What are the qualities of a servant leader? Is servant leadership a worldly calling or a spiritual one?
Servant leadership is Robert K. Greenleaf’s answer to the failure of modern institutions to meet the needs of those they serve and employ. His book Servant Leadership explains that any individual can be a servant leader if they embrace servile traits.
Continue reading for a list of the best qualities of a servant leader.
What Is Servant Leadership?
Before getting into the qualities of a servant leader, you need to know more about the philosophy. According to Greenleaf, servant leadership is a three-pronged philosophy with the primary aim of making the world a better place. The first prong is a vision of the common good—a goal that would significantly improve the lives of most people, if not everybody. The second prong is a sense of social responsibility—a desire to altruistically serve others’ needs, prioritizing them ahead of your own interests (like money, power, or glory). The third prong is inspiration—to be a servant leader, you must be able to convince and motivate others to pursue your vision by becoming servants themselves. To illustrate, some say that the civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplified the servant leadership philosophy.
(Shortform note: Servant leadership is one of the six most common leadership styles, according to the International Institute for Management Development (IMD). Other leadership styles include transactional leadership, where a leader motivates followers to meet imposed goals using rewards and punishments, and transformational leadership, where a leader unites followers to achieve a shared, world-changing goal. Servant leadership overlaps somewhat with other leadership styles—for example, transformational leaders and servant leaders alike aim to make the world a better place. But according to the IMD, servant leaders are unique because they see fulfilling followers’ needs as the best way to make a positive impact on the world.)
Greenleaf writes that servant leadership is as much a spiritual calling as it is a worldly one. Servant leaders are invested in making the world a better place because that’s what’s spiritually fulfilling for them—and because they want to ensure that the rest of the world can achieve spiritual fulfillment, too. Although this perspective is rooted in Greenleaf’s Quaker beliefs, he emphasizes that servant leadership isn’t limited to the traditionally religious—he argues that the whole point of religion is to unite individuals with the world around them, and you don’t have to adhere to any specific religion to pursue that goal.
(Shortform note: Spirituality is often conflated with religiosity, but you don’t have to be religious at all to practice spirituality. In Waking Up, atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris explains that spirituality is simply the process of exploring your consciousness beyond what’s on the surface (your thoughts and feelings). He argues that one benefit of spirituality is it can help you sustain mental and emotional balance. Another benefit is what researchers refer to as enhanced spiritual connectedness—a sense that all human beings are irrevocably joined to and reliant on each other, which can spur you to help others. If you value spiritual connectedness, servant leadership may be one way to act on that value.)
The Qualities of a Servant Leader
Servant leadership isn’t limited to people with formal power—anyone in any social position can become a servant leader if they have the right characteristics for the role. In fact, Greenleaf believes that people from disempowered communities are especially likely to become servant leaders. If you’ve experienced marginalization, then you have an intuitive vision of a more just world, a better understanding of people’s actual needs and how they’re best served, and a better chance of inspiring other marginalized people to join you.
(Shortform note: Servant leaders can be either formal leaders (people vested with official authority over others) or informal leaders (people without official authority who influence others anyway). Informal leaders are commonly believed to exercise more authentic leadership—since they can’t rely on official authority to make people follow their lead, they have to convince others that they’re worth voluntarily following. Scholars of activist movements note that informal leaders are integral to social change because they can use their authentic influence to motivate, aid, and protect marginalized people seeking self-empowerment.)
According to Greenleaf, if you want to be a servant leader, you must have the following qualities:
1) Self-responsibility—you strive to improve yourself so that you can better serve others, and you take time alone to center yourself so you can make rational decisions about how to improve society. (Shortform note: Taking responsibility for meeting your own needs can help you prevent burnout and compassion fatigue—types of exhaustion that commonly affect people who serve others for work or in their personal lives. To avoid burnout and compassion fatigue, experts recommend prioritizing self-care, which includes getting enough nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Spending time alone can also recharge you, making it easier to handle your social responsibilities.)
2) Intuition—you have natural insight into situations you have little concrete knowledge about. This includes a keen sense for cause-and-effect: You understand how historical patterns led to the present moment and how what you do now will affect the future. (Shortform note: Scientists believe that intuitive thinking happens when you rely on unconscious knowledge of previous patterns to make new interpretations or decisions, rather than relying on conscious reasoning skills. While some research suggests that following your intuition may lead to quicker, more effective decision-making, other experts argue that leaders shouldn’t rely on their intuition because it’s more likely to be biased than rational thinking.)
3) Perseverance—you’re committed to finding out, through trial and error, which needs go unserved and how to fulfill them. You take it one step at a time and bravely accept the possibility that you could be wrong; when you’re wrong, you reassess and try again. (Shortform note: To persevere effectively, it helps to learn from your failures so you can do better in the future. Research suggests that most people don’t learn from failure—instead, they retroactively label the task they failed as unimportant or even ignore their failure, which protects their ego. To overcome these defense mechanisms and learn from your mistakes, experts suggest writing down the advice you’d give to someone else in your shoes.)
4) Good communication—you lead others by effectively convincing them of your vision, not by compelling them to follow you. You also listen well, which helps you find the solutions to problems they encounter. (Shortform note: According to experts on business communication, strong leaders use the following four strategies to communicate: repeating mission statements; employing memorable, intuitive metaphors to explain tough ideas; making large numbers easy to visualize or understand; and using the simplest language possible (for example, saying “confuse” instead of “obfuscate”).)
5) A nurturing spirit—you recognize the potential in each of your followers to make a meaningful difference in the world, and you empower them to achieve that potential. (Shortform note: This is also known in the workplace as empowering leadership—a common approach where leaders give those below them important information, the authority to make decisions, and the opportunity to give feedback to higher-ups. Research suggests that empowering your employees in this way increases their trust in you and promotes both innovation and helpfulness. However, one pitfall is that you may overburden your employees, ultimately reducing their effectiveness at work.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Servant Leadership summary:
- Why modern institutions fail to meet the needs of those they serve and employ
- Why institutions must learn to prioritize the needs of their followers
- How you can learn to become a servant leader