Servant leadership is a leadership style in which the leader puts the needs of the team or organization above their own, and focuses on empowering and supporting their followers to achieve their goals. This approach is based on the idea that the leader’s primary role is to serve their team or organization, and to help them grow and develop as individuals and as a group. Servant leaders are often seen as humble and selfless, and they prioritize the well-being and success of their team or organization above their own personal interests or ambitions. This leadership style can be effective in fostering a positive and collaborative work environment, as well as in helping organizations achieve their goals.
The philosophy of servant leadership was known to antiquity. For example, a similar idea is clearly mentioned in the Tao Te Ching, a text credited to the 6th-century BC sage Lao Tzu. The idea here is that gentle influence is more powerful than authority, control and pressure.
A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.”
~ Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17, Lao Tzu
The term “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay titled “The Servant as Leader.” In this essay, Greenleaf argued that the primary role of a leader should be to serve their team or organization, and to help them grow and develop as individuals and as a group. He proposed that this approach to leadership could be more effective and satisfying than traditional styles of leadership, which focus on controlling and directing others. Greenleaf’s ideas have influenced the development of the servant leadership approach, which has been embraced by organizations and individuals around the world.
Influencing Beyond Authority
Servant leadership suggests that a leader not rely on their authority to get things done. This idea completely transformed management theory in the 1970s whereby roles that rely on authority and control are referred to as management and roles that rely on influencing are referred to as leadership. In this context, anyone can be a leader such that defacto power within an organization is often difficult to identify. For example, a respected and brilliant software developer may be the true source of strategy and decision making for an entire IT department of a large firm as their ideas are so often accepted, communicated upwards and implemented.
Power Behind the Throne
The power behind the throne is an archetype of myth and history whereby an individual gently influences to wield great power without any formal authority. If this were done out of a desire to be useful as opposed to powerful and personally wealthy, it could be described as servant leadership.
Abundance mentality is the philosophy that their is enough for everyone such that the success of others doesn’t diminish your own successes and opportunity. This calls for a collaborative and supportive approach to leadership that is consistent with the motivation to serve. For example, a manager who doesn’t try to keep talent team members down as a threat to their own position but instead provides them with every opportunity to grow.
Humble leadership is the use of authority with a sense of humility to avoid the common traps of power such as narcissism, a sense of entitlement, the misuse of authority to support your own position and becoming out of touch with frontline realities. Humble leadership is essentially servant leadership by a different name that has dropped the idea that the leader rely on influencing over formal authority.
A flat organization is an organization with few levels of formal authority. This can be used to encourage servant leadership whereby everyone is forced to influence as opposed to using authority and control. Assuming there is a servant leader at the top, it may be possible to shape the culture of these organizations towards rewarding positive behaviors that serve goals over negative behaviors that serve the individual at the expense of goals.
Creative tension is disagreement that remains civil. Servant leadership should not be confused with a lack of assertiveness and avoidance of disagreement. To be clear, servant leaders are motivated by a drive to be useful and the use of influence over control. Beyond that, their style will vary with some charging into lively debate and others being more of a quiet voice of reason.
Change management is the practice of leading aggressive change that can expect problems. A basic principle of change management is that you sideline anyone who seeks to derail change and empower anyone who works to be useful. Servant leaders in a firm thrive where this occurs as power structures often try to obstruct change and get pushed out of the way to the benefit of anyone who is trying to be useful.