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10 Characteristics of a Servant Leader

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While the pandemic upended the workplace as never before, it also taught organizations some valuable lessons. Leadership and its role in engaging employees came under the microscope. The 2021 Gallup State of the Workplace Report offers some compelling insights.

Nearly half of employees are looking for other work. It’s no wonder, given that only 20 percent stated they were actively engaged in their jobs. The disengaged individuals present the greatest risk of quitting. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that an employer who connects with their people is the best assurance of stemming attrition. That makes the concept of a servant leader so relevant today.

Retired AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf developed the theory of servant leadership in 1970, although its roots go back to fifth-century Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Essentially, a leader’s primary role is to serve their employees and give back to the community. Only then does the individual lead by example. The seemingly contradictory term is intentional.

Servant leadership embraces empowering employees by putting their needs first instead of that of the organization. This change of focus builds stronger employer-employee relationships by fostering trust and understanding. It also falls in line with what workers need. Employees want their employers to care about their well-being.

President Abraham Lincoln epitomized this concept. His compassion and empathy stand as classic examples of the servant leader putting others first for the sake of the nation. Lincoln relied on his moral compass to direct his actions to keep the country together during the Civil War. He was truly a servant of the people (though not necessarily ALL people).

Servant leadership differs from the traditional model by asking instead of telling. Accountability remains a critical component, but it is done in a human-centered way. The servant leader wants their people to be the best they can be while providing them with the tools they need to achieve these goals. It upends the conventional hierarchy by putting employees at the top of the pyramid.

Why Servant Leadership?

Employee and employer both win when management takes this leadership approach. The message is positive, which, in turn, boosts the morale of an organization. Another sobering finding of the Gallup report involved the employees’ perception of appreciation they receive at the workplace. When asked if they felt respected all day yesterday, only 6 percent of respondents believed it was the case.

Consider the impact of servant leadership. Best-selling author Adam Grant highlighted the benefits of servant leadership to employers and organizations in his book, “Give and Take.” Grant postulates that this leadership style is more effective at improving the well-being and productivity of their workers. It allows for better collaboration between team members by building trust.

Cultivating a people-focused culture encourages employee engagement and ownership. Individuals feel they are better able to achieve their goals. The improvement of morale is contagious for building a stronger organization from the ground up with less turnover and greater job satisfaction. A company also benefits from supporting the development of future leaders.

The Characteristics of a Servant Leader

Robert Greenleaf’s legacy continues with Greenleaf Center with its mission to raise awareness of the benefits of servant leadership. His book, “Servant Leadership: a Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness,” covers the 10 characteristics of servant leadership. At first glance, they would appear on any employer’s wish list of an effective leader. They embody soft skills that build upon lessons learned.

Listening

Being a good listener is at the crux of excellent communication skills. Traditional leadership often tells without taking advantage of the learning opportunities that listening offers. The servant leader must hone the ability to hear and understand what their people are saying while focusing on their words. This skill communicates so much to the individual. It is the first step toward building trust.

It’s a skill that goes beyond the workplace. It’s something that can strengthen personal relationships as well as employee-employer exchanges. It’s a lost art that deserves a spotlight to heighten its importance on all scores.

Empathy

People want to be understood. Employees need the assurance of an open-door policy where they can speak their minds without reprisal. Perhaps, this perception is even greater in the wake of the pandemic. According to Gallup, 70 percent of workers feel as though they are not thriving in their lives. About 43 percent experience significant daily stress.

The servant leader understands the concerns and struggles of their people. These individuals encourage inclusive workplaces where everyone is equal, regardless of their role in the organization. They also respect and accept the unique traits that their employees bring to the table. According to Business Solver, 90 percent of GenZ say they prefer working with an empathetic leader.

Healing

The characteristics also address the leaders as servants to themselves. To tend to the needs of others takes emotional strength and a healthy work-life balance. Therefore, the servant leader must heal themselves to better serve others. This self-care will help individuals empathize with their people and their struggles. “Physician, heal thyself.”

Awareness

Awareness includes knowing oneself. The servant leader has a keen understanding of their emotions, motivations, and goals. By understanding themselves, they can know what drives others. The trait considers it both from within and what is happening in an organization. It is a living and breathing entity, just like its people. That makes awareness a 365/7/24 task. A servant leader is a lifelong learner.

Persuasion

Persuasion is perhaps the starkest example of the difference between servant leadership and the traditional business model. The first four traits are building blocks for acquiring this skill and understanding its use. It’s not about demanding change. Its purpose is to convince others to act because the leader’s motivations are transparent. The end game is for the benefit of employees and employers as equals.

This characteristic often involves a diverse set of soft skills, from dispute resolution to problem-solving to critical thinking. It uses listening and awareness to learn and research the issues. It draws on empathy to understand the impact of change on others and bolsters the emotional intelligence required to facilitate open communication.

