Servant leadership was first theorised by Robert Greenleaf in 1979 who, in simple terms, reversed the general concept of what a leader is and how he or she should behave.
In simple terms, this means leading from a lower status, and directing a team not by telling everyone what should be done and how and controlling that everything is executed according to instructions. Instead, a servant leader is someone who maintains responsibility for everyone achieving the desired result, but doesn’t exert much control on how their work.
In other words, this equals to removing burdens from the shoulders of your people such as paperwork or filing to let them focus on reaching their assigned goals in a way they see fit.
Servant leadership in practice
This leadership style has been shown to work in highly uncertain and changing environments – also thanks to improv-based studies – where the usual reference points have disappeared and you and your colleagues need to sail in uncharted territories – think of a competitor suddenly entering the market with a new and better product and you not having a backup plan.
This is because servant leadership allows each and every person to operate according to their own way of organising their time and applying their skills, and it removes other unnecessary burdens (e.g. paperwork) for reaching the overall goal. Those, are in fact taken over by the leaders, whose role then becomes to free resources to allow everyone to focus better on their own work.
There is, of course, a trust component that needs to be built over time between leader and team for this leadership style to function – and it all starts again with the ability of both sides to listen and communicate better, two very important soft skills. A more effective and advanced style is shared leadership.
The main aspect of this whole idea is not so much on the theoretical side, it’s on the practical one: you can’t expect people to accept, adopt and be proficient in a whole new style of working without having practiced it before in a safe environment! Leadership coaching helps in this regard.