Best practices in servant leadership

Wong, Paul T. P. and Davey, Dean (2007). Best practices in servant leadership. Servant Leadership Roundtable, Regent University – School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship

The nature of both work and the workplace has changed drastically (Billett, 2006).

The focus of leadership needs to be shifted from process and outcome to people and the future.

The new challenge for management and leadership education is threefold:

  • How to develop workers and unleash their creative potentials
  • How to create a positive workplace that will attract and retain talented knowledge workers
  • How to reinforce innovations and risk-taking to adapt to an uncertain future.

Jack Welch (2001) concludes that leadership is 75 percent about people, and 25 percent about everything else.

The positive psychology of management

The positive psychology of management provides a new direction by capitalizing on human strengths, positive emotions and a meaningful workplace (Crabtree, 2004 a, b; Rath, 2007; Wong, 2006; Wong & Gupta, 2004).

Financial compensation is no longer a sufficient incentive; it takes a positive workplace to recruit and retain the most talented workers (Wong, 2002b; Wong & Gupta, 2004).

The need for servant leadership

Pioneered by Greenleaf (1977) and developed by his followers (e.g., Spears, 1994; Spears & Lawrence, 2004).

  1. Leaders have the attitude of a humble and selfless servant
  2. Leaders focus on retention and development of employees
  3. Leaders are responsible for creating a safe and positive work environment that fosters innovation and enhances intrinsic motivation
  4. Leaders humanize the workplace when they treat subordinates as human beings, worthy of unconditional dignity and respect
  5. Leaders earn trust when they place the legitimate needs of their followers above self interests
  6. Leaders earn respect when they place benefits to workers and society above the bottom line
  7. Leaders listen to their employees with open-mindedness
  8. Leaders develop and maintain good relationships through empathy, kindness, healing and emotional intelligence
  9. Leaders gain support and cooperation by valuing team-building and involving others in decision making
  10. Leaders seek to achieve organizational goals by developing and unleashing the creative potential of human resources

SL focuses on

  • the humble and ethical use of power as a servant leader
  • cultivating a genuine relationship between leaders and followers
  • creating a supportive and positive work environment.

servant leaders are free to incorporate the positive aspects of all other leadership models except command-and-control dictatorship.

An overview of servant leadership

However, SL has its detractors. Basically, there are six common criticisms:

  1. SL is too idealistic and naïve. In an individualistic consumer culture, many people will take advantage of the servant leaders’ kindness as weakness (Johnson, 2001)
  2. It is too unrealistic and impractical. It would not work in many situations such as military operations or prison systems (Bowie, 2000)
  3. It is too restrictive, because we need all sorts of leadership qualities, such as intuition, risktaking and courage
  4. It is too closely tied to Christian spirituality, because it is impossible for people to model after Christ’s humility without being redeemed and transformed by the Holy Spirit
  5. It is too hypocritical – too many claim to be servant leaders but behave more like dictators
  6. It is too foreign to my leadership style – I simply can’t function as a leader if I adopt the SL model

A theoretical framework

McGregor (1960) postulates two theories of work motivation. Theory X views workers as basically lazy and in need to be motivated by reward and punishment. Theory Y views work as intrinsically motivating. McGregor (1967) and Ouchi (1981) propose Theory Z, which incorporates both X and Y.

Theory S, the theoretical framework of servant leadership, goes beyond Theory Z. It focuses on the vital role of leadership in work motivation. It posits that a serving, caring, and understanding leader is best able to optimize worker motivation through (a) developing workers’ strengths and intrinsic motivation and (b) creating a positive workplace.

SL practices participative leadership (McMahon, 1976) and shares some of the characteristics of transformational leadership (Bass, 1998; Stone, Russell, & Patterson, 2003).

According to Bass (2000), SL is “close to the transformational components of inspiration and individualized consideration” (p. 33).

SL is also similar to steward leadership (Block, 1993), because both models emphasize the need to replace self-interest with service to others as the basis for using power.

Thus, Theory S incorporates various relationship-oriented leadership practices (Stogdill & Coons, 1957; Yukl, 2002).

However, servant leaders can and will dismiss workers whose performance and attitude negatively affect other workers in spite of repeated intervention efforts. Jack Kahl and Tom Donelan (2004) have made a strong case that servant leaders are not “sweet” and “weak”.

Later, Wong and Page (2003) developed an opponent-process model of servant leadership and a revised Servant Leadership Profile based on empirical research. The significant contribution of the opponent-process model is that it explicitly identifies autocratic leadership as antithetic to the practice of servant leadership. In other words, it is not possible to be a servant leader, when one is motivated by power and pride.

The advantages of servant leadership

No leader can be effective in a culturally diverse workplace by adopting only one leadership style.

Studies by Dennis Romig (2001) with thousands of employees have demonstrated that when the practices of servant leadership are implemented through leadership training in a business, performance has improved by 15 – 20% and work group productivity by 20 –50%.

