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Staffing Resource Center

To Serve or Be Served:
What's the Better Leadership Model for You?

Servant leadership flips the script in the workplace, promising benefits like increased employee performance, engagement, creativity and more.

The question is: Is it a smart leadership model for your business?

This article explains how to weigh the pros and cons.

What Is Servant Leadership?

Once upon a time, fear was a signal to run from a lion or some other danger, and that was pretty useful. Servant leadership shifts the traditional top-down notion of leadership, focusing on empowering employees and encouraging autonomy and innovation. While authoritarian leaders focus on accumulating and exercising power in an organization, servant leaders:

  • Put the needs of employees first: Servant leaders focus intensely on their employees and feel highly responsible for their individual successes.
  • Commit to developing employees: Servant leaders put emphasis on helping employees improve performance and achieve their goals. They look for new ways to help staff build skills and knowledge.
  • Prioritize social responsibility: Servant leaders often push their companies to make positive contributions to the community. They prioritize profitability, but believe social responsibility can exist in harmony with healthy returns.

The Roots of Servant Leadership

The modern servant leadership concept is attributed to an essay, ''The Servant as a Leader'' written by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. After a long career with AT&T, Greenleaf had concerns about the traditional, centralized organizational structure of most modern organizations.

Greenleaf expressed suspicion of leaders who used their power as a means to amass their own wealth and material possessions. In his mind, those leaders were much more focused on their own needs than the needs of their employees - and even the needs of the organization. He believed a more effective methodology was to make serving a priority and making sure other people's high-priority needs were being met first.

He stated, "caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built." But he took it one step further, believing that institutions needed to accept this same responsibility since, over time, institutions had become larger, more complex, impersonal, incompetent and sometimes even corrupt.

The Advantages of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership has its advantages, and advocates of this leadership style are often evangelistic in their passion for the approach. They tout the benefits as:

  • Service. Servant leadership is all about tabling your ego in favor of putting others' priorities first. It implies a more principled approach to leadership that inspires leaders to focus on caring about their employees on a deeper level.
  • Collaboration. Collaborative decision making is at the heart of servant leadership. Including employees in decisions that impact them as individuals and a group facilitates greater ownership among the team, and gives them tools to work collaboratively with one another.
  • Diversity. We tend to think about ''diversity" as hiring people from different genders, ethnicities, ages and backgrounds. But true diversity goes much deeper. Authoritarian leadership styles force even the most diverse teams to operate in the same way, week after week. New ideas and approaches are rarely brought forth, but under a servant leadership model, the group works closely together to explore new and creative approaches to problems.
  • Engagement and Productivity. Because servant leaders are actively involved in collaborating with their teams, many believe employee engagement rises. When employees feel engaged and connected to their work, they tend to work harder and produce more.

The Disadvantages of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership isn't all sunshine and roses. There are some drawbacks to this approach and skeptics point to some common problems they see in servant leadership:

  • Square peg, round hole. Detractors believe servant leadership simply does not align with successful business structure. Managers are there to represent the best interest of upper leadership, not the employees tasked with carrying out the goals of the company. To critics, putting employees first goes against the very nature of a hierarchal business structure.
  • Authority loss. Critics also look at servant leaders as something like overly permissive parents. When employees see their boss as an equal, it makes it nearly impossible for servant leaders to exert authority in certain situations that require a more dominant approach.
  • Slower decision making. Any decision that is made by a group takes longer than a decision made by an individual. Servant leadership can stymie progress if they are constantly getting input on even the most basic departmental decisions.

Is Servant Leadership Right For You?

Servant leadership isn't right for every manager or even every organization. This model would fail miserably in the U.S. military, for example, where rank, hierarchy and discipline are at the heart of the culture. Servant leadership only thrives in organizations with a culture that supports collaboration and a more egalitarian approach.

If you are working on adopting servant leadership as your style, you'll need the right team in place. Not every employee will thrive under servant leadership -- some people need a tougher, more authoritarian approach to succeed. If you're looking to build a successful team, consider building a recruiting partnership with a firm.

A strong staffing partner can allow you to focus on developing your leadership style while they handle the work of identifying candidates who will thrive in your culture and who will respond to a servant leadership style.