Servant leadership drives inclusion

Jun 16
As organizations are increasingly striving to promote diversity, achieve inclusion, and provide equitable resources, the behaviour of leaders is acquiring greater significance, as it can create meaningful changes in the business, and impact its people, market presence, stakeholders, and culture.

There are several leadership styles, and they can be understood by observing successful leaders. For example, Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs used the laissez-faire leadership style, and Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are known for their strategic leadership style. Some other styles of leadership are democratic, transactional, transformational, bureaucratic, servant, and coach-style.

What is servant leadership?

Coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf, servant leadership is probably the least studied leadership style. Notable leaders, who initially followed this style of leadership, are best known for their contributions to society rather than to the business-corporate world. For example, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Dalai Lama.

Interestingly, more and more business leaders are starting to embrace servant leadership today. The golden rule of servant leadership is “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” The other leadership styles that have been traditionally popular over the years, however, have primarily prioritized business improvement before employee well-being and happiness. But many organizations now understand the value of inclusion and employee growth and wellness, and the servant leadership style helps facilitate and achieve these favourable outcomes.
But is servant leadership an effective leadership style? Research and success stories show that the answer is yes! Many leaders of some of the most successful companies follow the servant leadership style. To name a few, Jack Welch, Former CEO of General Electric, Alan Mullaly, Former CEO of Ford Motor Co and Boeing, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx testify to the impact and reach of the servant leadership style.

What does servant leadership look like?

While there are no specific rules for servant leadership, there are some broad leadership practices that help these leaders empower and help every employee to rise to their full potential.

A servant leader

• Prioritizes the needs of his/her employees over anything else.
• Collaborates with his/her employees easily and provides them with the resources, support and guidance they need to succeed.
• Creates an environment where the employees feel safe sharing their thoughts and ideas with their leader.
• Actively listens to the needs and perspectives of his team members and takes informed decisions based on these inputs.
• Empathises and strives to understand the struggles, emotions, and experiences of his employees by seeing the world from their perspective.
• Is aware of his/her strengths and weaknesses.
• Is humble, selfless, and service-minded, who places the needs of his employees over his own.
• Leads by example, modelling the behaviour he/she wants to see in his/her employees.
• Demonstrates a strong commitment to integrity.

Let’s review one such leader – Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of SouthWest Airlines, who once said in an interview, “I would rather have a company bound by love than a company bound by fear.” The beloved late leader knew each of his employees by name, was their go-to friend, let them wear sneakers and shorts to work, was always approachable, and never discriminated based on caste or employee rank. What’s more, he put his employees before his customers.

Quite surprising, isn’t it? But he had a simple response to it: “If you treat your employees well, then they treat the customers well, and that means your customers come back and your shareholders are happy”, as stated in a eulogy for Kelleher, published in Forbes following his death in January 2019 at 87. Under his leadership, SW Airlines rose to become one of the most successful companies in the US.

Why add servant leadership style to your toolkit?

Servant leadership creates a culture that is rooted in empathy, inclusion, humility, empowerment and collaboration, and this leads to effective employee engagement, boosts productivity and enhances business outputs. Of course, the catalyst here is the unselfish and authentic leader, who walks the talk.

What isn’t servant leadership?
Many people consider servant leadership an oxymoron. They misinterpret that the leader is servile. Some opine that a servant leader does not and cannot give due importance to performance and results. This is gross misunderstanding of this style of leadership. A servant leader is very much in charge of the organization. Here, we need to note that the often-idealized attributes of a leader, like ‘power’ or ‘authority’ or ‘machoism’ are passé, as pointed out by recent studies. What differentiates servant leadership from the other acclaimed styles is that it follows the ‘follower first’ principle, unlike the models that focus on goals first and empowerment next.
This leadership style directly embraces inclusion by placing immense trust in employees, creating a conducive environment that allows them to make their contributions first with a collaborative effort, which then leads to healthier accountability and ownership and favourable results.