What is servant leadership? 7 traits of effective leaders

Great entrepreneurs understand the importance of creating the best solution to an important problem. But starting a business also means developing leadership qualities that attract talent and fosters a strong company culture they want to be a part of.

According to Deloitte, 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a “distinct workplace culture is important to business success”. Furthermore, 86% of employees who describe their company as having a strong culture feel valued by senior leadership (via CultureIQ).

So, how do you set company values that make employees feel heard, respected and motivated to do great work? This is where the concept of servant leadership comes in.

In this article, you’ll learn what makes a good CEO or founder, as well as the qualities and practices of a good servant leader.

Table of contents

An introduction to servant leadership

Servant leadership is a business principle that requires a leader to be more invested in serving rather than leading. Of course, the boss will still act in a leadership role, but will prioritise the needs of their employees over their own 100% of the time.

The idea of servant leadership was created in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf when he wrote an essay titled “The Servant as Leader”. Robert talks about following the desire to serve and explains how that diverges from a hunger for power:

“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

With this philosophy, employers must be interested in focusing on creating a strong company culture that breeds happy and motivated employees. Organisational growth, therefore, will happen organically as satisfied employees are more driven to perform at their best.

Qualities of a strong leader

Servant leadership requires putting the greater good of the company first. But in order to do this, you must take an introspective leadership style, look at your behaviour and adopt the right characteristics.

Some of the most common characteristics found in effective leaders include:

  1. Listening. Make a commitment to take what people say on board, and truly understand what they’re saying. This requires focusing your attention on what they’re conveying, and learning not to interrupt or “waiting your turn to talk”.
  2. Awareness. Having self-awareness means thinking about your behaviour, and the intentions behind your actions. It’s asking yourself, “how will this affect my team? What impact will this have on the company culture?”
  3. Foresight. Learn from past experiences, both the negative and the positive ones. Absorb the consequences of your past decisions, and always anticipate potential outcomes.
  4. Commitment. As implied in the name, servant leadership requires you to make the development and growth of those in your organisation a priority. This means investing in training and spending time with your team members on a one-to-one basis to ensure they’re happy in their role.
  5. Empathy. Great leaders have the ability to understand the perspectives of their team. Practically, this means putting your own viewpoint aside and trying to see things from the eyes of your employees.

These five characteristics are things you can start adopting in your day-to-day interactions. But servant leadership is about more than how you operate in your company.

You need to practice what you preach, develop new skills and adopt new behaviours that contribute to the growth of your team and your business. Here, we’ll cover seven of these practical methods that you can begin executing today.

Top Tip: Once you’ve adopted the qualities of a great leader, you then need to understand how to lead your team in a way that inspires them to perform at their highest level of ability. The best way to do that is to identify which type of management style works best for both you and your employees. To learn more, read our guide to 6 effective management styles to become a stronger leader 💪.

1. Understanding the power of empathy

Empathy is one of the most critical skills a leader can adopt. It is the ability to see something from another person’s perspective and to make a conscious effort to work with that person, or your team, to solve problems, navigate conflict and improve relationships.

But some business owners and executives often view empathy
as a soft skill and one that’s not as important to success as more concrete,
hard skills.

However, according to many studies, empathy is great for business, and is something that can, and should be practised and fostered over time. 

In 2013, Google performed a study called Project Oxygen in which they reviewed their current hiring methodology of prioritising excellent hard skills, in regards to how these employees then contributed to overall company success.

The results were surprising. They realised that expertise (i.e. a master coder) was the least important skill that contributed to success. The top seven skills were all soft skills like empathy and the ability to listen to the needs of others. A newer 2018 study conducted by Google, Project Aristotle, further supports these results.

Additionally, a new study found that empathy breeds cooperation in societies and in order for a business team to work together to achieve a common goal, cooperation is necessary. This is especially true in servant leadership, as creating a happy culture that leads to cooperation and unified achievement is a top priority in this regard.

To be a servant-first leader, you must make the well-being of your team a top priority. This includes acting on feedback, giving them room to grow and ensuring their mental and physiological health is taken care of.

Putting empathy into practice

To grow your empathy skills as a leader, start by writing down a few interactions you have with each of your team members throughout the day. This can be done in shorter chats or within longer one-on-one meetings. Really listen to what they have to say and try to truly understand their point of view. As you listen to feedback, ideas and concerns, pay attention to the following:

  1. How are they talking? Do they seem nervous, frustrated or excited?
  2. What are the motivations behind what they’re sharing?
  3. How will your response be interpreted?

Of course, you’re not a mind reader, so ask questions that will uncover the true intentions and motivations of what the other person is saying. Leave your own beliefs aside, and keep any assumptions in check.

There is a time and place for debate, but it’s also important to show respect, demonstrate that you’re listening and that you’re keen to understand what the other person has to say. Ask them to describe the position they’re in.

