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Understanding the Nuances of Servant Leadership


Key Takeaways

  • There are five leadership styles
  • Leadership can be broadly categorized into self-serving and serving others
  • Servant leadership is a philosophy which extends beyond the realms of the corporate world
  • Servant leadership’s attributes help build not only organizations, but better human beings and better communities around us. Servant leadership is an acquired skill
  • A true servant leader is someone who inspires individuals by having them identify their intrinsic motivators, align them with broader vision, and help them achieve that vision

Let’s jog our memory a bit. Go back to your most recent interactions with your boss/manager/leader. How did those interactions make you feel?

Was it a wonderful feeling? Or something you want to forget? This article is not to chastise the behavior of your boss/manager/leader. However, it is a simple exercise to understand your feelings about your bosses. You may feel a gambit of emotions ranging from apathy to exhilaration, from horror to capitulation.

Why do we go through these? That’s because there is a presupposition that’s created in our mind based on the behavioral aspect of our leaders. This behavioral aspect is driven by leaders’ personalities.

Now, let’s do something different. List the names of those leaders who you feel connected to or are inspired by. The aim of this exercise is to discern leadership traits, what inspires us to be someone, and what drives us to emulate someone, to become a better version of ourselves…

Leaders’ behavior has a huge impact on us. It somehow instills in us a belief system of a ‘perfect’ leadership. For someone who spends much of their time looking at ‘leaders’ in the workspace during the day, we tend to catch on to few of the traits.

There are many different ‘Leadership types’. It is a huge topic in itself. Here, I have tried to cover a few of the types and their attributes:

Autocratic leadership


Paternalistic leadership


Participative leadership


Delegative leadership


Agile leadership


Also known as authoritarian leadership


Involves a dominant authority figure who acts as a patriarch or matriarch


Invites input from employees on all company decisions


Hands-off leadership type


Falls in the area of participative, delegative, and total empowerment

Leadership style characterized by individual control over all decisions and little to no input from group members


Treats employees and partners as though they are members of a large, extended family


The staff is given pertinent information regarding company issues


Allows group members to make the decisions


It is in the realm of servant leadership


Typically makes choices based on their ideas and judgments and rarely accepts advice from followers


The leader expects loyalty and trust from employees, as well as obedience


Majority vote determines the course of action the company will take


Decisions Supported by Management


Most authentic kind of leadership if done right


e.g: Adolf Hitler, Mussolini

Leaders from the east, like the Tatas, Ambanis; they expect trust and loyalties from their employees




In my 15 years of professional experience, I have come across a few of the above-mentioned leadership styles.

The culture that I grew up in firmly believes in giving respect to elders. There are rules on how one ought to behave when in front of elders. This behavior is instilled in one’s childhood. Among many other things, this behavior is exhibited in the workplace too. There is an unconscious bias towards looking up to managers as “seniors/elders”. I have been a classic example of this bias. When I joined my first job, I reverently looked up to my manager. God bless that soul, he ensured that I listened to what ever he said. The style of his behavior can be classified as autocratic leadership.

The same was exhibited by my manager in my second job. He did not want anyone to have a different opinion than his. It worked. But in a way, it also instilled fear in us. The only way I could survive in the organization for nearly ¾ of a decade was because of another manager who was totally delegative. He wanted us to take decisions on processes. He had handed over the authority to us. He had his own human flaws that prevented him from becoming a truly agile leader. But that did not stop him from empowering us, unleashing our creativity.

When I joined my present company for the second time, my country manager (who takes care of the logistics, pay raise, etc.) adopted me as part of his “office family”. It was comforting. It was like being in a warm cocoon. My needs were taken care of by him. However, with this came a certain emotional strain. I could not express my opinions, which were differed from his. Not because he would shut me down, but because he would feel offended by my talking a stand against him. The look in his eyes was that of a person who was pained by my words. It took me seven months to get out of this emotional roller coaster with him. I had to set some terms and agree on ways of working with him. I am still working with him; it’s not the best place to be, but I can say that things are better. He still thinks he uplifted my career, my life. A classic case of paternalistic leadership.

