Executive Master of Leadership Blog

Servant Leadership Style: 7 Lessons for Developing Leaders

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 2, 2018 3:40:17 PM / by Anna Montgomery, MPA

A group of people raise their hands to celebrate a shared victory.

“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.” Robert Greenleaf.

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Refined by Greenleaf in the 1970’s servant leadership came to be a widely respected and utilized style that is defined by a leader’s:

  1. Care for others
  2. Ability to set an example
  3. Commitment to uphold ethics
  4. Drive to support others to success

Servant leadership is a popular style in public sector and nonprofit organizations. The seven values of servant leadership include:

  1. Prioritize Service - help those with the highest need
  2. Share Power - don't reinforce imbalances
  3. Demonstrate Care - put others first
  4. Develop Others - grow the community
  5. Eschew Wealth - avoid accumulation
  6. Build Trust - listen and be follower-centric
  7. Create a Safe Space - embrace learning

1. Prioritize Service  

For the servant leader a drive to help the most vulnerable populations is ingrained. Just like a triage nurse determines the patient that needs immediate attention, the servant leader allocates resources to support those with the greatest need first. 

2. Share Power

Servant leaders want others to step into leadership positions when appropriate. Decision making is viewed as a shared responsibility where each person or group has a voice and the leader’s input is not privileged over others. Shared leadership attempts to equalize power differentials.

3. Demonstrate Care

In everything a leader seeks to achieve it’s important to show empathetic concern. Empathy is a large part of emotional intelligence. Demonstrating care is especially important and useful in healthcare as it impacts patient outcomes as well.

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4. Develop Others

Servant leadership is not about the individual’s power or influence but about the leadership development of others. Because empowered employees are more likely to take ownership of their activities and outcomes, success should be defined by the empowerment of employees.

Developing others is akin to delegating decision making, an integral component of the contrarian leadership style.

5. Eschew Wealth

Servant leaders are in their position to make a difference not accumulate money. Their career decisions are guided by the principles of service.

6. Build Trust

Without trust, those that follow aren’t engaged. Trust is one of four primary things that followers need according to Tim Rath and Barry Conchie. In their book, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow, Rath and Conchie’s research indicates that trust is the foundation of leadership. Leaders that gain the trust of their employees enjoy better, more frequent communication and engagement.

7. Create a Safe Space

Psychological safety is a vital part of functional workplaces. Amy Edmonson, a Harvard professor and prominent researcher, coined the term "psychological safety" to indicate the belief that a team creates a space “safe for interpersonal risk taking”.

When psychological safety is available teams perform better by learning from admitted mistakes. Some of the worst outcomes occur in environments where employees are afraid to share failures and take risks. Leaders end up in the dark over problems that can fester and grow.

In an article, Edmonson explains how psychological safety and accountability can lead to three types of environments in the workplace:

  1. High-Performance Zone - created by leaders who "allow for questions and discussions and hold their employees accountable"
  2. Comfort Zone - created by leaders who, "create psychological safety without holding their employees accountable for excellence remain"
  3. Anxiety Zone - created by leaders who, "hold their employees accountable for excellence without creating psychological safety" 

Whether building trust or developing others by adhering to the values of servant leadership any leader can enhance their style, bringing the many benefits of these principles to bear.

Topics: Leadership Styles

Anna Montgomery, MPA

Written by Anna Montgomery, MPA

Anna Montgomery earned her MPA at USC Price and is pursuing her EdD at USC Rossier.

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