Conceptualization

Conceptualization gives the servant leader the ability to think creatively about an organization’s direction. It’s about defining a path and identifying the milestones along the way. A thorough understanding of the social fabric is imperative. It brings the other principles of servant leadership to the table, each building upon on another.

Listening and empathy identify the needs. Awareness provides the vision. Healing adds strength to the concept. Persuasion allows the servant leader to communicate their view and anticipate its reception with their team. It’s also a way to encourage ownership of the plan. By incorporating the thoughts and ideas of others, the employees have a stake in their success.

Foresight

Foresight allows the servant leader to develop the road map to the goal. It prepares for potential headwinds and worst-case scenarios. It plans for the unexpected with a thorough understanding of an organization’s strengths. All the principles leading up to this point provide this knowledge. The employer understands how the company can pivot in response.

The pandemic showed how critical this skill is as businesses had to shift gears in the supply chain, production, and the consequences of the meteoric rise of e-commerce. According to UN News, COVID-19 fueled a $26.7 trillion spike in global online sales. While no one could have foreseen the pandemic, the proverbial handwriting was on the wall with e-commerce.

Stewardship

When employers listen and respond to the needs of their people, they create a healthier work environment and better engagement. These outcomes set the stage for better job satisfaction. Every employee becomes a stakeholder, committed to an organization’s success. A common mistake that first-time managers make is micromanaging to the most insignificant details.

This unfortunate behavior is often a sign of insecurity. A rookie employer may feel that having their fingers on the pulse of everything happening on their watch shows they are a good manager. It’s not a harbinger of weakness if an employer delegates some of their duties. Critics will cite this point as one of the cons of servant leadership. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Commitment to the Growth of Others

Employees inherently want to do their best on the job. Having the opportunities and tools to achieve these goals is something many will identify as a deal-breaker for a job. Of course, it’s one thing to know what an employee needs. It’s another matter if the employer fulfills these expectations. It’s essential to circle back to self-awareness and emotional intelligence to grasp its significance fully.

A servant leader knows that they don’t know everything. They realize their limitations. It’s not a matter of not being capable. Instead, it’s a realistic assessment of their position and what they can do. That’s why these individuals will nurture others. They will support their personal growth because it benefits them. Surrounding themselves with empowered team members is a testament to their abilities as a leader.

However, it goes one step further. A leader leads by action. Employees who learn and, in turn, respect these employers will step up to the plate. They will put out the fires before they become infernos. They will know what to do without being told how to respond. These workers will do these things because they’ve taken ownership of the vision and will support it themselves with action.

Building Communities

The end goal of servant leadership is to construct an organization’s culture from the ground up to build a community. Their actions guide this development by setting examples, supporting everyone, and leading the team to a shared goal. Google is a classic example of this business model in action. Employees know that corporate leadership is behind them. The leaders respect their people and treat them well.

Gallup recognized five vital aspects to well-being that servant leaders can embrace and support. They include:

  • Career
  • Physical
  • Financial
  • Social
  • Community

The workplace has a central role in career and financial development. However, servant leadership can also support the other factors by creating a sense of community in the business culture. The most important thing to understand about this philosophy is that it has far-reaching effects that go well beyond the office.

How To Become a Servant Leader

Becoming a servant leader begins with understanding its principles and how they interrelate. It’s also essential to realize that each step builds upon the previous ones. It’s imperative to start with the first one and master one before taking on the next. Bear in mind that each action empowers the leader with the skills they must attain to move forward.

Therefore, it’s vital to gain proficiency in each step, as detailed by Greenleaf. Undoubtedly, awareness is the foundation of success. It forces potential leaders to look within, which is where the flame must start. The other parts are fuel for the blaze. An employer can view the 10 characteristics as a map toward a well-grounded, employee-empowered organization.

Interestingly, the guidelines are common sense. While they may seem to stem from a religious point-of-view, the actions are secular and matter-of-course. They involve attentiveness to the pulse of an organization. They encourage personal growth as well as that of the organization. Servant leadership empowers both employees and employers. Everyone benefits in the long run.

Final Thoughts

Servant leadership may have a seemingly archaic term. However, the theory is valid and viable for today’s workplace. Its relevance is more essential than ever, given the unintended consequences of the pandemic. It provides a means to empower leaders and their team members with principles that develop the necessary skills and build on them. The result is a well-oiled organization.

The difference between this model and the traditional business approach is that it seeds the ground for long-term success. It isn’t just about a patch fix for the current situation. It’s a long-term solution for an organization’s growth. It’s a road map that provides subsequent steps to achieve this goal. Organizations may find that it’s the best way to recover from the consequences of the devastating pandemic.

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