Servant leadership is a term that’s been around for decades. While it can sometimes feel overused or outdated, I believe the principles of servant leadership remain as relevant today as they’ve ever been.
For example, a 2017 Gallup workplace poll found that roughly two-thirds of American employees are either not engaged or are actively disengaged from their work. Employees want their work to have meaning and clear purpose–and they’ll seek out positions where their contributions have a tangible impact. Implementing servant leadership principles helps employees feel more invested in their work, meaning the organization is able to attract and keep top talent.
Applying Servant Leadership To Every Level Of An Organization
At its core, servant leadership is a philosophy that places the needs of employees and teams ahead of the leader with the goal of fostering success. The term was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s when he defined the 10 main characteristics of a servant leader.
Today, I’ll look at three of these characteristics–listening, empathy, and awareness– and discuss how they play out in different levels of an organization.
The Executive Level & Listening
Listening is crucial at the executive level. After all, leaders who listen gain much more insight into pertinent issues taking place within the organization.
After listening and really hearing, executives can affect positive change by modeling the behaviors and traits they want to see in their organizations. Showing team members what you expect demonstrates that you are willing to roll up your sleeves and dig in as well. History’s great leaders–Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, for example–showed the world the change they wanted, proving the best way to create lasting impact is to walk the walk.
Middle Managers & Empathy
Middle managers are there to make sure their teams have the right equipment or facilities to properly do their work. This requires them to be servant leaders to their teams.
The best managers understand how to put themselves in another’s shoes. They should constantly be aware of the tools their teams need to be successful and cast an eye to potential roadblocks that would prevent their teams from agility and high performance. Doing so creates psychological safety among the team. Employees feel free to speak their minds, knowing their opinions and voices will be heard. When a middle manager flexes their empathy skills, it becomes much easier for them to stay in tune with their teams’ needs and protect their sense of safety.
The Team Level & Awareness
Employees can become unmoored from their organization’s purpose if they’re unaware of their own impact. This can lead to hopelessness and dysfunctionality among teams. Team members who can articulate how their roles further their company’s mission are better connected to the strategy of the organization. Furthermore, those who are aware of the purpose behind what they are doing gain the freedom to become more creative, allowing them to find better ways to accomplish the organization’s goals.
Remember, every job within an organization is created to advance the company’s mission. While it’s largely the duty of leadership to communicate an individual’s purpose, the individual should have awareness of how that purpose plays out in their day-to-day.
The Role of Servant Leadership in Agile
Servant leaders lead through influence rather than authority, and they earn the right to lead through their actions. Employing key aspects of servant leadership allows you and your employees to become more engaged at work and perform at higher, longer-lasting levels.
At the end of the day, these are important factors in any organization. But I particularly like to emphasize the benefits of servant leadership in an agile organization. As it turns out, the culture built through servant leadership is ideal for an organization trying to implement Agile or sustain their agility. Benefits like a tuned-in leadership team, psychological safety in the workplace, and engaged employees are vital assets in creating durable business agility.
Have you tested out any of the 10 characteristics of servant leadership in your organization? If so, we’d love to hear your stories. Share in the comments below!