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'Leadership is Service': Exploring Servant Leadership and Its Impact

The idea that "leadership is service" is reshaping how we think about running businesses. Instead of focusing on authority, the Servant-Leader approach emphasizes serving and empowering others.

First of All, Why Is This Relevant Right Now?

Frankly, before you read any further, this is a question for you to answer. Though, considering your response one of the following first, might help you understand if servant leadership should be something you're aware of:

  1. Are you a business owner who struggles to retain staff?

  2. Are you an employee who wants to get out of a toxic management culture?

  3. Are you a HR or business consultant aiming to help businesses thrive?

Or, maybe you're interested in the concept of leadership and flipping the traditional concept of "I lead you follow" on it's head (if so you might find these leadership books useful).

If you answered yes to any of the above, this article contains information you're likely to find useful.


Let's dive in.

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a philosophy where the primary goal of the leader is to serve others.

This approach emphasizes the well-being and growth of team members, placing their needs above the leader's own ambitions. It's about empowering and uplifting those you lead, fostering a supportive and productive environment.

There are some interesting real-life examples of this in the modern business world from two famous businesses. We're going to look at those as we get deeper into the concept of leadership as a service.

One of the most notable implementations of servant leadership at Salesforce is the 1-1-1 model. This model dedicates 1% of Salesforce's equity, 1% of its product, and 1% of its employees' time to philanthropic efforts.

But, before we get to those examples, a quick history lesson...

Historical Background and Origin

The term "servant leadership" was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay "The Servant as Leader." Greenleaf's idea was inspired by his experiences in business and his reflections on the qualities of effective leadership. He believed that the best leaders are those who serve others, putting the needs of their team first and helping them grow.

The cover of the book 'The Journey to the East' by Hermann Hesse - a book on how leadership is service
Credit: Amazon and General Press

Greenleaf's work was influenced by his observations of leaders in various settings and his reading of Herman Hesse's novel "Journey to the East," in which the central character, Leo, is a servant who later turns out to be a great and noble leader. This story highlighted the powerful impact of leaders who serve.

Definition and Principles of Servant Leadership

At its core, servant leadership is about prioritizing the needs of your team and helping them develop and perform to their highest potential. The 10 key principles of servant leadership include:

  1. Listening: Truly understanding the needs and concerns of your team members by actively listening to them.

  2. Empathy: Connecting with team members on a personal level, showing that you care about their well-being.

  3. Healing: Supporting your team through challenges and helping them overcome personal and professional obstacles.

  4. Awareness: Being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of your team.

  5. Persuasion: Influencing others through kindness and reason rather than authority and coercion.

  6. Conceptualization: Seeing the bigger picture and thinking beyond day-to-day operations to inspire and guide your team.

  7. Foresight: Anticipating future challenges and opportunities to prepare your team for what lies ahead.

  8. Stewardship: Taking responsibility for the well-being of the organization and its members.

  9. Commitment to Growth: Investing in the personal and professional growth of your team members.

  10. Building Community: Fostering a sense of belonging and teamwork within your organization.

Differences Between Traditional Leadership and Servant Leadership

Traditional leadership often focuses on the accumulation and exercise of power by the leader. In this model, the leader’s primary goal is to direct and control their team to achieve organizational objectives. Success is measured by metrics like productivity, profitability, and efficiency, often at the expense of employee well-being and development.

While the traditional leadership model often functions well for most big businesses, there are also so pretty shocking examples of where it hasn't worked so well.

In contrast, servant leadership flips this model on its head. The servant leader prioritizes the growth and well-being of their team members, believing that when people feel supported and valued, they perform better and are more committed to the organization’s goals.

Real-World Examples of Servant Leadership

1: Salesforce - The 1-1-1 Model

Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of Salesforce, exemplifies the principle that leadership is service. His vision and leadership philosophy are deeply rooted in serving both employees and the community.

Salesforce logo
™/®, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Benioff's approach is centered around the idea that businesses can be powerful platforms for change, and this belief is evident in Salesforce's commitment to social responsibility and community service.

One of the most notable implementations of servant leadership at Salesforce is the 1-1-1 model. This model dedicates 1% of Salesforce's equity, 1% of its product, and 1% of its employees' time to philanthropic efforts.

The impact of this model has been substantial, with millions of dollars donated, thousands of volunteer hours contributed, and countless nonprofit organizations supported through Salesforce's technology.

2: Southwest Airlines -  Leadership is Service

Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, is another shining example of how leadership is service. Kelleher's leadership philosophy was built on the belief that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers, which in turn will take care of the shareholders. This employee-first mentality has been a cornerstone of Southwest's success.

Kelleher focused heavily on employee happiness and satisfaction. He believed that happy employees would naturally deliver exceptional customer service. This focus on serving employees created a strong, positive company culture that is still evident at Southwest today. The company is known for its friendly and efficient service, a direct result of the supportive and empowering environment cultivated by its leadership.

Extending Servant Leadership to Home and Family Life

The principles of servant leadership aren't just for the workplace—they can transform your home and family life as well. Leading your family with empathy, compassion, and selflessness can create a nurturing and supportive environment that benefits everyone.

By leading with empathy, compassion, and selflessness, you'll create a supportive and collaborative environment.

For example, a servant leader at home listens to their family members' needs and concerns, making everyone feel heard and valued. They practice empathy by understanding and sharing in their family members' joys and challenges, building stronger emotional connections. Compassionate actions, like helping with household chores or supporting a child through a difficult time, demonstrate care and commitment.

A selfless approach means putting the needs of the family first. This might involve making sacrifices, such as adjusting work schedules to spend more time with family or prioritizing family activities over personal interests. This creates a culture of mutual respect and love, where every family member feels supported and valued.

How is Service Related to Leadership?

Here's what people don't realize: true leadership is service to others!

For anyone aiming to build a business that can thrive over the long-term, this means putting your team's needs first and empowering them to succeed.

By leading with empathy, compassion, and selflessness, you'll create a supportive and collaborative environment. This approach builds trust, fosters innovation, and drives long-term success.

When your team feels valued and supported, they are more engaged, productive, and loyal. Embrace the mindset that leadership is service, and watch as it transforms not only your team but your entire business trajectory.


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