The system of servant leadership embodies a decentralized organizational structure where the authority figure intends to promote the well-being of those around him or her.
- Servant leader is a leadership philosophy in which an individual interacts with others—either in a management or fellow employee capacity—with the aim of achieving authority rather than power.
- Servant leadership involves the individual demonstrating the characteristics of empathy, listening, stewardship, and commitment to personal growth toward others.
Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the term servant leadership in his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader.” Servant leadership is leadership that has reconceptualized the relationship between a leader and follower.
As a servant leader:
- You’re a “servant first,” focused on the needs of others, especially team members, before you consider your own.
- You acknowledge other people’s perspectives, give them the support they need to meet their work and personal goals.
- Involve them in decisions where appropriate, and build a sense of community within your team.
This leads to higher engagement, more trust, and stronger relationships with team members and other stakeholders.
In Robert Greenleaf’s book, Servant Leadership, he writes, “One great effect of the revolution of expectation among young people has been to force companies to try to make their work more simple to deal with the mounting complexities.
The existing chief executive officer may be forced to raise the immediate administrative group more to an equal status. And if one is to preside over a successful business, one’s major talent will need to evolve from being the chief into being the builder of the team.
Furthermore, if the idealism of this generation of young people persists, as I think it will, and as these young people move into top positions, they will insist on more determined efforts to provide significant and meaningful work to more people. This in the end will result in a new business ethic” (Greenleaf 1977).
According to Larry C. Spears, former president of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, these are the 10 most important characteristics of servant leaders:
- Commitment to the growth of people
- Building community
As we move farther into the 21st century, it’s important to note the ideals and concepts found in Greenleaf’s servant leader will become an accepted leadership style in organizations. Unfortunately, in many organizations, leading and managing are still discussed in terms of “them versus us.”
As organizations transform into intelligent network systems, the positive influence of leadership will reside more in the network of partnerships rather than in one single individual.
What is happening today is a fundamental change in the way leadership is exercised in organizations and institutions. It is more shared within and between levels and may have far greater potential and substantially less risk, as a consequence of it being embedded in networks versus any one individual’s office.
Today, we have flatter hierarchies, virtual information, enhanced autonomy, a more rapid pace of change, and a much greater need for interdependencies. Maybe the best example of each of these in action today is the firm ZapposOpens in new window, a workplace where no one and everyone is boss.
Zappos has adopted a system of self-governance that effectively has eliminated most, if not all, management. The system is call holacracy, and its central tenets include individual autonomy and self-governance.
Technical and social trends that are transforming organizations today demand a shift in attention toward understanding the “collective forces” of leadership, which are emerging in institutions at all levels. Yet we cannot neglect the individual, who remains a potent force in an expanded leadership system and/or framework.
- Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York, NY: Paulist Press.
- van Dierendonck, D. (2011). Servant leadership: A review and synthesis. Journal of Management, 37 (4), 1228 – 1261.
- Sendjaya, S. (2015). Personal and organizational excellence through servant leadership: Learning to serve, serving to lead, leading to transform. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
- Spears, L. C. (1995). Reflections on leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf’s theory of servant-leadership influenced today’s top management thinkers. New York, NY: John Wiley.