The Defining Characteristics of Servant Leadership

Think back to the best boss you’ve ever had. What qualities set them apart from the rest? Did they show confidence in their decisions and consideration for how they affected others? Did they strive to gain understanding about difficult situations rather than simply reacting? Did they put a high priority on helping you develop in your career? If you answered yes to these questions, you likely had a boss who was a servant leader.

It’s no surprise that effective leadership is one of the most significant forces affecting job satisfaction and success for employees. And the best leaders are the ones who truly seek to “serve” the people they lead—a defining characteristic that builds employees’ trust and dedication and can also have a significant impact on other important workforce management factors like employee retention and engagement.

In fact, a survey conducted by BambooHR showed that 44% of participants said “a bad boss has been the primary reason they have left a job.” Furthermore, a Gallup study found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree that there is someone at work who encourages their development and only 21% of employees strongly agree their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.

Employees and companies alike flourish under servant leadership and those that embrace a “servant” mentality in the way they lead their people, as well as the way they interact with customers, will prosper.

Servant Leadership Defined
The concept of servant leadership has roots in ancient philosophies dating back as far as sixth-century B.C. Chinese philosopher and writer Laozi. In his seminal text, Tao Te Ching, he wrote:

“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.

Next comes one whom they love and praise.

Next comes one whom they fear.

Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When you are lacking in faith,

Others will be unfaithful to you.

The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.

When his task is accomplished and things have been completed,

All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’”

The coining of the term “servant leadership” and the modern definition of the concept, however, is often attributed to consultant and author Robert K. Greenleaf. In a 1970 essay, he explains the concept as:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them, there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

Though separated by millennia, the two definitions hit on several key concepts that have stood the test of time in defining servant leadership.

  • Self-awareness
    “Self-awareness is our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.” – Stephen Covey

    A strong sense of self is essential to servant leadership. True servant leaders possess a quiet confidence in their own beliefs and abilities, allowing them to better focus on the people they lead. Their actions aren’t driven by ego or “what’s in it for me?” They are more concerned with “what’s in it for them?”

  • Empathy and understanding
    “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

    This is a characteristic of servant leadership that can’t be faked. The best leaders take a genuine and vested interest in the people they lead and consider the impact their actions and decisions carry. Employees who work for an empathetic leader know their concerns are not falling on deaf ears and trust that they’ll seek to understand a situation before acting.

  • Develops and empowers others
    “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams

    Perhaps the cornerstone of servant leadership, the desire to develop and empower the people they lead is a key characteristic that builds trust and devotion for great leaders. When employees know their career goals are understood and have a boss who actively helps them achieve those goals, increased engagement, productivity, and retention will follow.

What are some examples of servant leadership you’ve experienced in your career? How do you strive to be a servant leader yourself? Let us know in the comments section below.

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