  1. Being freed from egotistic concerns, such as insecurity and self-advancement, Type S leaders are able to devote their full attention to developing workers and building the organization.
  2. Type S leaders have a positive view of workers as individuals who are capable of developing their full potentials and becoming leaders, if they are given a supportive and caring work environment.
  3. Being concerned with individual needs and sensitive to individual differences in personality, Type S leaders are able to bring out the best in the workers.
  4. Being situational leaders, Type S leaders recognize situations in which absence of their power actually facilitates self-management and productivity.
  5. Being good stewards, Type S leaders will do whatever necessary and appropriate to maximize leadership effectiveness in all kinds of situations.
  6. Being worker-centered and growth-oriented, Type S leaders can turn ordinary workers into future leaders by developing their strengths.
  7. SL serves as an antidote to corruption and abuse in power positions.
  8. SL can help reduce burnout and build an emotionally healthy organization.
  9. SL focuses on cultivating the intrinsic motivation through inspiring workers to believe in their own growth and embrace the vision and purpose of the organization.
  10. SL seems most suitable for the next generation of workers, who are very cynical of authority and demand authenticity from their bosses.
  11. SL seems most suitable for knowledge workers, who value independence and creativity.
  12. SL recognizes that leadership is a group process, which should not be centralized in one or two individuals. Therefore, SL is based on team-building.
  13. SL is deeply rooted in humane, spiritual and ethical values.
  14. SL represents the most effective and comprehensive approach to human resources management and development.

The best practices in servant leadership

This is primarily a summary of what others have proposed (Blanchard & Hodges, 2003; Maxwell, 2005; Spears & Lawrence, 2004).

Right identity – Seeing oneself as a servant

  • Cultivating humility – Willing to be the last and the least
  • Not about me, but about the organization; not about my position and power, but about the people (ego is often in the way of effective leadership).
  • Cultivating stewardship

Right motivation

  • The practice of extending a helping hand (our habitual attitude is not what I can get from you, but how I can be of help to you).
  • The practice of sacrificing self interest for others
  • The practice of bringing out the best in others
  • The practice of empowering others for their development

If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people.
– Chinese Proverb

Right method

  • Listening to others with openness and empathy : Kouzes and Posner [1987, p.180] declare: “Sensitivity to others is a prerequisite for success in Leadership.”
  • Involving others in decision-making (this does not mean that servant leaders depend on committee decisions or consensus. At times, servant leaders have to make tough and unpopular decisions, but servant leaders must consult widely and incorporate people’s input into major decisions).
  • Engaging others in team-building and community building
  • Affirm others by expressing the confidence you have in them

Right impact

  • Modeling the core values on a daily basis (Kouzes and Posner, 1987).
  • Challenging others to live for a higher purpose (constantly demonstrating the importance of looking at the large picture and a long-range vision. Teach people not to be too petty and too preoccupied with short-term gains).
  • Challenging others to strive for excellence (be a life-long learner and an eager student at all times. Teach others the need for constant self-development).

Right character

  • Walking the talk regardless of the costs
  • Daring to stand up for what one believes in.
  • Having the courage to confront grim realities
  • Engage in honest examination and assessment of one’s progress in life’s journey

“Leadership is in the eye of the follower.”
Kouzes and Posner, 1987, p.15.

Servant-leadership contributes to leadership development

Wong (2007) has identified twelve defining characteristics of exceptional leaders:

  • Great capacity for productive work
    • They seem to possess boundless energy and thrive under stress.
    • Their consistent productivity is based on their deeply ingrained habits of commitment and discipline.
  • Great vision for the right direction
    • They can see things clearer and farther than others.
    • They have insight into just what is needed and the foresight to see what will succeed in the long run.
    • They can feel the pulse of the world which they inhabit and anticipate the world which is not yet born.
  • Great intellect and knowledge
    • not only in their specialty, but also in the general area of humanities, social sciences and business administration.
    • They have the genius of holding two opposing views and the wisdom to navigate cross-currents.
  • Great people skills
    • They see both the bright and dark side of people, without losing faith in the human potential for positive change.
  • Great team-builders
    • They do not surround themselves with people who are subservient and loyal only to them, but select competent and creative people who are faithful to the same vision and mission.
    • They welcome diverse opinions and value people who are smarter than they are in various areas of expertise.
  • Great motivators
    • They generate intrinsic motivation by involving people in the excitement of doing something significant and purposeful
    • They capitalize on people’s strengths and know how to unleash these inner energies
    • By setting an example of excellence in everything they do, they make it the standard for all aspects of their operations.
  • Great heart
    • They do not mind being proven wrong or outshone by others; their main concern is for the common good.
    • They reach out to those who do not agree with them.
    • They don’t hold grudges; they are always ready to forgive and apologize.
  • Great communicators
    • Above all, they are good listeners.
  • Great optimists
    • Their optimism stems from personal faith more than anything else – faith that good will prevail over evil and persistence will eventually lead to success.
  • Great courage
    • Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to persist and act in the presence of fear.
  • Great self-knowledge
    • They are willing to accept negative feedback in order to improve themselves.
    • Feeling comfortable in their own skin reduces their defensiveness.
  • Great character
    • They have the moral courage to stand up for their beliefs and do what is right, no matter how much it will cost them.

In fact, servant leaders are more likely to attain Level 5 Leadership (Collins, 2001), which
is characterized by personal humility and a fierce dedication to a larger cause.


McCrimmon (2006) advocates a new kind of leadership to create the future. Such new leadership is not tied to official positions or roles; rather, it is an informal act which can be performed by all employees.

Toyota and Sony are shining examples of this type of bottom-up leadership.


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