What Is Servant Leadership and How Can It Help Your Startup?

Hand drawing man who is stopping dominoes from falling.

When you’re starting a new business venture, you have an opportunity to set the leadership culture in your new organization from the beginning. Of course, there are many different leadership styles. Depending on your type, you could be an in-control authority figure, a mystical business guru, or a friendly and laid-back leader. However, one of the best leadership styles to use when building your startup is servant leadership. 

Defining Servant Leadership

What is servant leadership? The short answer is that it is an approach to leadership defined by turning the normal business power structure upside down and having leaders serve the needs of their employees, rather than the traditional approach of having employees serve leaders. 

In other words, leaders who follow this leadership style exist to empower the people who work for them. Instead of being authoritative, commanding, and dominating, servant leaders act with a sense of humility. They find ways to allow their staff to work to their fullest potential by finding ways to match their talents with their work and otherwise unlock the powers of creativity and purpose that are often squelched by traditional management practices. Rather than cramming a square peg into a round hole, servant leaders find ways to use the square in a way more conducive to its nature. 

Compare this approach to traditional management, where employees are viewed as resources involved in a transaction. Traditionally, the employee performs specific tasks at a certain performance level in exchange for money, and the leader is there to enforce compliance with task standards and other policies. In this leadership model, managers derive authority solely from their position rather than any specific competency or talent. In business-speak, this is considered “legal” or “punitive” authority: authority that comes from official power or the ability to impose sanctions for poor performance. Some people in leadership roles may find this notion offensive. Still, almost anybody who has worked has worked for people who were awarded leadership positions because of seniority, cronyism, or nepotism instead of talent. Do you want your startup to run like famous Office Space company Intech or the nameless corporation featured in Dilbert cartoons? Probably not. 

Why Servant Leadership?

So why should you consider running your startup with this leadership practice? The main reasons are performance, morale, trust, and loyalty. 

How does this servile style of leadership enhance employee performance? Don’t employees need a strong leader to tell them what to do and be the boss instead of a meek and humble leader? Not at all. In fact, when leaders serve their teams, performance improves. This happens because when employees feel fulfilled, heard, and empowered, they perform better. Their internal sense of purpose is activated, and they begin approaching problems at a higher level. This leads to more innovation, increased retention, and better results. In essence, this style of leadership embraces the idea that happy and fulfilled employees benefit the business. Instead of viewing employees as transactionally-motivated cogs in the machine that require constant supervision and control, a servant leader views their employees as human beings who possess talent and skill that can be leveraged for business success. In a startup, where you may have a small team of people, it is critical to ensure that everybody can play to their talents for the good of the enterprise. 

Servant leaders also tend to improve morale in their organizations. This intuitively makes sense. Would you rather work for a boss that develops a good relationship with you, helps you reach your goals, and keeps communication channels open for solid two-way dialogue? Or would you rather work for an authoritarian boss who believes that employees need to be led with a firm hand and treats you as an expendable resource? You might pretend to like the second boss just so you don’t get disciplined or fired, but you will develop a good relationship with the first boss. This ability to build good relationships is one of the secrets of leading through service: employees will trust a servant leader more and will work more diligently to maintain that level of trust with their boss. When you are starting a new business or building your startup, you need to have a good relationship with your employees to keep them motivated and avoid turnover or internal sabotage

Leaders who serve their employees also build an environment of mutual trust. By treating their employees as customers to be served, servant leaders build a relationship of trust with their employees. This empowers employees to work to a higher level. Think about jobs you’ve had where you had to work for someone who didn’t trust you as an employee. Signs of this include things like micromanaging and fear-based motivation. In an untrusting environment, do you really think employees will give it their all? Or will employees phone it in and work only to meet arbitrary performance metrics rather than serving their customers? Building a trusting relationship with your employees is good for your business, and serving your employees is an excellent way to gain and maintain their trust in you

Finally, by following the principles of servant leadership, you can build loyalty among your staff. Most people in the job market today have likely endured a toxic workplace. You have probably also encountered this kind of work environment. Did you like it? Would you stay, or would you leave the second someone dangled a better opportunity at you? On the other hand, if your boss treats you well and your work environment is pleasant, harmonious, and built to let you thrive, you will probably not be looking for new work any time soon. 

