How to Use Servant Leadership to Improve Your Corporate Culture

Servant Leadership Can Help You Create an Empowering Workplace

The servant is definitely below in the hierarchy of any organization, right? The servant serves the bosses and has little status in the organization. But, servant leadership turns this concept on its head. Servant leadership, done right, can improve your corporate culture. 

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership comes from an essay written by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, “The Servant Leader.” In this essay, Greenleaf’s theory was that you need to flip the pyramid. Instead of the leader commanding people, like in top-down leadership, with servant leadership, the leader supports the other employees.

This means that the leader exists to provide guidance and direction, but the employees are empowered to make decisions on their own. The leader looks for opportunities to help others instead of having others help him.

This type of servant leadership can create a great company culture.

The Cultural Benefits of Servant Leadership

When you have a culture that consists of top-down leadership, all of the decisions come from the corner office. The CEO may know a lot, but as a company grows beyond a handful of people, the CEO isn’t the one who is meeting face to face with customers, designing marketing campaigns, or interviewing candidates. When all direction comes from the senior managers, the decisions often don’t reflect reality.

With servant leadership, the CEO (or department head) says to the staff, essentially, “I hired you to do your job, and I’m going to trust you to do it. What can I do to help you?”

This type of leadership allows the employees to share their ideas. They are allowed to do the jobs they were hired to do. They are able to use their expertise where it makes sense. When they need help, they have senior leaders with more experience who can help them.

Examples of the kind of help needed include ideas, resources, or cutting through the bureaucracy that all companies seem to develop. A good servant leader understands that the business will thrive when people are trusted to do their jobs.  

Does This Mean That Servant Leadership is a Do-Nothing Role?

If the employees are making the decisions and carrying out the work, does the boss just sit in the back with a cool drink? Every manager wishes this were the case, but it’s far from the reality. Just as a servant in the royal household is always busy, the servant leader is as well.

In order to provide leadership, she needs to know what is going on. She has to stay in contact with her staff. She has to stay on top of the industry information so that the organization remains competitive.

When a staff member needs help, a senior leader who has more experience and a broader perspective on the industry and company can help them. A marketing manager is focused on marketing, while the production manager is focused on producing a product. A servant leader CEO needs to know about both of these functions so that she can help both succeed. And sometimes, she fills that gap between the two functions to create cohesion and cooperation.

Servant Leadership Is More Difficult Than Top-Down Management, But It’s Better

In a top-down management organization, the leader just says do this and the task is done. But servant leadership requires thoughtfulness, care, and proactive planning. A servant leader needs expertise in hiring her team so that she hires people who are capable of doing their jobs. Servant leaders coach and train and provide feedback.

A servant leader needs humility to accept that she doesn’t always have the answer, and she needs the expertise to know when she does and when she needs to step in. A servant leader sometimes has to do the grunt work in order to accomplish the job. It’s hard.

You can, however, achieve incredible results through servant leadership. Look at Wegmans, a company that always makes Fortune’s Top 100 Companies to Work For list. They empower their cashiers to make decisions, and their corporate employees all have to work in the stores to understand how they can best provide support. The result is a booming business and employees who are happy with their jobs. That’s what you can achieve with true servant leadership.

How Do You Make the Change to a Culture of Servant Leadership?

First, you don’t have to wait for the CEO to make the decision to become a servant leader. If you manage employees, you can switch your own management style. Start by asking your direct reports what would make their lives easier. Ask them what tasks or policies they would eliminate. Ask them what works and what does not.

Now, of course, you have to exercise judgment. Your direct reports may say, “I hate the affirmative action plan reporting. It doesn’t help much. Let’s end it.” You have to say no because that’s required by law, but you can ask the employee what would make the reporting easier and what would make the report more useful.

 If you’ve been a strict top-down manager, your employees may find your change strange but, you need to persist. You may also have to change the type of employees you hire to increase the likelihood that your new hires can perform in an empowered work setting. But eventually, switching to servant leadership will pay off for you in a happier, more productive, empowered workplace culture.

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