There are many different leadership models in which the power is concentrated at the top, with the people underneath the leader assisting them in pursuit of their goals or those of the organization. That leader also directs the subordinates and their activities.
Servant leadership, however, reverses this dynamic. Rather than subordinates working for her, the leader assists them in meeting their shared, larger goals. She also considers how her efforts can benefit others and contribute to their growth and well-being. In other words, she acts as a servant.
Primarily, servant leaders seek to contribute to and help the people around them and communities they “serve” improve and grow. Rather than exercising authority over others, they work with people at all levels, including employees in certain situations, to achieve bigger-picture goals. They also assist their subordinates by nurturing their well-being, too.
While the idea is sometimes described as a complete reversal of the traditional hierarchical leadership model, that’s not exactly the case. The servant leader doesn’t actually “serve” her employees but rather works alongside them. Still, she will support and uplift them, which some may consider essentially serving them.
The idea of servant leadership has been around for ages. Some people even point to the Bible, calling Jesus Christ an example of a servant leader. However, the phrase was first introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” In it, he describes the concept in this way:
“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 an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
Since then, many leaders and organizations have adopted the model.
There are many principles servant leaders follow and qualities they have. They include:
There are many examples of servant leaders throughout history and in the present day. Time and time again, we’re seeing people embrace these principles and leading by serving others, no matter their industry or occupation. You may not agree with all their ideas or actions, but there’s no doubt these individuals display or displayed a deep commitment to others. Some prominent servant leaders were:
King wasn’t driven by his own desire for power but by a greater sense of justice. As the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he worked tirelessly for equality on behalf of others, often making personal sacrifices, such as spending time in prison, for his selfless actions.
Through her faith, Mother Teresa made it her life’s work to help others. Some continue to disagree with her controversial beliefs and statements. However, it’s still clear that she was driven by a sense of purpose much larger than herself.
There’s considerable debate surrounding the reasons behind many of Lincoln’s decisions as president, but the fact remains that his desire to preserve the country extended far beyond any desire for personal glory. Given his many accomplishments, including issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he is often regarded as a servant leader.
Servant leadership is the cornerstone of certain occupations and industries. For example, how often have you heard a politician refer to themselves as a “humble servant”? It may sound cheesy, but hopefully, it’s not just lip service. A good politician should seek to serve the needs of their constituents — in other words, working for the people.
Healthcare is another area where servant leadership should be exercised. Medical practitioners are essentially serving the needs of their patients and communities, no matter whether they’re a hospital director, a physician, a nurse, a physician’s assistant, a receptionist or a volunteer.
Clergy often exercise this type of leadership as well. In fact, much of the literature concerning servant leadership cites religion, particularly Christianity, as a basis for the leadership style, although anyone can apple the practices, regardless of their beliefs.
Servant leadership is not without its critics. Some argue that it’s still possible to support others without catering to their every need or making extreme sacrifices. In fact, many even go so far as to call it disingenuous, suggesting that it’s more about influencing people to do what the servant leader wants than addressing a higher purpose. They also note that the reality doesn’t always align with the hefty promises of growth and fulfillment these leaders often make.
Moreover, it takes a truly selfless individual to fully embrace this leadership style. There aren’t many people who are willing to fully relinquish control and credit for their ideas. It could also contribute to a lack of motivation in employees, who may rely on servant leaders to pick up the slack where they fall short.
Ultimately, most critics point to partnerships or leadership models that rely on motivation, coaching and mentoring while still directing as better ways to help people and organizations meet their goals, rather than relying on the promise of always serving others.
Of course, servant leadership isn’t the perfect model for everyone or every institution. It certainly has its merits and proponents. Is it right for you and your business? In order to decide, carefully lay out the pros and cons and get feedback from others, especially from those who will be affected.