If you’ve studied leadership theory or spent time in a leadership position, you’ve likely heard the term “servant leadership.” Servant leaders can be highly effective under the right circumstances. This article will explore the origins of servant leadership theory and the essential servant leadership principles. We’ll also examine whether servant leadership is an appropriate style for project management and discuss how it may benefit project teams. 

What is servant leadership?

As its name suggests, servant leadership is a leadership style that focuses on serving the people under one’s charge. Rather than viewing team members and employees as mere cogs in the company wheel, servant leaders seek to build their subordinates up, nurture their growth and development, and foster a culture of connection and camaraderie.

Servant leadership stands in stark contrast to other leadership styles that seek to influence and motivate employees from a position of power and, in some cases, domination or intimidation.

What is a servant leader?

A servant leader places the needs of their employees and team members above their own. Servant leaders spend time listening to people’s perspectives, offering support, and actively seeking to build a sense of community within their team or organization. Rather than seeking to increase their own position, power, or influence, servant leaders prioritize their teams’ growth and well-being. 

What are the origins of servant leadership theory?

Although there are numerous examples of servant leaders throughout human history, the term “servant leadership” was officially coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf. In an essay titled “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf stated:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first… That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

Since the publication of Greenleaf’s essay, other theorists have examined and expounded the idea, offering more detailed insight into servant leadership qualities, styles, and examples. Larry Spears is one such theorist who studied Greenleaf’s writings carefully and extracted 10 distinct characteristics or principles of servant leadership.

What are important servant leadership principles?

According to Spears, the 10 servant leadership principles or characteristics are:

  1. Listening
    If the core of servant leadership is putting the needs of others first, then the servant leader must know what those needs are. That’s why listening is the foundational principle of servant leadership. Active listening also helps your team members and employees feel valued, especially if they’re used to leadership styles that do not encourage input from the rank and file.
  2. Empathy
    A major part of leadership is understanding the nuances of your team members. Everyone has different strengths and challenges, and not everyone responds to the same management styles. As a servant leader, you should know from listening to your people precisely what makes them tick and display empathy toward their particular needs.
  3. Healing
    New employees and team members may enter your organization with baggage and even trauma from their previous jobs. As a servant leader, you have an opportunity to help them heal by showing them a different way of leading — a way that is inclusive, caring, and well balanced.
  4. Awareness
    Along with listening to team members and understanding their particular strengths and weaknesses, servant leaders need to perform a self-inventory and determine their own strengths, areas for improvement, and overall place in the team and organizational structure. 
  5. Persuasion
    Persuasion often conjures up images of sleazy salespeople and unscrupulous tactics. But the truth is that servant leaders can use persuasion to garner buy-in and excitement around a new idea, strategy, or project. Rather than using it as a tactic for manipulation and control, servant leaders can employ persuasion to help everyone feel like they have a role in the team’s success.
  6. Conceptualization
    Although there is a heavy focus on team members and employees’ needs, servant leadership also requires a vision of success for individual projects and the organization as a whole. A proven project management platform like Wrike can help servant leaders keep tabs on projects both currently underway and in the pipeline. 
  7. Foresight
    Along with conceptualizing goals and strategies, servant leaders need foresight to see potential roadblocks that could hamper project progress or throw deliverables off track. Here again, Wrike can help project leaders keep a close eye on the day-to-day tasks involved with individual projects. What’s more, Wrike can help you review completed projects to distill valuable lessons that can be carried forward into future projects. 
  8. Stewardship
    Merriam-Webster defines stewardship as “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” From a project management and servant leadership perspective, stewardship refers to cultivating, nurturing, and protecting a culture of inclusion, cooperation, and shared interests.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people
    Whereas other leadership theories focus on the growth of the organization or its revenue, servant leadership emphasizes the growth of people — not just professionally, but personally, too. Servant leaders recognize that people have intrinsic value beyond their physical skills or contributions to the workplace. 
  10. Building community
    Along with nurturing team members’ growth and development, servant leaders are committed to building true communities within organizations. Community members are more apt to value and respect each other’s contributions. Other organizations and leadership styles can cultivate competition among employees and a “climb the ladder at all costs” mentality.

Servant leadership examples

One of the most commonly cited examples of servant leadership is Abraham Lincoln, who utilized the principles of servant leadership to help preserve the Union during the American Civil War and ultimately emancipate slaves in the U.S. Another example of servant leadership is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who championed the civil rights movement and supported nonviolent protests and demonstrations to effect change on a national scale. As demonstrated by his heroic actions, Dr. King’s desire to help his fellow man is a true example of servant leadership.

How servant leadership can benefit project management

In project-based organizations and teams, servant leadership can help team members feel more connected to their peers and more valued by their leaders and managers. In turn, those team members will feel more confident in offering up ideas and suggestions to improve projects and feel a greater sense of ownership in project outcomes. 

If you’d like to learn more about how Wrike can help you as you implement aspects of servant leadership in your team or organization, get started with a free two-week trial today.