Empower Your Team Through Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership is fast-becoming a prominent leadership style, and for good reason: It tends to increase trust and collaboration among team members, helps to build coalitions and community, and promotes ethical business practices.

While many leaders use the power of their position to direct and control employees, the servant leader listens; her focus is on understanding employees to develop and support them. Servant leaders flip the traditional relationship between the employee and the leader, fostering a strong service culture by empowering and involving workers.

As part of the eCornell Entrepreneurship webinar series, Judi Brownell from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration joined Chris Wofford for a interactive discussion on how servant leadership can transform your organization to one that is service-centered and culturally inclusive. An abridged version of their conversation follows.

Wofford: Judi, we previously had a great conversation about the art of listening as it relates to leadership (((link to previous transcript))). Today we’re going to be covering the concept of servant leadership. What is that? It sounds like a response to a top-down leadership style.

Brownell: Well, servant leadership is relatively recent. The term was coined at some point in the early 1970s, but it was only recently that it became a truly prominent leadership style. What happens in servant leadership is that the follower experience really changes. Instead of followers taking a backseat and looking to a leader as the one who knows everything, servant leadership really puts the power front and center.

A servant leader follows a philosophy of service. A servant leader needs to believe that his or her role is really to serve, and they get satisfaction and gratification out of that type of behavior.

Wofford: I don’t want to preempt something you plan to talk about later, but does gender figure into this?

Brownell: It’s fine to talk about it now. I’ve done a lot of work with women’s career development and I do believe that men and women have different sets of competencies that come naturally to them. There are some people who would disagree, but men tend to be more assertive and more readily authoritative. Women tend to be better listeners. Women tend to be more emphatic.

The servant leader has a lot of characteristics that have always been associated with women’s leadership style. The wonderful thing is that, where in the past these characteristics may have been associated with weakness or pointed to as reasons why women are less effective, now the pendulum has swung and these same characteristics fit perfectly with the philosophy of servant leadership.

Wofford: And what’s at the heart of that philosophy?

Brownell: Servant leadership empowers followers. Rather than telling them what to do, and giving them a little bit of training here and there, servant leadership is about really developing your employees, really sitting down with them and asking, “What is it that you need to do your job better?”

It’s about looking at each employee as individually as possible. I believe that the opportunity to do this exists in most organizations. It could be as simply as just sitting down with people and asking, “Are you happy at your job? What is it that I can do as a leader to help?”

A leader presumably has more access to more resources and can perhaps shift an employee to a better position or cross-train them or whatever it is that they need to be happier and more effective in their work.

Wofford: We’ve got a good question here from Karen. She writes: “Yes, the servant leadership style may be more like a ‘woman’s style’ but in my experience (and I think research backs this up) men’s style of leadership includes a mentoring skill, whereas it is harder to find women leaders who mentor other females up the ranks.” Judi, any thoughts on that?

Brownell: Yeah, I’ve got lot of thoughts on that. I did a lot of work on that particular problem, in fact. This is really digressing from our main topic, but it’s interesting. I did a study asking women coming out of an MBA program whether they thought they would be as effective as men in a leadership role. They all said yes.

Then I asked them if they would rather work for men or women, and almost 90 percent of the women said they would rather work for a man than work for a woman. When it comes to mentoring, women either are the very best team ever or they are in conflict with one another, particularly when they are in an organization with very few women and a lot of men.

We need women mentoring women and we need women being advocates for women. And I think there are a lot of women out there who are great mentors – we just need to expand that pool. I think if organizations can build women’s confidence, then they will do a lot more to mentor other women.

Wofford: You said that was a bit of a digression. Where were you planning to go?

Brownell: I wanted to talk about the importance of compassion in the workplace. If you’re a servant leader and you really listen well to your employees and to your colleagues, it really does start a very positive chain reaction. People will see you as a role model and then they too will begin to also listen and be more compassionate in the workplace. Satisfaction at work really escalates when people feel like they are friends. There was a time when employers didn’t want their workers to be their friends because they thought the employees wouldn’t be as productive, but actually we’re finding that almost the opposite is true. The feeling that you’re surrounded by people who care about you makes a huge difference in how we feel about the workplace.

Wofford: Still, from an employer’s standpoint it’s a lot harder to fire someone you’ve become friends with.

Brownell: Yeah, well that’s true. It is harder to fire a friend, for sure. But I’m not talking about friends in the sense that you go bowling together after work. I mean a friend more in the sense of caring about someone because you know a little about them and they know a little about you. But your point is really well taken because that leads to another really interesting area, which is how close can you be with people that work for you without creating perceptions of preferential treatment or favoritism.

