The effective servant leader

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It’s a common clash in the current workplace: idealistic younger employees, looking for purpose and meaning in their work, join a new organisation with high hopes – only to find themselves working for bosses still wedded to the old command-and-control management paradigm: ‘I give the orders and you follow them.’

It’s not a leadership style that many of these young workers are comfortable with, so many vote with their feet and leave.

Turnover turmoil

In a recent Gallup workplace study, 21% of millennial-generation workers (roughly ages 26-41) reported that they changed jobs within the past year, a turnover rate that was three times higher than that for older employees in the same period.

This high turnover rate is especially disconcerting when one considers that millennials are the largest generation cohort in the global workplace, and are expected to remain so past 2030, according to various labour population estimates. And a recent Deloitte survey suggests that they will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025.

Given this cohort’s sheer size, retention of these workers has become critical to the stability of many organisations. As a result, many of those responsible for hiring decisions are asking themselves: What type of manager, and management style, will increase the likelihood that younger workers will want to stay?

Enter the servant leader.

Good fit for millennials

To understand servant leadership, think of an inverted organisational chart. In the traditional command-and-control style, each division or department has a leader at the top. Under servant leadership, the leader is at the bottom and serves all staffers members above them.

The end result of this inversion? As Art Barter, founder and CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute and CEO of Datron World Communications, once told me in an interview: ‘Performance goes through the roof.’

Successful servant leadership starts with a leader's desire to serve their staff, which in turn benefits the organisation at large. In every encounter with a team member, the servant leader’s first inclination should be: How can I serve this person today?

It’s a leadership style that can be particularly effective in managing millennial workers, who in survey after survey have said they want to work for managers who take an interest in their wellbeing and long-term growth, and who seek staff input into organisational actions.

Manage like a servant leader

Effective servant leadership may begin at the employee’s onboarding phase. Besides making the usual introductions and explaining operations, the servant leader also makes it a point to solicit the new hire's impressions and ideas about operations. This sends a message from day one: the manager values the staffer’s input.

In addition, servant leaders realise that employees often achieve their highest performance levels when they are engaged in work they are most passionate about. Thus, servant leaders make a strong effort from the early stages to learn about individual team members and where their professional passions lie.

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They ask questions such asWhat most engages you about your work? What part of your job do you most enjoy doing? This knowledge then helps them leverage the staffer’s strengths for the good of the company’s mission. Coaching to strengths, and continually recognising good work and encouraging more, are two of the most powerful tools in the servant leader’s toolbox.

In terms of talent development, servant leaders often enhance this process by allowing team members to take ownership of projects and lead certain initiatives. Once given this autonomy, a staffer’s latent talents may rise to the surface and bloom, which benefits the employee and the organisation at large.

Listening closely

When managing, servant leaders build close relationships with team members by asking the right questions, and listening closely to the answers.

These types of question range widely. They could be situational; if a team member is struggling, for example, the manager may ask questions about what might be impeding their progress. But there will also likely be a series of questions, asked over time, that allow the manager to build a thorough professional understanding of the employee, including career goals and desired accomplishments.

And the emphasis on asking questions works both ways. Staffers should feel comfortable asking questions, without worrying that their manager will feel threatened or implicitly criticised. Such questions help drive the development and growth of the employee.

Asking questions is related to another important servant leader practice: close listening. The servant leader will usually listen silently and focus on understanding the employee’s point of view. Even if the leader feels the need to disagree or interject, they will wait until the team member is finished speaking. Some leaders briefly summarise what they heard, to communicate understanding.

As a managerial tool, close listening has become even more important with the rise of technology and the decrease of attention spans. It literally has become harder for some managers to sit still and listen close to a staffer describing a situation at length. And not all leaders can resist the urge to glance at their phone repeatedly during conversations.

Attitude and latitude

Millennial employees may be young, but they are decidedly not children – they are fellow professionals. When these workers make mistakes, a servant leader does not sit them down for a scolding or a discipline session.

Instead, the servant leader engages in a respectful conversation with them. Mistakes are pointed out and discussed, but with an attitude that demonstrates trust in the team member to make the needed adjustments.

Indeed, trust is a requirement for servant leaders. Managers must trust that the employees are worth serving, and that staffers, along with the organisation as a whole, will benefit from the leader’s service. In turn, practising servant leadership generates trust in the employees because they are convinced by their manager's serve-first approach that they have their best interests at heart.

Author: Mark Tarallo is an author and journalist covering management and leadership issues

This article was first published in AB magazine January 2022

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