There is something of a paradox regarding leadership: evidence suggests that too strong a focus on financial results may be somewhat counterproductive. A recent study led by Baylor University’s Matthew Quade found that leaders who are very focused on the bottom line may end up hampering the performance of their employees. In contrast, those who engage in what’s known as servant leadership may actually inspire employees to perform more strongly.
Servant leadership is an other-oriented leadership approach that prioritises the well-being and growth of three main groups: subordinates, the organisation as an entity and the wider community outside of the organisation. A just-published analysis of 130 prior studies on the topic found that the behaviours associated with servant leadership were statistically linked to positive outcomes at both the individual and team level. That does not mean that servant leadership is either necessary or sufficient for organisational success. However, leaders who adopted more of this approach tended to get better performance not only from individuals; those individuals tended to work together more productively as teams, too.
A recent attempt to quantify servant leadership was carried out by Dirk van Dierendonck and Inge Nuijten of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Looking at leaders in both the UK and The Netherlands, the researchers found that effective servant leadership was primarily defined by categories of behaviour.
Empowerment is the extent to which leaders develop a positive, self-confident attitude among employees. For example, this is measured by employees’ response to statements including ‘My manager helps me to further develop myself’ and ‘My manager enables me to solve problems myself instead of just telling me what to do’.
Accountability is a measure of leaders’ willingness to set expectations and boundaries and then hold all members of the team responsible for the work they carry out. Leaders who are judged to behave unfairly – for example, by rewarding unjustly only certain members of the team – typically score lower on accountability.
Stewardship is the extent to which employees agree or disagree with statements such as ‘My manager emphasises the societal responsibility of our work’ and ‘My manager has a long-term vision’.
Humility requires that leaders not only learn from criticism when they receive it but also actively seek it from appropriate stakeholders.
Standing back is a measure of the extent to which leaders are willing to highlight the strengths and achievements of their subordinates. For instance, leaders are judged to be stronger at this factor when employees agree with the statement ‘My manager appears to enjoy his/her colleagues’ success more than his/her own’.
Those five factors emerged as so-called ‘primary’ aspects of servant leadership. However, several others were also found to predict employees’ well-being and performance. As just one example, forgiveness is the degree to which leaders are understanding and accepting of mistakes and failures. Unfortunately, some leaders continue to criticise employees for past blunders or faults.
Thinking about leadership in general, it can sometimes appear as if only forceful, charismatic leaders succeed. However, studies on servant leadership suggest that quieter servant leaders may also be able to deliver results for their organisations, albeit in a very different fashion.
Unfortunately, history tells us that leaders can flourish without some or even all of the factors associated with servant leadership. You may personally know managers who were weak at empowerment, standing back or any of these other factors, yet still achieved financial results. However, the best way of thinking about these factors is that they are generally beneficial in most instances, but not all – in the same way that eating more vegetables and doing physical exercise are generally beneficial but cannot guarantee good physical health in 100% of individuals.