What is the concept of servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy based on the belief that the most effective leaders strive to serve others, rather than to accumulate power or take control. These others may include customers, partners, co-workers and the community at large. The term was coined by management expert Robert K. A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.

While traditional leadership often involves the accumulation and exercise of power by the one at the "top of the pyramid", servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform at their best. There have been several criticisms of servant leadership. In one such critique, Sendjaya and Sarros used the same biblical account as Akuchie and claimed that it was Jesus Christ, not Greenleaf, who introduced the notion of servant leadership into everyday human affairs.

They argued that this leadership principle was so important to Christianity that it was picked up by all four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The researchers argued that servant leaders have a particular view of themselves as stewards who are entrusted with developing and enabling followers to reach their full potential. However, Sendjaya and Sarros' research work did not propose a testable framework or distinguish between this and other leadership styles. Servant leadership puts the needs, growth and well-being of followers first.

In other words, these types of leaders adopt a "serve first" mentality and prioritise their organisation, their employees and the community above themselves. The servant leadership style is based on the idea that leaders prioritise serving the common good. Leaders with this style serve their team and their organisation first. They do not prioritise their own goals.

Although the idea of servant leadership dates back at least two thousand years, the modern servant leadership movement was launched by Robert K. Many researchers and theorists argue that servant leaders can become so focused on the needs of their followers that the needs of the organisation suffer as a result. Instead, the servant leader engages in a respectful conversation that demonstrates trust in the employee to make the necessary adjustments. According to researchers, servant leadership can be considered something of a universal concept, as it has roots in both Eastern and Western cultures.

Whatever the type of interaction with staff, servant leaders are consistent in showing encouragement and humility with an egalitarian attitude. During onboarding, after initial introductions, familiarisation talks and explanations of how things work, the servant leader should solicit the new employee's observations, impressions and opinions, Timmes says. The servant leadership style can increase the employee's motivation and courage to be more creative and innovative. Servant leadership practices appear to have an effect on the employee's life outside of the organisations with which they are affiliated.

In the literature on servant leadership, the use of social learning theory argues that servant leaders influence their followers as they observe and emulate the leader's positive behaviours. It is hoped that, if the advice offered in this review is heeded to address these issues, research on servant leadership can move forward and continue to offer significant insights to the field of leadership for the next 20 years. However, this conceptualisation by these researchers does not differ from leadership theories such as transformational leadership. Greenleaf describes servant-leaders as action-initiating, goal-oriented, dreamers of big dreams, good communicators, able to withdraw and refocus, reliable, trustworthy, creative, intuitive and situational.

Servant leadership is a mindset that reflects a servant mentality rather than a leader mentality. A servant leader can aspire to share power with others and foster the development and growth of others. Barter, who now heads the California-based Servant Leadership Institute, came to the concept by a circuitous route working for companies that did not follow his practices.

Jason Klingler
Jason Klingler

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