Why Servant Leadership Is Making a Comeback

Today, everybody wants to feel like a stakeholder in an organization, and a new study suggests command-and-control leadership is obsolete. But strong execs who can build trust still have a role to play.

Leadership models come and go, but humility never goes out of style.

That’s one of the key findings from a recent report from McKinley Advisors. In “The DNA of Top-Performing Member Organizations,” published in March, the consultancy interviewed leaders of 11 organizations that scored high marks in terms of customer satisfaction and value for cost of membership. A common theme, says the report, is that those organizations are shaped by leaders who know when to get out of the way.

People just really mattered to them, and they understood the power of relationships.

“The leaders of these 11 organizations often prioritize others over any personal accumulation of power,” the report states. The term for that is “servant leadership,” coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader,” which advocated for distributing power instead of accumulating it, focusing “primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”

Participants in the study weren’t asked to tick a box to choose their preferred leadership style, says Shelley Sanner, CAE, senior vice president of industry relations at McKinley Advisors. Rather, the themes emerged out of interviews with executives.

Humility—a lot of them mentioned that word,” she says. “Or if they didn’t, they demonstrated it just in the way they talked about things. Combined with that was the servant leadership mindset, where it’s putting the board first, or the staff first, or the members first, or all those things. People just really mattered to them, and they understood the power of relationships.”

But servant leadership is not quite the same thing as recusal from authority. Rather, it understands that leaders lead best when they’re creating an environment where others can do their best work. As Jennifer Whittington, CAE, executive director of the University Risk Management and Insurance Association explained in an interview for the study, “humility is an aspect of quiet leadership. You let volunteers play their role, but as an executive director you have to keep the balls in the air and keep everything moving in a forward direction.”

Sanner says many interviewees returned to the notion of a leader being somebody who empowers rather than embodies power. “When asked what are the factors that are likely to predict whether an organization is going to be high-performing or not, [interviewees] would say something like, ‘Is the relationship healthy with the board? Do the board members each feel like they’re being leveraged fully and feel like the work is meaningful?’”

Though the concept of servant leadership has been around for nearly 50 years, the need for it feels newly relevant. Stakeholders, from volunteers to members to staffers, increasingly want transparency out of organizations and are more comfortable creating their own networks if yours isn’t providing it. In their recent book New Power, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms—opening keynoters for this summer’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition—point out that “people are less likely to be card-carrying members of organizations or to forge decades-long relationships with institutions.” Preserving the relationships that associations are used to cultivating, they explain, will require giving people the sense that they have a role in setting the direction of an organization.

Integrating servant leadership into an organization is easier said than done, of course—though a CEO now might have a looser grip on the reins, that doesn’t mean entirely letting go. But done well, it can create an environment where staff and volunteers feel more free to innovate. Last year, Rupen Shah, director of IT at the National Apartment Association, discussed in an article how servant leadership methods can free staffers to build technology projects. A “Scrum master” in these projects isn’t setting direction so much as establishing milestones for a project.

“The Scrum master is not at the top of the pyramid working the traditional command-and-control functions,” he writes. “They are at the bottom of the totem pole working with internal and external actors who have a dotted-line responsibility to them. Their role is to facilitate and help the team define user stories and find points for progress.”

A theme that emerged from the McKinley study was “fostering trust to have critical conversations.” If it’s true that everybody wants to feel empowered these days, trust will have to be an essential part of the effective functioning of an organization: a leader trusting that stakeholders will make good use of the freedom they’re given, the stakeholders trusting that it’s given authentically. In that regard, servant leadership isn’t really a sacrifice—it’s an elevation of trust-building, a powerful piece of any leader’s toolkit.

How have you demonstrated servant leadership in your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.

(runeer/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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