Servant leadership might sound like a trendy new idea in a time when being socially conscious is increasingly en vogue in the corporate world. But what does this mean for leadership today? And for their employees?
The term was actually coined more than 50 years ago by Robert Greenleaf. So what is servant leadership, exactly? Greenleaf used it to describe a type of leader who was motivated by the desire to serve others, instead of as a path to get more power, wealth, or prestige. Servant leadership examples are as diverse as Mahatma Gandhi and Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.
Does it sound like an old-fashioned ideal?
After all, today’s businesses must move fast and innovate even faster just to keep up with the marketplace. And profits are important – you can’t serve your employees without making money, or you won’t be able to have any employees at all.
But servant leadership is more important now than ever. Employees are looking for more than just a paycheck these days.
It is evident today because employees:
- especially millennials – want to work for a company that does good in their community, has a social conscience, and which aligns with their values.
- don’t want to feel like just a cog in a big, impersonal corporate machine – even if they work for a big corporation.
- desire autonomy and respect in the workplace.
And that’s where servant leadership principles come in.
Why Is Servant Leadership Important Today?
Servant leaders aim to serve their employees and their communities.
They don’t try to micro-manage their employees. Rather, they create an environment where they can thrive independently and are trusted to do excellent work. Servant leaders lean into the very human desire of employees to find meaning in the work they do every day, whether they’re a C-suite executive or a front-line employee.
Its principles put people first, not processes.
And in a time of rapid change and an increasing skills shortage, that’s more important than ever. Employees have a higher rate of turnover, and aren’t afraid to leave and get a new job if they don’t feel fulfilled by their current one. This can be costly for businesses, not just in hiring costs but in lost institutional knowledge. So ensuring employees feel valued and recognized is good for the bottom line too.
It also lends itself well to how we work today.
The days of 40 hours a week spent working behind a physical desk in a beige cubicle are falling by the wayside for many. Now employees are requesting more flexibility – in the hours they work, in the places they work, and in the projects they work on. And allowing this has benefits for employers too – remote work or increased work-from-home can reduce expensive office costs, and flexibility can keep high-performing employees from seeking another job. When you trust employees to do their best, they live up to that trust.
Incorporate Servant Leadership in Your Company
The core aspect of servant leadership is the development and wellbeing of people.
Here are a few simple ways to incorporate this philosophy into your own company:
- Have regular feedback sessions with your employees, and don’t forget to check in about their work-life balance.
- Recognize employees in a way that they value. In addition to traditional methods like bonuses, free pizza lunches and staff activity days can go a long way without a big budget.
- Ask your employees what they think – there are many survey tools out there to gauge how you’re doing as a leader and as a company to support your employees. And when you get that feedback, make sure you truly listen.
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