The general belief about leaders is that they lead the way with charisma, and others follow. But, the question that academics have been asking is, how does such leadership empower others in building skills? At what point do the followers lead?

As a response to this, a unique style of leadership emerged – Servant Leadership. Make no mistake, it’s not a new subset of this skill. Lao-Tzu wrote about it in the fifth century BC: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware… When his/her task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!'”

Furthering Lao-Tzu’s opinion, Prof Robert Greenleaf popularized the term in 1970, through his essay The Servant as Leader: “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure other people’s highest priority needs are met. The best test: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous?”

Though a challenging leadership stance, and one that’s debatable, here is evidence on why it works.

  1. It spurs the team confidence. Researchers Jia Hu and Dr. Liden studied 304 employees, representing 71 teams in 5 banks. They concluded that servant leaders facilitate team confidence, affirming the strengths and potential of the team and providing development support. Their leadership increases performance too, because they are able to generate a clear understanding of goals to be achieved.
  2. It generates better job satisfaction. In a study at a hospital with 17 departments and 253 nurses who perceived that their nurse managers had a higher servant leadership orientation, researchers Jenkins and Stewart found all staff to have significantly greater job satisfaction.
  3. It increases financial performance. Researchers compared the companies made famous by Jim Collin’s classic, Good to Great, with companies that have been applying servant leadership principles. The comparison focused on the ten-year period ending in 2005. They found that during those years, stocks from the five hundred largest public companies averaged a 10.8 % growth. The eleven companies studied by Collins averaged 17.5%. However, the servant-led companies’ returns averaged 24.2%.
  4. It improves multiple business metrics. According to research by Robert Liden, Sandy Wayne and Chenwei Liao, when managers create a culture where employees know that their needs are given priority over the management’s, measureable improvements in customer satisfaction (8%), higher job performance (6%), and lower turnover (50%) are the result. This was found by studying 961 employees of Jason’s Deli restaurants, across 10 locations in the United States.

Thus, the next time you wish to make your business more effective over all, start by reassessing the prevalent leadership styles within the organization. Listen, demonstrate and mentor. See if leadership that serves can empower your teams to do better.

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