The term servant leadership is attributed to Robert K. Greenleaf in the 20th century. In fact, Robert Greenleaf is celebrated as the man behind the servant leadership movement. He strongly believed and encouraged the idea that the greatest of leaders are those who started out as servants first. His central idea was to challenge the orthodox leadership styles that were intrinsically authoritarian in terms of relationships between owners and employees.
To substantiate, unlike most leadership theories like the trait leadership theory that work on a leader-first perception, the servant leadership theory proposed by Robert Greenleaf offers a servant-first perspective. Leaders view things from the viewpoint of servants and that is how they go about conducting their leadership influence.
To further elucidate, the key features of the servant leadership theory are enlisted below.
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Key features of Servant Leadership
From the purview of servant leadership, organizational leaders at different verticals within the organizational structures approach challenges or crises on the basis of how a servant or an employee would assess the situation. Leaders incorporate the perspective of employees or subordinates before deciding a course of action. Having said that, it promotes inclusion in the decision-making process.
In organizations that embrace servant leadership styles, there is a more cordial and cooperative relationship between leaders and employees. The focus of the leaders is not on activities that enforce control over subordinates. The inclination is rather towards a more interactive and inclusive way of managing employees.
Leaders who believe in a servant leadership style are willing to empower their subordinates by playing a key role in their learning and development. Leaders are happy to participate in the growth of their subordinates. Employees feel valued, extend great respect to their leaders and there is a positive work environment driven by teamwork leading to high employee engagement.
In organizations that dwell on servant leadership styles, there is high trust in the organization which leads to higher employee engagement, higher retention rates, and high productivity. All these factors contribute to greater organizational success.
Going further, let us highlight the key attributes of leaders who are driven by servant leadership styles.
Key leadership traits of servant leaders
Servant leaders show great understanding of others’ emotions and opinions. They are empathetic in nature and take their subordinates' feelings and emotions into consideration rather than taking unilateral decisions. They value the significance of workplace empathy in terms of boosting motivation and engagement.
2. Critical thinking
Leaders who are aligned to this leadership style critically analyze all details before coming to any conclusion. Critical thinking leads to effective decision-making and for the welfare of the entire team rather than putting leaders above all.
3. Effective communication skills
Servant leaders are highly effective communicators who communicate strategies, vision, and key performance indicators clearly to their employees. This is for the reason that leaders want to communicate everything clearly to their team members to enhance overall effectiveness. They are masters at the 7Cs of communication.
Servant leaders work in close collaboration with their team members and also share power and authority with their team members. Not only do servant leaders collaborate effectively but also delegate authority to others for assisting followers to meet their self-esteem needs as per the Maslow’s Theory.
Servant leaders are also great mentors as they want to constantly mentor their team members for the overall growth of the team. They are ready to go out of the way to mentor their subordinates such that each of them grows individually and professionally.
A real-world example of servant leadership
Fred Smith leadership style analysis
Fred Smith, the founder, and the in cumbent Chief Executive Officer of FedEx Corporation is a fine example of what a servant leader looks like. In fact, as per Forbes,, FedEx Corporation is now the largest transportation and logistics enterprise in the world. However, the company's rise to the top can be largely attributed to Fred Smith's style of servant leadership.
Fred Smith has always put customers and employees first. To add, Fred Smith has always believed in constantly improving the efficiency of the company by enhancing processes. Fred Smith has always given immense importance to excellence in service. For that, Fred Smith has initiated cultures of mentorship, open communication, and employee training to make sure that all employees are aligned with the objective of delivering excellent customer service.
To add, under the fine leadership of Fred Smith, the company has developed strong diversity and inclusion policies to invest in employee experience and get the best out of a diverse workforce. The DEI initiatives at FedEx aim at connecting employees, customers and vendors, and communities together to offer great opportunities to all. Besides, there are some very thoughtful mentoring programs that have been introduced at FedEx in conjunction with Fred Smith’s vision. For instance, the Linc-UP mentoring program at FedEx has been designed specifically to help employees adapt to digital tools and advanced technologies that can add great value to their professional competence.
To add, in the face of every challenge or uncertainty, Fred Smith has looked at situations from the perspective of employees. This servant-first approach has helped him to keep teams highly motivated and engaged such that FedEx has reached an extraordinary level. Hence, the incredible success story of FedEx is a fine example for the world of how business success can be optimized with servant leadership.
How does Servant Leadership differ from traditional leadership styles?
Unlike traditional leadership, which often emphasizes a top-down approach with the leader as the authority figure, servant leadership flips the dynamic. In servant leadership, the leader sees themselves as a servant first and seeks to support and empower their team members.
What are the limitations of the servant leadership approach?
Critics argue that a complete focus on serving others might lead to neglecting the organization's long-term interests and bottom line. Additionally, some leaders may struggle to balance assertiveness and decision-making while adopting a servant leadership approach.