For example, one of your employees may be facing some personal issues and are having a hard time getting “into the zone” at work. From an outsider’s perspective, it might look like the employee is slacking, and even making mistakes.

You’re not going to know the truth until you ask. In this case, you’d want to organise a private, one-on-one meeting to ensure they feel comfortable sharing if they so choose. Start by reassuring them it’s safe to share when something is wrong, even if it’s in their personal life. If they do share, ask them how they’d prefer to handle the issue. For some people, work might actually provide a break from these issues, and taking time off isn’t the preferred solution.

Practice these behaviours to build stronger connections with your employees, and you’ll start to see firsthand how empathy really is great for business environments and organisational success.

2. Seek opinions and criticism

People often shy away from criticism. But being open to it is one of the fastest ways to find areas to improve – both as a leader and in your business.

Welcoming criticism has many benefits, including:

  • Increasing employee loyalty. The ability to receive constructive feedback shows that you care about what your team thinks and how aspects of the business affect them. It also allows your employees to invest in the company by providing feedback.
  • Creating a culture based on trust. When people feel comfortable about sharing their thoughts, it creates a more positive and collaborative work environment. Not only does it allow everyone to learn from each other, but it builds stronger relationships as a result.
  • Getting new perspectives. The insights you get from your peers and employees are priceless. You’ll uncover new ideas and identify problems you may not have seen by asking for feedback.

The fastest path to reaping these benefits is adopting the servant leadership mindset of leading by example.

The best place to start is in one-to-one interactions. People may not be open to providing criticism and feedback when you ask them on the spot. So, be sure to ask them to have a “think about it” for the next time you meet.

Furthermore, include it as part of your company’s mission and vision. Show your employees, as well as talent you’re looking to attract, that you value the growth of every member of the team. Make it clear that sharing feedback is critical to fostering this growth, and that feedback, both positive and negative, is welcomed and encouraged by any and all who wish to contribute.

3. Help your team grow

Speaking of growth, you must constantly be looking for ways to advance the careers and build the skills of those you attract into your business.

Not only will this make your employees feel more valued, but your company will directly benefit as a result. For example, you can provide financial training for those who are interested in accounting. As they develop these skills, they’ll become a better candidate for a senior financial position when your company needs one.

Here are a few frameworks you can use to apply this philosophy into your business.

Professional skills and competencies

For some roles, a certain level of training is required to be considered “competent”. While most new hires would ideally have experience in their chosen field, it’s encouraged that you also provide training for junior-level roles.

As a servant leader, it’s your job to help your employees grow. You want them to not only perform at peak levels within their role at your company but to set them up for success if they ever choose to leave. This way, if and when they feel it’s time to move on, you’ll be filling the world with skilled workers. When all leaders do this, everyone benefits.

If time permits, you can also create an internal knowledge base that shows your team how to practically execute on new skills. This takes a different approach to standard operating procedures, creating an “internal course” that helps employees level-up their skills.

One-to-one mentoring

As well as delivering the right training and content, great servant leaders act as a coach and mentor for everyone in the organisation.

For new business owners, this can seem intimidating – especially if you’re more familiar with traditional leadership styles. To ease into this practice, ask questions like:

  1. What skills would you like to learn more about?
  2. What hurdles are you currently facing in your work?
  3. What can you do over the next week or month to improve performance?

Offer to help them overcome potential hurdles and achieve their goals. Ask them what you can do to help, and create a plan of action with set milestones to ensure goals are to foster effective learning. Collaborate on this plan to make sure they’re on the right path.

Top Tip: If you’re on the lookout for a mentor to help to grow your business and to get guidance, read our guide on how to find a mentor 🌱.

Company-wide knowledge sharing

As your company grows, you’ll build out new functions and departments to handle operations and overall growth. It can be easy for each department to fall into silos, especially when it comes down to knowledge sharing.

As a leader, encourage knowledge sharing between different areas of the business. For example, marketing leaders can share their lead nurturing and retention methods with customer success teams, helping them to foster customer loyalty.

Top Tip: Without a strong brand identity, you risk blending into the crowd. Your brand is how your customers and the world perceive and understand your business. Read more about how to build a brand your customers will love in our 7-step guide to building a brand 💫.

4. Foster the development of other leaders

There will come a time where, as a business owner, you’ll need to hand the ownership of various functions to someone else. If you have ambitious growth goals, that time may come sooner than you think.

As these roles open up, it gives people an opportunity to progress “upward” in their career. As your existing staff are familiar with the business and how it operates, it makes them prime candidates to step up and take on more responsibility.

