CORPORATE ADVISE: Understanding Servant Leadership

Traditional leadership and organisational structures assume people at the lower rungs of an organisation are less experienced, less competent and ultimately less capable than those further up the line. And
06 Jun 2015 09:30
CORPORATE ADVISE: Understanding Servant Leadership

Traditional leadership and organisational structures assume people at the lower rungs of an organisation are less experienced, less competent and ultimately less capable than those further up the line.

And when you consider how organisations operate, this seems fair enough!

The problem with this belief is that over time, this hierarchical way of leading and structuring organisations often becomes firmly entrenched in the company.

This over time can lead to office politics, personal agendas (often at the expense of others) and a strict ‘pecking order’ that reinforces positional power.

This way of thinking and organisational structuring has been consistent in organisations for decades and is still widely evident today and is aptly represented in the remuneration structure.

The model, in effect, supports the premise that the employees at the base of the Company, being the most lowly paid, add to the profits (and salaries) of those in the levels above them.

Classic organisational structures look like the pyramid structure. It stands to reason on some level, as it is the people at the organisational helm who carry the most risk and with whom ‘the buck stops.’

This in itself is not necessarily the problem. The issue is that often leaders come to believe that those under them are there to serve them, to fulfill their needs and to help them flourish.

This is a short sighted approach to organisational growth and development. It’s dangerous in business!


Serving your people

Organisational leaders who share the ideas and profits with their employees, who make them feel valuable, develop them, serve their needs and reward them fairly and who treat them well are those who will secure the ongoing loyalty and commitment of their people.

These aptly named ‘Servant Leaders’ ensure their followers have the necessary skills, competencies and resources to do their job in an exemplary manner.

It is this approach to people and organisational transformation that makes those companies (not surprisingly) highly profitable – and thrive!

Whilst this is a significant paradigm shift from the ‘traditional’ way of doing business and leading others, the concept of Servant Leadership is not new.

First termed by American Robert Greenleaf, management consultant, writer and teacher, Servant Leadership proposes that the best leaders are servants first.

To truly promote the progression of organisations, communities and people, their focus must be on removing obstacles and challenges in the path of their people, to ensure their (and the organisation’s) smooth transition to growth and success.


Servant leadership

Over the last 25 years, Servant Leadership as a philosophy of living and leading has had major impact on a range of areas such as management, religion, organisational development and leadership.

Whilst in many church-based organisations, for example, the idea of serving others and looking after them has been a historical approach, it is gathering renewed momentum according to Greenleaf’s doctrine and guiding principles.

Greenleaf believed there are ten guiding principles are critical to the effectiveness of Servant Leadership.

When used, Servant Leaders around the globe transform not only organisations, but communities, societies, villages and families.

This, in essence, is why it is regarded as a philosophical and more ‘spiritual’ way of leading and living. And it works.


Practical applications

It has been well researched and documented that happy employees add to the bottom line.

Creating a workplace culture of support and encouragement, where people are encouraged to grow and learn (even if mistakes are made) are those Companies where people, and profits, soar.

Greenleaf’s model of Servant Leadership is especially well suited to empowering employees and giving them active and ongoing participation in their roles and involvement in their work – with key business outcomes being employee satisfaction and increased productivity and profitability.

By seeing themselves as the servant to their peers and employees, the Servant Leader’s aim is to fulfill the needs of others by ensuring their development and well-being in order to meet the goals of the individual, team or organisation.


Servant Leadership research

Results support that ‘the modelling of Servant Leadership by strategic managers can create organisational cultures in which Servant Leaders develop among lower level managers.’ (Journal of Business Inquiry, 2010 pg. 84)

Regarding personal characteristics of Servant Leaders, it appears that the most important are in the areas of wisdom, organisational stewardship (leaders look after everything under them) and altruistic calling (the leader puts the needs of others above their own.)



The Servant Leadership model offers favourable alternatives to a range of other leadership models.

This is as it concentrates on leadership behaviours that are both effective by developing those around them and growing the organisations in which they operate.

Current research findings indicate that Servant Leadership is applicable in any organisation and industry and indeed is positioned to give these companies a competitive edge over others.

What can you do to improve your skills in Servant Leadership so that you lead your employees, families, communities, societies and (even) nations in an exemplary fashion, placing their needs above yours, to achieve the common good?

Caryn Walsh is an International Business Consultant, Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker


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