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What is Servant Leadership? The Top 5 Attributes of the Servant Leader

Updated on March 12, 2013

A Brief Overview of Leadership Styles

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There are a number of leadership styles that have been pinpointed and defined, but the predominant leadership styles that seem to emerge on a consistent basis are:

  1. Autocratic Leadership: Characterized by control and authority. Genghis Khan's leadership was heavily autocratic, and the vast majority of military leaders - past and present - are taught this style of leading.
  2. Transactional Leadership: Characterized by a focus on transaction management; also known as managerial leadership. Think Joseph McCarthy.
  3. Participative Leadership: Revolves around the concept of team building and group participation. Donald Trump is a genius in this style of leadership.
  4. Transformational Leadership: Often taught as the ultimate form of leadership, the cornerstone of this style is the vision of the leader, and his or her ability to "transform" the followers into dedicated pursuers of that vision or mission statement.
  5. Laissez Faire Leadership: Currently one of the least favored styles of leadership. "Laissez Faire" is a term used primarily in economics when describing a style of economic policy that promotes minimal intervention, a "hands off" strategy. In leadership, it means essentially the same thing - allowing complete freedom and autonomy of the group or team. This promotes creativity and limits bureaucracy, but modern studies claim it is the least productive method.

These styles of leadership have been used for centuries by some of the most successful leaders in history, but wait a minute... I thought we were talking about Servant Leadership...

How does this style fit into the picture?

What is Servant Leadership?

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The human instinct is to gain power and keep it. In the striving for power, and fighting to maintain it, leaders often forget what the main purpose of leadership is:

Leadership isn't about gaining and holding power, except as it helps the people who follow them.

The only thing that separates a leader from a follower is that concept. The leader leads, and the follower follows - pretty much everyone does both, in varying levels at some point in their life, and the prevailing principle is that:

  1. The leader has a goal that is common to the followers, and has either already achieved that goal, or is further along the path than the rest.
  2. The followers follow because the leader is able to help them achieve the goal that they share.

Once this is realized as the primary purpose of leadership, it becomes easier to understand why the characteristics of Servant Leadership are so effective.

The 5 main attributes of servant leadership are:

  1. Selflessness: The primary goal is to serve others first. The moment the servant leader serves themselves first, they are operating under a different code that falls far outside of the principles of Servant Leadership.
  2. Effective Listening: Every type of leader knows that listening is important, but the way they listen is what distinguishes servant leadership from other styles. They listen with the goal of a servant: to help, assist, and actualize. When servant leaders listen, they hear problems that they want to help the people solve, and once that problem or issue is defined, they set out to help resolve it.
  3. Strong Communication: Because the servant leader's goal is not to promote their own selfish agenda, the natural response to their communication is favorable and effective. When they communicate, they reveal their empathy for their followers, and keep their focus on developing their ability to achieve their goals.
  4. Ability to Encourage: An effective servant leader understands the power of motivation and morale. In the helping and development of their followers, they allocate time to encouraging the people in their activity, ensuring they stay far from discouragement, which is one of the primary inhibitors of productivity.
  5. Accountability: The goals of these leaders are to encourage, promote, develop, build up the skills of their followers, so there is shifting of blame or responsibility to save face. They are able to take full accountability for their actions and the actions of the team.

Each of the leadership attributes above are vital to this style of leadership, and the merging of the 5 characteristics help answer the question, "What is servant leadership?"

But how does Servant Leadership tie into the more heavily researched leadership styles mentioned in the overview? Does Servant Leadership fit into the modern styles of leadership?

Servant Leadership Versus the Other Styles

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Although it can be easy for many to assume that Servant Leadership is the only style of leadership that should be pursued, the fact is this:

Every modern style of leadership can be conducted under the overall principles of Servant Leadership. It has more to do with the mindset of the leader than anything.

If a leader puts his or her own agenda ahead of the followers, the mindset is not that of a servant leader. If the main focus is putting the group/team first - that is servant leadership. When a leader operates without the above characteristics, they are pursuing an agenda entirely separate from the goal of the servant leader.

So the transactional leader is just as able as the transformational leader to operate in servant leadership, and the autocratic as much as the participative, and the laissez faire as much as the others.

The determining factor is the leader's prevailing mindset in response to the following question:

"Is my focus on helping myself, or others?"

Concluding Thoughts

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The key word in the question above is focus. The question is not "Am I helping my self, or others?" because there is relationship between the servant leader and his or her followers, and the most important factor of a relationship is that it is mutually beneficial.

So one point I want to make sure I don't leave out is that the servant leader typically receives a benefit equal to are greater than what he or she gives, despite of (and because of) their selfless mindset. The received benefits vary, and often include personal fulfillment, recognition, achievement of personal goals (usually as they line up with their follower's goals), and many others.

Although Servant Leadership is a relatively underrated style of leadership, I believe that it's by far the best, and really is the only true form of leadership - everything else is just management.

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    • serenityjmiller profile image

      Serenity Miller 

      3 years ago from Brookings, SD

      Good points - thank you for sharing! "The human instinct is to gain power and keep it." Ain't that the truth... but what power we tap into when we give up self and begin endeavoring to elevate others. Thanks again!

    • GabeG profile image

      Gabe Gutierrez 

      3 years ago

      Very interesting and insightful viewpoints on servant leadership. I believe leaders have varying traits and dominant styles, the key is to learn how to leverage and flex leadership styles, by having leader agility in order to best suit each situation.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Congratulations on being nominated as a Rising Star. Your article is excellent--well laid out, easy to follow, great content. Voted Up and Useful.

    • jrueff profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Rueff 

      5 years ago from Kansas City

      Hey Sam, thanks for the comment - my experience is the same, in fact I don't think of any other form of leadership can really compare. The primary goal of a good leader is to serve their followers; to help them achieve their goals as they help him achieve the organization's goals.

    • jrueff profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Rueff 

      5 years ago from Kansas City

      Thanks John! I think that's an outstanding idea - I think that in the end the modern politician is a liar and self-serving power-monger, but if there's any decent politicians left maybe they'll listen (:

    • John-Rose profile image

      John-Rose 

      5 years ago from USA

      I found this very interesting. I'm going to read up more on servant leadership and forward this to all politicians representing me. Maybe they will remember and revert back to their original goals as politicians.

    • profile image

      Sam Hill 

      5 years ago

      Really enjoyed this post. It is my experience that this type of leadership is the most effective. I grew the most in my career, under a manager with a very similar approach. Good stuff!

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