Principles of Servant Leadership

So how do we engage in this leadership style and be the kind of business leaders we would want to work for? The first step is to listen to your employees. In the business world, leaders often pretend to listen: they might be quiet while someone else speaks and then ignore what was said to hammer down on their own point some more. Servant leaders will not do this. Instead, they engage in active listening. This is the practice of being patient, neutral, and nonjudgmental. The active listener hears what is said and reflects it back to the speaker, asking for clarification if necessary to hone in on what is being said. Active listening is also done without distraction: you should be looking at the speaker and providing verbal and nonverbal cues that you are paying attention to them. Active listening lets you understand problems from the employee’s perspective and helps build a stronger relationship with your employees. This is incredibly valuable to any business, but especially to a startup. 

Empathy

In addition to active listening, servant leaders also display empathy. Americans, in general, are not very good at empathy, which is a shame because being empathetic with your employees goes a long way toward building strong bonds with them and keeping them happy at work. To exercise an empathetic leadership approach, all you need to do is recognize that your employees are people who have thoughts and feelings. If employees are sad, stressed out, or otherwise experiencing emotional or mental distress, they will not be able to give 100% to their job. An empathetic servant leader will understand this, offer support, and take steps to help their employees heal. A traditional leader will tell their employee to suck it up or else. Which boss do you want to work for? Empathy goes a long way to building employee loyalty and keeping your people happy — which in turn keeps your customers and your business happy.

Humility

Servant leaders are also humble. They recognize that while they might be the leader of an organization, they are not physically doing all of the work. A humble servant leader will give credit to their team and offer to help in ways that may not be traditionally expected of leaders. An excellent example is that of Herb Kelleher, founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines. On one flight, Kelleher famously helped the flight crew by serving drinks and snacks with them. By getting out into the trenches with his employees and helping them with a fundamental, customer-facing task that served the interest of his business, Kelleher demonstrated that he was on an even playing field with his flight crews. Not many leaders are willing to engage in the real, nuts-and-bolts work of their organizations, but doing so shows employees that you are committed to the organization in a meaningful way. 

Commitment to Growing Your People

Servant leaders are legitimately interested in the wellness and development of their employees. Once again, happy employees make for satisfied customers, which makes for a strong business. Employees who have opportunities for growth are going to be happy, and they will also be able to develop new skills or polish existing skills. This enhancement of your talent pool helps your company succeed. So how can servant leaders facilitate the growth of their employees?

The first thing to do is to encourage their professional development. Does your company’s lead developer want to get a new technical certification? Providing company funds and time off to pursue this goal will keep your developer happy and sharpen their technical skills, which in turn enables them to offer a higher level of service to your company. 

You should also talk with your employees and help them build a development plan. What are their strengths and interests? How can these be leveraged to provide more value for the company, and how can the company help them get there? Actively engaging with the process of employee development will improve your chances of successfully building your internal talent pool. 

You may also consider giving your employees more challenging work. Maybe you have an employee who is very comfortable in their role, but they’re not growing. Consider offering them a new and more challenging assignment. Maybe that business development specialist needs more involvement in strategy decisions, or perhaps your programmer should be tasked with building a new solution. But don’t just randomly pile work on employees and call it a challenge: try to match their work with their skills. 

Finally, employees thrive on benign neglect. Growing your employees doesn’t mean shadowing their every move and monitoring their every metric to see if they are growing: it means getting out of the way and entrusting them to do their jobs. If you trusted them enough to hire them, trust them enough to do their job.

More Than Just a Trend

The notion that executives and managers should treat employees as equals or even serve them in some way might seem counterintuitive. In American culture, the boss is often seen as a powerful authority figure who dominates the workplace and keeps a tight rein on their employees. And while that model might have worked for some businesses, it is rapidly becoming outdated. This trend isn’t just based on social change or on some new-age philosophy: it’s based on science. Employees like to work for servant leaders, and employees who like their jobs are much more productive. Consider the case of Jason’s Deli, a sandwich chain. The University of Illinois studied the implementation of servant leadership practices in this company and found that there was a 6% overall improvement in job performance, an 8% increase in customer service, and a 50% increase in retention. That’s huge! Hiring and training employees after turnover events is a tremendous business expense, so a 50% reduction in turnover means more money in your pocket. Improvements in job performance and customer service mean you will have happier customers who will continue to support your startup. Instead of the traditional business leadership style of myopically focusing on profit and efficiency and treating employees like interchangeable parts, try running your company with servant leadership. Taking care of your employees makes for a more pleasant — and more profitable — workplace.