The term “servant leadership” was coined nearly 50 years ago in an essay written by Robert K. Greenleaf; and since then, the business world has slowly but surely embraced this concept of empathy in leadership.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen top-notch companies like Zappos, Whole Foods and the Container Store publicly proclaim their affinity for this philosophy. And, in late 2016, Starbucks joined the ranks when it called its brand-new CEO a “true servant leader,” explaining that he embodies characteristics the company wants to see in all its leaders.
Servant leadership certainly seems to be growing in popularity, but it also continues to be quite misunderstood.
So, what exactly is servant leadership?
Some people see the word “servant” and mistakenly assume that servant leaders are slaves to their employees, pushovers who say “yes” to everything and are willing to sacrifice the company’s well-being to give employees what they want.
In reality, though, servant leaders are very much in charge of their companies; they just aren’t authoritarians who boss everyone around. Instead, they’re great listeners who are humble and empathetic — but still successfully balance organizational growth with these feel-good attributes.
In short, the “servant” approach to leadership creates the type of atmosphere that promotes both personal and professional advancement. Employees know they can speak freely and be heard — all while being mentored by a strong, trustworthy business leader.
Not surprisingly, servant leadership results in high engagement, low turnover and even increased returns. Further, it builds a positive reputation around brands, and that attracts top talent. According to a 2015 Accenture survey, 60 percent of graduating college students who participated said they were willing to accept a lower salary if that meant the chance to work in a terrific environment. This is why you see companies like Zappos and Starbucks going out of their way to tell the world they follow this philosophy.
Here are three servant leadership techniques you can begin using today that will help you retain employees:
1. Show your face.
Regardless of how busy you are, find time to be present with your employees outside of companywide meetings and performance reviews. A Gallup study revealed that engaged leaders are 59 percent more likely to have engaged teams.
I love sitting in on my team’s brainstorming sessions. This is something Bill Gates did as a young leader, joining Microsoft programmers as they conceptualized many of the products that make the company what it is today.
When I join my own company’s brainstorming sessions, I make sure employees know I’m not there to drive the conversation. I tell them I’m there to listen with an open mind and provide input only when absolutely necessary. If they have any questions about how their ideas fit into the company’s big-picture goals, I’m happy to chime in and let them know. Otherwise, I’m a passive observer.
2. Facilitate, don’t micromanage.
There’s a fine line between being a facilitator and being a micromanager, and it’s a line that can be very easy to cross. Everyone knows micromanaging is an unhealthy leadership style that ends up hurting employees and companies, but at the same time, leaders don’t want their team members to feel that they’re stranded on an island without any guidance.
When I find myself wanting to jump in and micromanage my team through a tough scenario, I remind myself that mistakes are part of the journey and provide some of the best opportunities for learning and growth. If the team takes a wrong turn, there will be knowledge gained that makes the detour worthwhile. Humility is also a key element here.
Once you’re comfortable with the fact that you don’t know everything, it’s easy to take a step back and let the experts on your staff handle the decision-making.
Don’t go completely mute, though. According to this 2014 infographic, 65 percent of employees desire more feedback from their leaders. This is where being a facilitator comes in handy. See yourself as a resource they can turn to as they run with their ideas. Help them with strategic input, empower them to take action and then get out of their way. According to The Elements of Great Managing, a book published by Gallup, companies that empower their employees experience 50 percent higher customer loyalty.
3. Serve everyone’s strengths, and make it personal.
Your tendency might be to focus your servant leadership toward inexperienced or underperforming employees, your assumption being that they are the ones who will benefit from your attention the most. However, as entrepreneur and business coach Jim Rohn said, “A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.”
In other words, servant leaders serve their entire staffs — even the top performers who seem to have it all figured out. Commit to providing tools, resources and guidance that betters everyone’s skills, because everyone can stand to improve.
For me, a key element to servant leadership is helping employees improve as human beings, not just as professionals. The more they grow their own unique personal capabilities, the more they can bring to the professional table. One of my company’s core values is “People Over Profit.” We spend a lot of time and energy during our recruitment process identifying candidates’ personal strengths and interests.
By the time they’re hired, we’re ready to help them grow in ways that are relevant to them — not just us — and this keeps them engaged with their work. According to a Gallup poll, when employees feel that they are leveraging their personal strengths on a daily basis, they are 15 percent less inclined to leave their jobs.
The best leaders in the world aren’t know-it-alls who walk high above their subordinates; they’re humble servants who understand that companies can only thrive if their employees feel fulfilled.
By becoming a servant leader, you create a positive work environment that attracts and retains great talent that accomplishes great things
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