Therefore, the perfect time to start developing their leadership skills is now. Here are a few practical ways you can do this:

  1. Show them how it’s done. In order to nurture strong leaders, you must first be one yourself. Your actions and behaviour will set an example of how things are done.
  2. Encourage decision making. Strong leadership requires the ability to make decisions. Therefore, when you ask for feedback or ideas from employees, encourage them to make decisions. The more decisions they make, the more they’ll feel like a leader.
  3. Praise them and show respect. Your employees are more likely to contribute and make important decisions when they feel respected. Show them an appreciation for the things they do well and show them they’re having a positive influence on how the business is being shaped.
  4. Learn to trust them. Of course, it’s difficult to empower employees to make important decisions if you don’t trust them. Trust has to be earned, but it also requires letting go of control. Put your ego aside and encourage autonomy among your team.
  5. Create a plan. Show your employees what they need to do to become a leader. Create a clear roadmap, and make it part of your training and development scheme.

Top Tip: Creating and sharing a transparent vision for every aspect of your business will help to minimise confusion and streamline processes on every level. Done right, a company expense policy will help your employees know how to best spend company money appropriately—saving you tons of time and energy in the long run and protecting your bottom line. Learn about the most common employee expenses a business incurs and the measures to bring them under control in our guide to how to manage employee expenses 🔑.

5. Persuade, don’t dictate

Leading through fear and intimidation is not only ineffective, but it drives people away. Especially the most talented, skilled, empathetic and synergistic workers.

You can’t force behaviour and change, but you can persuade people toward a particular outcome. However, it must be an outcome that is good for both the business and your team. This isn’t about tricking people into doing something that may be against their interests.

Persuasion, like any skill, must be learned. A good goal when it comes to leadership is to invoke a different or new way of seeing things. This can be done by showing your own excitement for an idea, or to share a story with an outcome that leads to the conclusion you desire.

When you tell a story driven by passion and care, it can change the perspective of those you’re looking to influence. Share your own experiences, paint a picture in the mind of your audience.

Although your story will be relevant to business, you can still inject a little humour and personality into it. It’s a positive emotion that can move and engage your employees, helping them to see the positive side of what you’re aiming to communicate.

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6. Practice humility

Don’t stray too far from your roots. In other words, remember where you came from. You’re never too important or “high up the chain” to get into the trenches once in a while.

This means emptying the bins when they’re full and your team are busy working on their projects, or answering the phones when your only customer support rep has fallen sick.

Again, this requires putting your ego aside. Humility is a common trait in servant leaders, and it shows your employees that you’re “one of them”.

Demonstrating that you’re on an equal playing field with your employees will build trust. And when people trust their leaders, they are more likely to feel incentivised to work harder to achieve set goals. This goes back to the principle of leading by example. Your team will see you’re making an effort, and in turn, they’ll make more of an effort themselves.

Top Tip: A great way to foster a sense of community and build trust is to participate in team building activities with your staff. As good relationships between employees are the building blocks for a well-founded company culture, you should consider regularly hosting team building activities for your employees, which you can do both in person and remotely. To learn more, read our guide to 20 brilliant team building activities to strengthen relationships and improve company culture 🌟.

7. Create a mission-led community

Your company culture is made up of the people you hire, the example you set and, most importantly, your mission.

Your mission and values are what feed your culture. When you attract people who believe in your mission, the company culture strengthens as a result. This fosters an environment that employees are thrilled to work in.

A clear mission statement will help to drive the company forward. It communicates the reason your business exists and sets clear expectations and objectives. Here are some of the ingredients that make a strong mission statement:

  1. Value. What value are you bringing to the world, your customers and your employees?
  2. Inspiration. Why would the best talent in your industry want to work with you?
  3. Plausibility. Your mission should be reasonable and achievable.
  4. Specificity. How is your business relevant?

Here’s an example from Patagonia:

“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Their values include creating the best product without harming the environment and doing more to make the world a better place. For anyone who’s beliefs aligns with Patagonia’s, this setting would be an incredibly inspiring place to work.

Again, this approach requires you leading by example. You must work toward your mission first. As you practice what you preach, you’ll attract others who want to be a part of it.

Top Tip: Find out why building community at work matters and how you can create a positive environment for employees in our guide to how to build a happy business culture from the start 🎯.

Wrapping up

Great leaders empower their teams with effective tools and show them that they truly care about their happiness, growth and success. You now know what makes a true leader, and how to become one.

The first step is to lead by example. Ask your team for help to show them that it’s okay to do so. Invest in your own career to demonstrate you value a culture of learning. Openly evaluate yourself in order to show the power of learning from feedback and foster an environment that embraces constructive criticism.

These are the qualities that separate a boss from a leader. When you attract the best talent that believe in your mission, you won’t need to tell them what to do. They’ll make sure they’re doing it themselves.

Photo by Helena Lopes, published on Pexels

Kerstin Reichert

Kerstin Reichert

Senior SEO Manager and SME marketing expert

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