When thinking about the definition of a servant, one may think of a butler. Perhaps a person who is destined to wait on other people. Maybe a person who is lesser then a king and is made to wait on others. Or, maybe a person who is devoted to their religion and is a servant to God. Maybe a parent as a servant to children? But, what about a servant leader? Does anything pop to mind? When I begin thinking of a servant leader, I instantly think of a leader who is devoted to their followers. A leader who is there for them, start to finish, and wants to help them succeed in the best way possible. This is pretty much what servant leadership is. The theory believes that as people grow older, they also become more servant-like. Basically, as a person matures, they value helping others succeed much more (Williams, 2018). Servant leadership is a theory that allows the leader to take responsibility for the group, but also puts focus on how the leader develops their followers. The idea is that if a leader builds up the followers well enough, they will be productive without the leader (Williams, 2018). In servant leadership, there are ten traits that are typically present. They are as followed (Northouse, p.227, 2013):
- Commitment to the growth of people
- Building community
As a leader, these traits are important, but they are more important in servant leadership, because a servant leader must possess these characteristics in order to produce productive followers.
To dive in deeper into these traits, I think the best example of a servant leader is a parent. I am a parent of two children, one who is 3, and one who is 6 months. The oldest is a boy, named Dawson, the youngest is a girl, named Emma. Being a parent is absolutely hands down the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I am in servant leadership mode, all the time. As a parent to two young, impressionable children, I have to be a leader they can look up too. Which means I have to listen. I have to listen to their needs, before I explain what I need from them. Being a 3 year old is challenging; no one understands you, but thinks they do, and everyone is always telling you what to do. To be a better leader and a better parent, listening to what Dawson is trying to tell me first, is helping me understand his viewpoint and his needs (Northouse, p. 227, 2013).
Secondly, empathy is incredibly important in servant leadership. To be empathetic, one must be able to stand in another person’s shoes and understand where they are coming from (Northouse, p. 227, 2013). As a parent, it benefits me greatly if I can make Dawson feel like I understand his feelings. I try to, as I know it can be so overwhelming seeing the world from his vantage point. Being empathetic shows Dawson that I care and he can trust me with his feelings.
Thirdly, and also really important as a parent, is the trait of healing. Healing is defined as caring about the health and wellness of the followers. It’s important to care about the wholeness of your followers, as it shows that their leader cares about them, which in turn makes followers happy (Northouse, p. 228, 2013). As a parent, I have to ensure my children are happy, healthy, and whole. If they are doing well, they are more willing to listen to me, to learn, and to adventure. They are better little humans, when they are whole. The better the followers feel, the more they will be able to complete things on their own, allowing the leader to work on other things (Williams, 2018).
The last 6 traits, as listed above as well, are awareness, persuasion, conceptualizations, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community (Northouse, p.228, 2013). A servant leader and a parent should be aware of the situation they put themselves in, as well as the situation their followers are in. For example, if I took Dawson to preschool, I need to be able to gain a sense of awareness of how to help him through that transition, as well as the impact this could have on him. Persuasion would also come in to this scenario, as I may have to persuade him to stay at preschool to learn and grow, which he may not want to do. Being able to persuade is a skill that makes a great leader as it shows that one is capable of convincing their followers to do something that may need to be done. Conceptualization helps the followers see the bigger picture of things, or long-term goals. As a parent, my child may not want to attend school and think it’s “stupid.” However, it is my job to show him that school will give him the abilities he needs to conquer the world; I need to conceptualize the idea for him so he understands it better and agrees to attend school. Foresight is the leaders ability to predict the future and anticipate what could be happening in a situation. Again, if Dawson was just starting preschool, I would need to anticipate the support he may need to be successful in school. This would make me a better leader/parent as I can be there for him before he even asks. Stewardship involves taking responsibility for the situation; if Dawson acts out at preschool, I need to take responsibility for him as his parent and correct the action. Second to last, is commitment to the growth of people. Servant leaders are designed to help each person grow in personal and professional ways. As a parent, it is my job to ensure my children are growing into their skins, becoming confident and learning the skills the need to be successful in the world. Last but not least is building community. The servant leader is suppose to build a community of support around them and their followers, so they are always in an environment where they feel their best. As a parent, I have to make sure Dawson and Emma are surrounded by people who love them and want what is best for them. If they are in a community that will take care of them, then they are destined to be successful (Northouse, p.229, 2013).
As you can see, servant leadership is a theory of leadership that can be used for a lot of examples in life. The traits that are present in this theory are not just for this theory or just for leadership. The traits and characteristics are what make a great leader but also an upstanding citizen, which in my humble opinion, is important. You can’t be a great leader forever if you aren’t a good person first. To stay on with my example, I will know if I was successful as a parent/servant leader by how my children are when they are older. If they are successful on their own and are able to live a great live, I will know that I have lead them well.
Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: Sage.
Williams, Jason (2018). Servant Leadership. Psychology 485. The Pennsylvania State University.