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Servant Leadership: What it is and what it means

Organizational performance increases and followers achieve personal growth when servant leadership is practiced

Servant leadership isn’t a term often thrown around in the professional world, and it’s difficult to understand. After all, the term contradicts itself. “Servants” follow, and leaders lead, right? While complex on the surface, servant leadership offers a unique leadership methodology that also seeks to incorporate service into daily work.

What is servant leadership?

In a nutshell, servant leadership is defined by Peter G. Northouse in his book Leadership: Theory and Practice as placing “the good of followers over their own self-interests and emphasize follower development.” It is a behavior that is characterized by a set of morals geared toward the well-being of those you are leading and those you are serving (i.e. stakeholders, board members, the organization, etc.).

Servant leaders exhibit strong listening and empathy. They hold understanding the perspective of those around them in high regard. These kinds of leaders are also very aware; they are attuned to the big picture at their organization as well as the goings-on with those they lead. Furthermore, they are strong stewards of the talent and professionals they lead; they are committed to their growth and the fostering of a strong workplace community where workers feel connected to those around them yet also recognized and encouraged to individually succeed.

If this sounds like a rare sort of workplace, it is. Few managers, directors, and organizational leaders operate with sound servant leadership that is wholly concerned with serving those it also leads. However, the benefits to this type of leadership should be abundantly clear: organizational performance increases and “followers” achieve personal growth.

What could servant leadership mean for your workplace?

One of the reasons we most often hear for why good talent leave their workplaces is because of management or leadership. Employees want to work for someone that puts their “followers” first and the interests of others before their own. They want to work for someone who will empower others, and they want to work for someone who behaves ethically.

Northouse references several studies in his book in which servant leadership implemented in workplaces led to workers more effectively completing their tasks and fulfilling job descriptions. Teams functioned more successfully, as team potency increased. Alternatively, in workplaces where servant leadership had not been implemented, workers were frustrated with the lack of support needed to accomplish organizational goals.

While this all sounds good, you might be wondering how to apply to your own workplace and how to incorporate into your own leadership. As with all behaviors, it is certainly one that can be learned over time and offers a myriad of benefits to your organization. In essence, Northouse said that, “servant leadership emphasizes that leaders should be attentive to the needs of followers, empower them, and help them develop their full human capacities.” Serving first reaps great rewards.

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 
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