Traditional Leadership vs. Servant Leadership

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The term “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay first published in 1970. Greenleaf describes the servant leader as servant first, leader second. He explains that servant leadership “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead." This style, of course, is very different from traditional leadership, both then and now. Greenleaf describes the differences, “[The servant leader] 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.”

In and of itself, servant leadership is an oxymoron; the definitions of the two terms contradict one another – in principle and philosophy. How can one be both leader and servant? The answer is in serving to assist, empower, and support while still fulfilling the leader's critical role. 

Post-COVID-19, servant leadership has taken on additional importance and meaning. When autonomy is achieved, and there is relational alignment between an organization, its leaders, and teams of employees, self-organization, innovation, and improvement follow. The need for all of these is at staggering levels in today’s largely remote, independent work environment and competitive marketplace.

How to Become an Organization of Servant Leaders

A servant-leadership organization focuses on the growth and well-being of its people and the community. Traditional leadership, which generally revolves around the accumulation and exercise of power, misses the opportunity to help people develop and perform as highly as possible. In today’s tight talent market, having efficient people who feel invested in, deliver results, and express more loyalty is critical; this type of culture will be the key to success in moving past the pandemic and the resulting turbulence.

To move from a traditional leadership model to one of servant leaders, individual leaders need to be:

  • Good at listening.Servant leaders give their undivided attention. They listen first before asking questions. They want to know how people feel and what they think.

  • Empathetic.With a deep concern for what people want and need, servant leaders are compassionate, relatable, and work hard to resolve problems and eliminate friction for people.

  • Aware.A great servant leader has exceptional awareness, both of themselves and everything around them. They are plugged in at a granular level, enabling their overall awareness; they never miss a beat.

  • Persuasive.Persuasive but not forceful, a good servant leader can motivate and encourage people without using power or their authority. 

  • Clear communicators. A servant leader provides a clear sense of direction by being good, direct communicators. They are sharing when it comes to information and do not withhold anything for the sake of their empowerment.

To create a culture that fosters servant leadership, an organization needs to:

  • Commit. Being dedicated to people’s growth and development needs to be, and remain, the central focus; organizations need to be unwavering in their commitment to people first for servant leadership to prevail.

  • Create a community. A community of like-minded, service-first individuals will breed the environment necessary to foster a successful servant leadership organization. Getting everyone on the same page about what the priority and mission are around servant leadership and their expectations will ensure continuity and adoption. Note: It is essential not to have traditional leadership metrics evaluating non-traditional leaders like servant leaders. 

  • Be authentic. Service-first leadership is a mindset, a belief system, and a way of life; it cannot be forged. If a traditional leader is forced into a servant leadership model, it will be obvious to the team. Create authenticity around service leadership by having the right metrics, systems, and processes in place and being consistent with the priority, i.e., people and their development.

As Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Or, like automobile executive Lee Iacocca said, “Hire smart people and get out of their way.” 

Servant leadership is the way of the future; getting there requires authenticity, a mindset shift, and empowerment.


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