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Traditional power leadership models turned upside down

When we think about leaders, the idea of “serving” others is usually the last that comes to our mind. Leaders are depicted as those who drive, who give orders, directions and whose instructions need to be followed. Subordinates serve leaders, not the other way round, right? Is “servant leadership” nothing more than an oxymoron?

Well, it turns out that servant leadership is a concept that has been around for quite a while, and it is gathering momentum. In this post, we will explain what servant leadership is and we will show you which behaviors you need to adopt if you want to become a servant leader. We will also report on research that explores how servant leadership can be beneficial for service employee empowerment, one of the critical success factors in hospitality. Last but not least, how effective servant leadership is depends also on the personality of your subordinates, in particular their level of “openness”. Follow us on a guided tour on how to empower service employees by engaging in servant leadership.

Who are“servant leaders”?

Generally speaking, servant leaders are defined as those who put key emphasis in their behaviors on serving others, including their subordinates and society at large. Servant leaders will put the interests of their subordinates above their own, create a trusting relationship and support the professional development of their subordinates with the purpose of helping them reach their full potential.

How to engage in servant leadership?

Different researchers have proposed a variety of frameworks to describe the behaviors a servant leader engages in. Some of these frameworks have considerable overlap. If you want to check your own behaviors against some of the most important benchmarks for servant leadership, try to ask yourself how many of the following boxes you can tick:

  • Create a trusting relationship - Do your employees know what you stand for? Do you “walk your talk”? Do you treat your subordinates equitably and do they know they can rely on you to be fair and transparent in your relationship?
  • Help subordinates develop and grow – Do you spend enough time thinking about the skills and experiences your subordinates need to acquire? Do you challenge them without overstretching their competencies? Are you tolerant when they make honest mistakes?
  • Put subordinates first – Are you capable of putting your subordinates' success over your own? Can you make tough choices that will benefit your subordinates, even when they do not benefit you?
  • Behave ethically – Do you have a clear moral compass at work? Do your subordinates know what ethical principles you stand for? Do you apply them rigorously, even when difficult choices need to be made?
  • Empower subordinates – Do you recognize opportunities where your subordinates need to develop independence and autonomy? Do you given them the chance to make decisions and exercise autonomy?
  • Create value for the community – In your daily work, do you think beyond short-term benefits for you and your department? Do you systematically search for opportunities to create value for others in your organization and beyond? Are you sensitive to issues of sustainability and corporate social responsibility?

Why does servant leadership promote empowerment?

Empowerment is a psychological state in employees that has several facets:

  • Employees work towards a goal that is aligned with their own beliefs and values.
  • They are competent enough to perform their tasks.
  • They can make autonomous decisions in their work environment.
  • They can make a difference through their work for others.

Servant leaders promote most if not all of these perceptions; they help their subordinates realize their full potential, which instills meaning and shows that they can make a difference. Servant leaders also strengthen their subordinates' skills and actively involve them in decision-making processes. This strengthens their sense of competence and autonomy. In other words, when leaders engage in servant leadership behaviors, their subordinates' sense of empowerment should grow considerably.

Which employees benefit most from servant leadership?

All service employees – and all human beings, as a matter of fact – differ with regard to their personality. The “big five” personality model – a popular way of describing and measuring personality – highlights “openness” as one defining characteristic of personality. Individuals who are high in openness are creative, imaginative individuals who welcome other people’s opinions and are generally curious about new experiences.

When service employees are high in openness, chances are that they will have a stronger sense of empowerment to begin with. Their natural creativity and interest in trying out new things will lead them to actively seek out opportunities for taking initiative and responsibility. Not surprisingly, our research suggests that while servant leadership benefits all employees, those who lack “openness” benefit more than all others from interacting with a servant leader. Servant leadership behaviors may strengthen their self-confidence and encourage them to venture out into new territory and take some of the risks that are inherent in empowered behaviors. Without a servant leader they may have refrained from showing such new attitudes.

Will you become a servant leader?

Servant leadership requires guts and the willingness to think outside of the box. It implies putting aside the old notion that leaders always have to “call the shots”. Engaging in servant leadership can promote empowerment in your employees, and empowerment is a key ingredient for seamless service delivery and high levels of guest satisfaction. Give servant leadership a try – and observe how your team will reward you for it. You may be surprised by the outcomes.

EHL Hospitality Business School
Communications Department
+41 21 785 1354

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