Why the wisdom of servant leadership is essential to sustainable success

Servant leadership is grounded in the belief that the most effective leaders serve the needs of their followers.

BY MICHAEL F. BROOM, Ph.D., Organization Development Psychologist

If you want consistently high levels of productivity, engagement, and success, there are two things you must do: hire well and lead them well. We will talk about hiring well later. Let’s focus on leading well and the philosophy that best supports it — servant leadership.

Servant leadership, a concept first introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, is grounded in the belief that the most effective leaders serve the needs of their followers.

Servant leaders own the wisdom that focuses on developing healthy followers is what delivers healthy results. This contrasts with leaders focusing solely on financial and production metrics and personal ambition.

The core values of servant leaders

Here are four core values of servant leaders that result from understanding that people are important in and of themselves and that only healthy people produce sustainable healthy results:

Empathy: Servant leaders have a genuine understanding and concern for the feelings and perspectives of those they lead. This promotes deep and personal compassion, which fosters an environment where everyone feels valued and respected.

Humility: Servant leaders understand their own fallibility. They are open to feedback, admit their mistakes, and appreciate the contributions of others. They know they can succeed only by actively and openly supporting their followers’ success.

Stewardship: Servant leaders view themselves as stewards. They prioritize long-term sustainability and make decisions with their people’s and their organization’s best interests in mind.

Healing: Servant leaders understand we are all flawed and need healing to some degree. This promotes a culture of forgiveness, reconciliation and personal growth. This encourages people to let go of past mistakes, take risks and learn from whatever results accrue.

Accountability: Servant leaders understand that firm accountability is a core part of empowering people. Followers who consistently do not live up to expectations and fail to take advantage of the compassionate support offered are not allowed to damage the healthy culture and are quickly dismissed.

Key behaviors of servant leaders

Active listening: Servant leaders listen attentively to the thoughts and ideas of their followers as well as their concerns and emotions. They insist on open communication and creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts.

Empowering others: Servant leaders encourage their followers to be conscious and understand how their behavior impacts their colleagues. They support team members to be clear about and pursue their own goals. They provide opportunities to contribute to meaningful projects.

Collaboration: Servant leaders understand the importance of collaboration and build cultures where everyone contributes their unique strengths and perspectives. They facilitate teamwork and encourage shared decision-making.

Mentoring: Servant leaders provide guidance and support to help their followers develop new skills, overcome challenges, and achieve their goals. They are deeply invested in their team members’ personal and professional growth.

The values and behaviors listed significantly support follower retention. When I ask leaders and their followers to list the characteristics they would most want to follow, they consistently mention the characteristics of servant leaders.

Why is servant leadership not more popular?

While servant leadership is well respected, it has not become widespread for several reasons:

Traditional leadership paradigms: Servant leadership stands in stark contrast to traditional leadership models that emphasize authority, hierarchy, and control. These conventional approaches are automatic for many leaders, making it difficult for them to embrace the more collaborative and empathetic mindset required of servant leaders.

Misconceptions: Some people misunderstand servant leadership as weak or passive, mistakenly believing it involves leaders giving up control and authority. Servant leaders share power, a force multiplier. They don’t give it up; they increase it.

They are strong facilitators who get the most from their people and teams. Poor performers quickly improve or move on.

Short-term focus: Servant leadership seeks long-term growth and sustainability, in contrast to many leaders’ short-term mindset that too often harms longer-term results.

Lack of awareness and education: Many leaders are aware of the principles of servant leadership or do not understand the benefits it can bring. Without understanding and skill, this leadership style can be challenging to adopt.

Despite these challenges, servant leadership continues to grow in popularity as more organizations recognize the benefits of fostering a culture that prioritizes empathy, collaboration, and personal growth.

Servant leadership offers a transformative approach to leadership that emphasizes the importance of serving others and nurturing a sense of unity and purpose within organizations. The spiritual foundations of this leadership style underscore the values and behaviors that promote empathy, humility, and stewardship.

Overall, the principles and practices of servant leaders contribute to a work environment that promotes employee satisfaction, engagement, and well-being. In doing so, they create a workplace where individuals want to stay, grow, thrive, and produce sustainable high levels of productivity and success.

Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of the Center for Human Systems. He has over 45 years of experience as an organizational development psychologist. He has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Organization Development Network!


Ask for A free one-hour consultation; you’ll be surprised by the difference one hour can make! Check Dr. Broom out on his website at www.CHumanS.com. Or email him at michael@chumans.com.

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