles from above:
  1. The Charismatic Leader influences through power of personality, acts passionately, and spurs others to action through his or her own energetic efforts
    Example: Oprah Winfrey
  2. The Innovative Leader breaks established norms and goes beyond the usual course of action, creating a climate of innovation that encourages others to think in new ways
    Example: Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group
  3. The Laissez-Faire Leader takes a backseat approach, trusts others to do good work, monitors performances, and gives regular feedback without micromanaging
    Example: Donna Karan, of DKNY fashion
  4. The Servant Leader puts service to others before self-interest, involves the whole team in decision making, teaches, and accepts successes and failures alongside employees
    Example: Herb Kelleher, cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines
  5. The Situational Leader changes plans according to a group’s readiness and skills, and is directing and supportive as well as empowering and coaching
    Example: Pat Summitt, former head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team
  6. The Transformational Leader leads by doing and expects team members to take risks and give their best even when the going gets tough Example: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry’s

Lists aside, most experts conclude that the best leadership style is one that encompasses all the aforementioned styles — a combination style that addresses every employee and every problem in a unique way.

If that’s the criteria for building the most successful leadership style, then it could be said that servant leadership is, in fact, the most effective type of management style. Not only does it approach every situation as a singular event, but, as we mentioned earlier, it also challenges leaders to read between the lines, find ways to effectively communicate their vision, ask questions, listen, think ahead, and anticipate the needs of their followers. It’s a leadership style that encompasses the best aspects of the other leadership styles and boils them into one wholesale approach.

We agree with experts that every leadership style has its strengths and weaknesses, and each can be inspiring in certain circumstances. But while no person or approach is perfect, given the qualities displayed by servant leaders, we think it’s safe to say that servant leadership is one of the most effective approaches to guiding employees toward an outcome that fosters growth, contentedness, and encouragement.

This Information Is Not Legal Advice


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