The paradoxical idea of servant leadership brings to mind the phrase, “so crazy, it might actually work.” In the traditional view of leadership, service is the job of the follower. However, servant leadership puts the leader at service. In servant leadership, the leader focuses on servicing their followers; they empathize, nurture, and provide attention so that the followers can develop their full personal capacities (Northouse, 2013). Spears (2002) identified 10 servant leader characteristics: Listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, and commitment to the growth of people.
Listening involves the interactive process of communication between leaders and followers (Northouse, 2013). In the traditional world of leadership, we think of leaders as instructing, ordering, or ruling. In servant leadership, leaders listen first to understand and acknowledge their followers. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s position and see where they are coming from. This makes the follower feel unique and validated (Northouse, 2013).Healing does not involve mystical powers, however it does involve offering support to followers by overcoming their personal problems and caring about their well-being (Northouse, 2013). Awareness is similar to emotional intelligence in that it includes the understanding of oneself and the impact one has on others through being attune and receptive to one’s physical, social, and political environments (Northouse, 2013).
Persuasion, not coercion, is a servant leadership quality. Persuasion involves the use of gentle non judgmental argument, not force-like coercion (Northouse, 2013). Conceptualization and foresight are similar in that they both require a looking into the future. Conceptualization is visualization to help prepare for complex organizational problems, while foresight involves the ability to predict the future through analizations of the past and present (Northouse, 2013). Stewardship is when the leader takes responsibility for their role as leader. It requires taking on the responsibilities of a leader and holding the organization in trust for the greater good of society (Northouse, 2013). Lastly, commitment to the growth of people is a dedication to each person in the organization and commitment to helping each individual grow both personally and professionally.
Simon Sinek, a management theorist discusses what makes a great leader in this TED talk. Sinek explains why good leaders make their followers feel safe and secure which can inspire cooperation, influence, and create a strong bond. This talk really helps to illustrate how efficient leadership can be achieved by putting the followers first.
Servant leadership is successful when leaders truly believe and act upon a desire to make their followers successful, through being honest and treating them as partners (PSU, 2014). Sinek gives us a great real world application of this by telling the story of Charlie Kim, the CEO of Next Jump. Next Jump is a tech company, of which there are thousands in the US, but what makes Next Jump stand out is it’s policy of lifetime employment. That’s right, no one gets fired. ever. In fact, if your performance is weak, extra time and resources are dedicated to coaching and helping you improve. As a leader, what better way to demonstrate your belief in and desire to make your followers successful, than a no fire policy? This upfront honesty and trust given to employees the moment they are hired show how servant leadership creates performance and growth. Charlie Kim grew his company from a one man operation to a multi-layered corporation. Both Charlie and Sinek talk about viewing leaders and followers as analogous to parents and children. If our child brings home a C or acts out, we don’t fire them, we help them. This philosophy of not abandoning our followers as a leader, no matter what, instills a strong sense of mutual trust and respect.
Servant leadership only works when leaders have a humanistic philosophy and altruistic tendencies (PSU, 2014). Sinek talks about how banking CEO’s violated the definition of leadership, breaking the social contract involved by sacrificing so many of their followers during the recession, so as not to affect their own income. These acts of greed by leaders have been seen throughout history and have created a distrust and fear among leaders and followers. The banking industry will now have a hard time retaining hardworking, loyal employees. As Sinek says, “Great leaders would never sacrifice the people to save the numbers, they would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people.” This is an idea rooted from servant leadership, the idea of putting others first.
How does putting others first benefit the leader? Sinek tells us about Bob Chapman, the owner of a manufacturing company in the mid-west. His company was hit hard by the recession in 2008, losing 30% of their orders overnight. They were in a ten million dollar hole. Staying true to the model of servant leadership, Bob refused to lay off any of his workers. Instead of cutting jobs, Bob announced to the company that he would rather everyone suffer a little, than to have one person suffer a lot; and inducted a furlough program. All members of the organization from the CEO to floor workers were required to take a 4 week unpaid vacation. The trust that results from servant leadership (Bob not laying off any workers) encourages followers to grow as servant leaders themselves while maximizing their potential which in turn benefits the organization (PSU, 2014).
The workers maximized their potential, saving the organization, not ten but twenty million dollars. The idea of this trust encouraging followers to grow as servant leaders themselves was illustrated in what happened during this furlough program. The employees who could afford to take more time off, traded with those who could not, helping lighten the financial impact of their own colleagues. This natural development and passing on of leadership shows the long reaching influence servant leadership has.
So crazy it might just work. A perplexing theory such as servant leadership takes radical ideas like a lifetime employment policy, or employee-wide furlough, to illustrate how putting the leader at the service of their followers can result in ethical and efficient leadership.“When individuals engage in servant leadership, it is likely to improve outcomes at the individual, organizational, and societal levels (PSU, 2014)”.The servant leadership actions of Charlie Kim and Bob Chapman depict how the proper use of servant leadership creates trust, and inspires productivity; benefiting their organization, their employees, and those around them.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
PSU WC. (2014). PSYCH 485: Lesson 11, Servant leadership. Retrieved November 8th, https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa14/psych485/001/toc.html
Sinek, Simon. (2014, March). Why good leaders make you feel safe [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_why_good_leaders_make_you_feel_