This is the story of two leaderd, Dick and Jane. Dick is what many would refer to as a “traditional” leader. He manages in a top-down, hierarchical style. Dick must know more than his followers, or else he wouldn’t be the one in charge. And even if he doesn’t always know better, that doesn’t really matter. What is important is that he appears in control at all times. It’s a matter of respect—and authority.
Jane, on the other hand, takes a different approach to leadership. Jane believes that being stern with her staff, intimidating them, and otherwise being unapproachable is actually ineffective. Instead, Jane has found that when she treats her team with respect, as equals regardless of their level, then she is treated with the same respect in kind. Jane is supportive; willing to do anything herself that she asks of her team. She provides them with the tools, training, and resources that they need to do their jobs well. She supports their career goals and provides positive feedback on a regular basis. She knows that if her team is fully successful, then she in turn will be, as well. In the long run, the firm will be successful too.
Dick often finds himself wondering why his staff just doesn’t work that hard. He makes sure he regularly tells them what they are doing wrong, and yet they just don’t seem to want to improve. He regularly points out their mistakes to no avail. It’s as if they don’t even care. Dick sees Jane’s employees doing their jobs well, and seeming to enjoy it. “Obviously,” he thinks to himself, “Jane lucked out with better employees.”
Do either of these managers sound like someone you know? Dick’s style isn’t so unusual. However, it isn’t really that effective either. Jane practices a leadership style called Servant Leadership. Servant leadership is a philosophy first introduced by Robert Greenleaf in the early 1970s. Greenleaf’s spoke of ten central characteristics of servant leadership: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.
Servant leadership was at first slow to gain in popularity within corporate settings because it appears on its face to be a “soft” or “touchy feely” management style. The name servant leadership is clearly a misnomer, because as a style it is anything but easy or soft. Research now demonstrates servant leadership as an extremely successful management style. Servant leadership does not imply servility or weakness, but rather a leadership style whose time has come. Wong and Page (2003) explain that servant leaders develop the people who build the organizations, and build the organization by utilizing their people as resources. Servant leadership empowers employees, provides them with support, builds their confidence, and removes obstacles in their path. By enabling staff to perform at their best, the organization in turn performs at its best. Servant leadership drives employee engagement, the feeling of commitment and belonging to an organization, thus in turn driving organizational outcomes.
Wallace and Trinka (2009) explained that an individual’s immediate manager has more influence on an employee than any other factor. By being supportive, encouraging, ethical, and communicative, a servant leader creates an environment of trust, loyalty, hard work, and engagement. These authors noted that positive leadership generates engagement, which in turn drives organizational success.
Numerous scholars have demonstrated employee engagement to positively influence turnover, safety, customer satisfaction, and productivity (Attridge, 2009; Jones, 2012; Joseph & Winston, 2005). Researchers further believe that servant leadership contributes to a positive work environment. Joseph and Winston (2005) believed that servant leadership could improve an organization’s performance including improving safety, satisfaction, productivity, and overall financial performance. In other words, being a good leader drives the bottom line!
Numerous companies that regularly appear on the Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 Companies to Work For list practice service leadership. These enormously successful companies include: Aflac, Container Store, Men’s Wearhouse, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Synovus Financial, Wegmans, and TDIndustries. For those organizations that practice servant leadership, the results speak for themselves.
Jane has learned that she first needs to be a servant to her staff. By serving her staff, supporting their needs and goals, encouraging their development, and helping them to grow she has created a successful, can-do team. They are loyal to Jane as a leader. They go above and beyond what is expected of them because they want to, but also because Jane would do the same for them.
Dick has yet to figure out that being a leader is not the same as being a boss. Respect and loyalty are something earned, not mandated. The moral of this story is when choosing what type of leader you should aspire to be… look to Jane.
Attridge, M. (2009). Measuring and managing employee work engagement: A review of the research and business literature. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 24(4), 383-398.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power & greatness. NJ: Paulist Press.
Fortune’s Top 100 Companies to Work For. (2012, February 6). Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/ best-companies/2012/full_list/
Jones, D. (2012). Does servant leadership lead to greater customer focus and employee satisfaction? Business Studies Journal, 4(2), 21-35.
Joseph, E. E., & Winston, B. E. (2005). A correlation of servant leadership, leader trust, and organizational trust. Leadership & Development Journal, 26(1/2), 6-22.
Wallace, L., & Trinka, J. (2009). Leadership and employee engagement. Public Management, 91(5), 10-13.
Wong P., & Page, D. (2003a). Servant leadership: An opponent- process model and the revised servant leadership profile. Servant Leadership Research Roundtable, August, 2003
Dr. Kelli Whorton is a Senior Human Resource Business Partner for CDM Smith. She obtained her MHR from Rollins College and her Ed.D. in Leadership from Grand Canyon University. As a skilled corporate trainer and former professor of Human Resources, Dr. Whorton is passionate about employee engagement and leadership.