Business Bites: What is servant leadership?

Nick Walsh FBDO
ABDO sector skills development officer

A servant leader provides a service to their people

As the pandemic continues to affect us all — individually, organisationally and societally – we have to find new ways of working.

Normal business concerns are overlaid by added challenges, including different ways of operating, keeping staff safe and handling sickness, layoffs, furloughs and loss of income.

Wider societal impacts include adverse effects on the global economy. This all calls for a more comprehensive, communal leadership approach – leadership that is focused on serving others.

Traditional vs. servant leadership

In traditional leadership, the leader encourages people to do their jobs by providing them with guidance, direction and motivation. The focus of a traditional leader is to improve the business position of the company or the organisation in the market.

In servant leadership, the leader’s main goal and responsibility is to provide service to their people. A servant leader focuses on the people directly below them, rather than the company as a whole. The servant leader ensures that the followers are growing in all areas — their profession, knowledge, autonomy and even their health and physical development.

In their Forbes article, ‘Why servant leadership is more important than ever’, Palena Neale suggests that the servant leader is not a sole leader with power, but rather a power-sharer. They put other people’s needs above their own and enable their team to grow, develop and perform to the best of their ability.

Neale tells us: “This global pandemic is a time of unprecedented challenge, and a time when servant leadership is more important than ever before. Service before self is paramount.”

10 characteristics of servant leadership*

1. Listening
Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and decision making skills. Although these are also important skills for the servant leader, the servant leader listens receptively to what is being said and unsaid. Listening, coupled with periods of reflection, is essential to the growth and well-being of the servant leader.

2. Empathy
The servant leader strives to understand and empathise with others. People need to be accepted and recognised for their special and unique spirits. The most successful servant leaders are those who have become skilled empathetic listeners. Understand how others see the world.

3. Healing
The healing of relationships is a powerful force for transformation and integration. One of the great strengths of servant leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and one’s relationship to others. Acknowledge when relationships need work.

4. Awareness
General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant leader. Awareness helps one in understanding issues involving ethics, power and values. What’s not working? Where are internal politics an issue?

5. Persuasion
Another characteristic of servant leaders is reliance on persuasion, rather than on one’s positional authority, in making decisions within an organisation. The servant leader seeks to convince others, rather than coerce compliance. The servant leader is effective at building consensus within groups. They convince, influence and inspire.

6. Conceptualisation
Servant leaders seek to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams. The ability to look at a problem or an organisation from a conceptualising perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. For many leaders, this is a characteristic that requires discipline and practice. Servant leaders are called to seek a delicate balance between conceptual thinking and a day-to-day operational approach.

7. Foresight
Closely related to conceptualisation, the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation is hard to define, but easier to identify. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future.

8. Stewardship
Peter Block is a well respected author and expert in organisational development. He defines stewardship as: “Holding something in trust for another”. Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others. Prepare for times to come.

9. Commitment to the growth of people
The servant leader is deeply committed to the growth of every individual within his or her organisation. The servant leader recognises the tremendous responsibility to do everything in his or her power to nurture the personal and professional growth of employees and colleagues.

10. Building community
The servant leader senses that much has been lost in recent human history because of the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives. This awareness causes the servant leader to seek to identify some means for building community among those who work within a given institution.

*Source: Spears LC. Character and servant leadership: ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders. The Journal of Virtues & Leadership 2010 1;1:25-30.

Next time in Business Bites, Nick Walsh will look at the serious business of enjoyment in work.