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Why Servant Leadership Can Serve You Good

In his essay 1970, “The Servant as Leader,” Robert K. Greenleaf first introduced the concept of Servant Leadership. Many thought leaders have used this concept to redefine and shake up traditional power hierarchies. It is popular among entrepreneurs, tech, and nonprofit leaders, and its proponents say it increases engagement and productivity. But what, exactly, is a servant leader?

Servant leaders, Greenleaf says, prioritize the growth and well-being of their employees, clients and communities over personal achievement or power: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”

So, how, exactly, does one become a servant leader? And when is the best time to use servant leadership?

Servant leadership has 10 main principles: listening, empathy, healing, self-awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth, and community. You can read more about the principles here.  

What it comes down to is shifting your perspective to one of service to your staff, your values and your organization. This occasionally requires you to relinquish power and to focus on potential, not productivity, of individuals.

You do this first by asking and listening. Ask your employees what they are passionate about and ask for their input. Work with struggling with staff to figure out what is not working on a structural, cultural and personal level.

Also, when your team talks, listen. Practice engaged listening techniques and view questions from your employees as growth opportunities for both of you—not challenges or interference. Your door should be open to your team, literally and figuratively.

Another practice servant leaders have perfected is trust. A servant leader builds trust by being trustworthy. They are respectful and inclusive. They act with integrity. They enthusiastically encourage those around them. And they are humble about their own roles.

If you are looking for a more mission-driven, team-centered approach, servant leadership may be for you. Servant leadership is appropriate at almost every leadership level. It is useful in building engaged and productive teams. And, servant leaders create other leaders, which is great for organizational growth.

However, servant leadership can lead to emotional burnout and difficulty seeing the bigger picture, especially when quick, unilateral decisions need to be made. In these situations, you may need to incorporate other styles into your toolbox.

To learn more about servant leadership, go directly to the source and check out Robert Greenleaf’s original essay. You can also check out his foundation for blog posts, resources or training opportunities.