Servant Leadership in the Modern Workplace

Last modified 18 July 2024
Leadership, Organisations & Culture
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Servant Leadership in the Modern Workplace

Servant leadership has been practiced since time immemorial, but the term wasn’t officially coined until 1970 by Robert Greenleaf. Known as the founder of the modern servant leadership movement, Greanleaf’s essay ‘The Servant as Leader’ has influenced countless leaders since its publication.

In servant leadership, the power pyramid is inverted to put the needs of those reporting to you over the needs of yourself as their leader. That contrasts with traditional leadership, which puts the leader at the top of the pyramid. In practicing servant leadership, the emphasis is placed on collaboration, trust, empathy and growth.

Servant leadership is particularly popular in industries which rely on highly skilled personnel. More than that, though, it engenders a social consciousness within organisations. If the overriding principle of servant leadership is that the senior staff exist to serve the needs of others, it follows that the company looks towards the needs of the community. In socially aware times, servant leadership may help a company establish their brand as ethical and authentic.

The following five servant leadership principles are particularly relevant in the modern workplace, and can help to transform a leaders approach to how they serve the people they lead.

1. Empathy

The ability to understand others is essential to servant leadership. The servant leader accepts their employees as individuals, which helps them to effectively meet their needs. Everybody in a business brings a unique perspective to the table, and sending the message that each of those perspectives is valued and each individual matters is part of the way in which servant leaders put the needs of their employees first.

2. Awareness

A servant leader practices awareness of those around them as well as self-awareness. Awareness of others goes hand in hand with empathy, but is more proactive. Leaders are aware of their employees as individuals and anticipate their needs. They’re also aware of how they themselves are perceived and how that affects others. A servant leader might take steps to improve their own communication skills or approachability by implementing an open-door policy.

3. Humility

Humility is one of the hardest things for a leader to learn, but one of the most essential in servant leadership. Servant leaders acknowledge that the skills and input of their staff are just as essential to the working of the company as their own.

This is especially true in knowledge-based companies, where individual employees may well have specialist skills which are hard to replace. But even in business models which utilise less skilled workers, each of those workers brings something unique with them.

Leaders who don’t presume that they know best are also more likely to invest in their employees’ training and growth. It’s a self-perpetuating attitude that ensures that employees really are essential to the business and justifies the humility that helped to bring that situation about.

4. Persuasion

A servant leader doesn’t order their employees to do things, they persuade them. The late Steve Jobs was known for his powers of persuasion, which allowed him to convince people to do things they considered impossible. He did so by utilising classical methods of persuasion, including switching persuasive strategies when the circumstance called for it.

At the heart of servant leadership is the idea that the leader doesn’t automatically have authority over their employees. They can’t, therefore, order them to do something ‘just because’. That’s where persuasion becomes important. With mutual trust and respect between the parties, persuasion works to help employees see what’s important and motivate them to work hard on their own initiative.

5. Authenticity

In servant leadership, the leader acts as a role model rather than a dictator. That means that they act with integrity and transparency in all things. The servant leader encourages their employees to respect them not because of their title but because of who they are and how they act.

Part of that role modelling comes from authenticity. A servant leader admits it when there’s a gap in their knowledge and asks for help. If they’re in possession of confidential information, they may tell their staff that fact without disclosing the information itself. By not pretending to play a role for the sake of maintaining authority, they’re able to gain the trust and respect of their staff.

What do you think?

Have you encountered a servant leader in your career? Did you appreciate their leadership style, or did you find yourself preferring a more traditional approach? We’d love to hear of your experience – leave a comment below to do so.

Read more: The Characteristics of a Truly Influential Leader

This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Robert E Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, IEDP, Memeburn and Modern Servant Leadership.

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*The Australian Institute of Business (AIB) is Australia’s largest provider of MBAs. Source Ready, B. (2023) Domestic Enrolments Surged During COVID After International Students Locked Out, MBA News. Available at: MBA News.

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