Nevertheless, compassion, empathy and caring is really important for a leader. The servant leader feels that the organization is in their care, so they care about its people and everything in it in a way that’s somewhat different than a leader who feels like they own the organization and that they’re driving it in whatever direction they want.

Another thing that I think is really interesting that characterizes the servant leader is self knowledge. I think often we’re so caught up in the actual doing – do this, do that, have this meeting, manage that project – that to have someone who is able to sit back and be introspective is a real treat.

You know, people are taught to talk, talk, talk but no one ever teaches anyone to really listen. Yet, to make good decisions you really need to gather information. Listening is really important to servant leaders. Not only that they’re listening but that people are able to see that they’re listening. Empowering employees and caring about them means paying attention to them.

I think the things that the servant leader focuses on are a little bit different. It’s more people-centric. It’s not that servant leaders are weak. They’re not weak at all. They’re very courageous in how they are honest and caring in the organization.

Wofford: It’s much more about making the best decisions even when they very well might be unpopular, right? Ultimately, the idea is to serve your vocation, right?

Brownell: Right, and being forthright with the information – some good, some bad – about what was done and what decisions were made. I think the whole transparency theme in organizations is important, and I think the servant leader facilitates that.

Wofford: We’ve got another great question from Karen here: “What about when servant leadership bites you in the butt? I tried to practice servant leadership but it comes back to bite me sometimes. Too much empathy, in particular, bites me.” What do you say to that?

Brownell: Empathy should be about recognizing someone else’s position and feeling how it affects them, but the consequences still need to be there. You know, if a student comes to me and says, “Oh I was trying to print and my printer broke down and that is why I’m a day late.” That’s when I say, “I understand that this happened and I’m sorry, but I’m still not giving you credit.”

Empathy is just indicating to the individual that you have in fact heard them, you understand how it could happen and you appreciate that they came to you and explained. But you still have a goal to reach. You still have a policy to meet. So empathy does not mean allowing people to slack off.

Rather than telling people what to do, servant leaders use persuasion whenever possible. This gets people sincerely on board and fosters ethical practices. Ethics have been a real big concern of mine. Sometimes we assume that someone is unethical when actually they haven’t even recognized that there was an ethical issue or an ethical component to what they were doing. They haven’t necessarily considered how their decision affects other people. So modeling ethical practices and being vocal about them are other important aspects of servant leadership.

Wofford: This also ties in to the self-reflection you mentioned earlier, right?

Brownell: That’s right and I think that self-reflection is actually a neglected leadership behavior and yet, if you read about really powerful leaders in various types of industries, almost without exception they mention how important it is to just sit back and kind of think about yourself and your own goals and what’s important to you, what you value, your strengths and weaknesses.

One of the things that a leader needs to do is to have what we call behavioral integrity, which means behaving in a way that corresponds with what they say. If I say I value being healthy but the bowl of M&Ms on my desk is the only thing I have for lunch, that is not displaying behavioral integrity. I think leaders should reflect on whether their actions back up their words.

Another thing to explore is who you become as a leader. One of the transformative things that I’ve been taking a look at is what being a leader does to one’s sense of self. There is this view that power corrupts, and I think servant leadership really helps prevent that.

I think self-reflection, no matter what position you’re in, is really important in the end. Sometimes it may have been so long since you last gave yourself the freedom to really think in these terms that it can be hard to know where to begin. One way to begin is to take some key themes and write down your own self-perceptions and then have someone else tell you what they think about you in those areas.

Wofford: And the servant leader is not only providing this sort of self feedback, they are also providing supportive feedback to their employees, right?

Brownell: It’s really about empowerment. As you empower someone, it implies that you trust them because you’re taking the time to coach them and mentor them. You’re giving them feedback, which is a sign that you care about them and how they are doing. You’re observing and helping them perform even better.

That then increases trust because as a leader you are basically saying, “I’m sure you’re not going to do it exactly the way that I would do it, but I trust that you understand the values and the goals and I trust that you are doing the best you can on behalf of the organization.”

Employees really take off when they feel like someone’s supporting them and that they can be instrumental in the organization’s success.

Wofford: Judi, thank you so much for this introduction to servant leadership.

Brownell: Thank you, Chris. It was nice to join you again.

Want to hear more? This interview is based on Judi Brownell’s live eCornell WebSeries event, Empower Your Team Through Servant Leadership. Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Hospitality topics.