How would your team describe your leadership? What words would they use? Supporter? Motivator? Director? Servant?
The concept of a servant-leader, while it seems like an oxymoron, is straightforward; servant-leaders encourage the development of their teams and prioritize the needs of others and avoid focusing on their own control and personal success. The concept of servant leadership was first described at length by Robert Greenleaf, who recognized that servant-leaders are often found in relation to spiritual and social causes, and include figures such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and Mahatma Gandhi.
However, servant leadership also has the potential to re-define business, because it challenges traditional hierarchical structure; rather than employees serving their leader, the leader serves the needs of employees and the organization.
Servant-leaders do not view leadership as a position of superiority, and they do not respond defensively to criticism. Through training, coaching, and collaboration, servant-leaders empower employees, who learn to creatively solve problems and be accountable. Servant leadership therefore encourages a collective and innovative approach to reaching organizational goals.
Why Isn’t Servant Leadership More Common?
Scholars have been analyzing servant leadership in business for over 40 years; however, as James Heskett, Professor Emeritus at Harvard, notices, servant leadership is not as prevalent as one might expect.
One of the key challenges in adopting servant leadership might be social concepts about what it means to be a leader. If employees, and leaders themselves, expect a leader to be dominant and authoritative—to exercise control—then other styles of leadership will be less readily accepted. But servant leadership is not about weakness or being a pushover; in recognizing the needs of others, the servant-leader is positioned to create powerful change.
Why Should Leaders Bother Serving?
According to researcher Adam Grant, servant-leaders are more highly regarded by their employees and more productive. This productivity is due to servant-leaders’ ability to build important connections and access new information that makes them more effective.
One of the other benefits of servant leadership is that it is infectious.
In emulating their leader, employees create a serving culture where they prioritize the needs of others and hold themselves accountable. This can be highly beneficial to any business that involves customer-facing work: employees who focus on customers’ needs, and support each other as well, can help secure and retain customers.
Servant leadership also greatly reduces costly employee turnover. According to the National Business Research Institute, sub-optimal relationships with supervisors is one of the leading reasons for employee departures. As well, the majority of employees would choose a new manager over a raise.
If servant leadership means employees have a higher regard for and better relationship with their managers, this can prevent valuable skills and knowledge from walking out the door.
Servant leadership is only one model of leadership, and it may not be optimal for all situations—if you are working with inexperienced employees, or in a repetitive work environment, a more directive style of leadership may be appropriate. However, if you are looking to support innovation, collaboration, and effective service, servant leadership can provide real return on investment.
How Can Leaders Learn to Serve?
To shift your style to include some of the practices for servant leadership, you can try the following:
Ask Instead of Telling
If you want employees to speak up, and perhaps prevent their leaders and managers from making mistakes, consider asking questions instead of telling employees what you think should be done. Then, (and this might be the difficult part) really listen to and consider the answers they give you.
The more you understand about your own strengths and areas for development, the better equipped you will be to serve others. A self-assessment in Emotional Intelligence, or a 360-degree review, may be a good place to start.
Provide Frequent Coaching
Use regular one-to-one meetings to discuss career goals, new learnings, and allow for two-way feedback between you and your employees. Employees perform better when they feel valued, so regular check-ins can provide meaning and context to tasks and develop productive connections between employees and leaders.
Provide More Non-Financial Incentives
According to Harvard researcher Ashley Whillans, a growing trend among today’s employees is towards non-financial incentives. Employees crave appreciation from their managers, not only through pay checks, but through flexible work arrangements, small gifts, or public acknowledgement of employees’ efforts. Strong recognition programs support increased productivity and lower job turnover.
Is it Time to Invest in Your Leaders?
A leader’s effectiveness depends upon his or her ability to connect with employees, recognize and affirm their strengths, and help them grow. Employees can achieve more when inspired by a leader that really sees them, appreciates them, and helps them find purpose. The benefit to the leader is a more engaged workforce, a more balanced distribution of labour, and a culture of service, accountability, and innovation.
Canadian Government Funding for Leadership Training
Fortunately, employers can access Canadian government grants to offset training costs and help more employees receive leadership training. If your business is seeking ways to improve employee leadership qualities, programs such as the Canada Job Grant (CJG) can reduce third-party trainer costs by up to 50-83%.
Training grants can support employee development strategy and help improve leadership abilities across your team.
To learn more about government funding programs to support workforce development, please register for an upcoming Hiring and Training Grants webinar. During these sessions, a Government Funding Planner will reveal top incentives and provide an insider’s look at how to optimize your training plans with funding.