In the same organization, I have another manager who I truly respect. I learnt the nuances of servant leadership from him. For me, the reason why I am still with the company is because of this this guy. He coaches me, empowers me. He is open, trustworthy and is the only person who I can say is “human”. He is vulnerable, and consistent in his communication with the team. A great model for anyone who wants to be an agile leader, an authentic leader. Once I got to know this style of leadership, I decided that this is how a good leader should be.

However, if we broadly categorize them further, the leadership itself fits into two categories:



Serving others

The first type of leadership is all about “What’s in it for me?” This is presented in many possible ways,  but the objective of this type of Leadership is to have a team or set of individuals who follow the objectives of the leader.

The second type of leadership is serving others. Now, this is a rarity in today’s world, right? Think about a scenario where you did something good for others without any agenda or without any “what’s in it for me?”.  Sit back and think how it made you feel; what were your foremost thoughts? Did you go beyond your limits to help someone?

This is what a ‘servant leader’ is.  He/she is someone who puts others’ interests first. And they are available at a moment’s notice any-time, any-day, and selflessly help achieve the team’s goals and objectives.

Out of the many definitions, a servant leadership is explained best here:

“Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world”.

In an organizational set up, every team and every individual should answer the questions ‘Why am I doing what I am doing?’ What is the added value my role contributes in this space? Of course, the cynical and simplest answer is money. But honestly, if money was the criteria and we did well enough at the work place, why do we sometimes feel uninspired? Money can only get us so far, but beyond that, it is worthless when pursuing higher aims. Or so I believe! Let’s beg to differ and discuss different opinions on that.

According to the book “Drive”, autonomy and purpose are intrinsic motivators. Leaders should play a part in guiding the team to realize their autonomy and purpose. Having leaders who put their purpose first will greatly impact the organization. But what happens when we have self-serving leaders?

Now, every organization has a clear-cut purpose and vision. Eventually, we can cynically conclude its aim it so to make money and survive the competitive market. But beyond this rhetorical statement, there is a drive for individuality and uniqueness. And, how will any company strive for this uniqueness? It is the people who make that company. And it’s imperative that every single individual is aligned to that unique vision of the company.

Who helps us individuals get that vision? Who directs us to a way of thinking? It’s the leaders. They have the vantage point of being bi-directional. What do I mean by that? At one end they have the vision to steer the company to great heights, and at the other end they can guide the team at a grass root level. If all are aligned together, that’s great, but if one of the leaders is a self-serving individual thrusting his/her agenda on the team, then the consequences will be ugly. There will be a clash of opinions and a conflict of interests. Often, we come across such leaders. These conflicts harm the growth of the team initially, and the company eventually. In most cases, the team bears the brunt. We become task workers bossed around and the fear of punishment looms large. This is where the motivation and the drive to do something great dies down.

Now, let’s focus on servant leaders. What traits do they possess that make them different than the self-serving Leaders? The key traits are shown below…

Listening: Servant leaders listen receptively to what is being said and unsaid. Listening also encompasses hearing one’s own inner voice. Listening, coupled with periods of reflection, is essential to the growth and well-being of the servant leader and that of the team.

Empathy: People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique traits. One assumes the good intentions of co-workers/colleagues and does not reject them as individuals

Self-awareness: Awareness helps one in understanding issues involving ethics, power, and values

Foresight: Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant leader to understand lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future

Persuasion: The ervant leader seeks to convince others, not coerce to compliance. This trait of the servant leader is very helpful in getting the allegiance of the team towards the organizational vision

Stewardship: Merriam Webster defines stewardship as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care. Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others

Healing: One of the great strengths of servant leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and one’s relationship to others

Conceptualization: Servant leaders seek to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams. The ability to look at a problem or an organization from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities

What is it that they bring to the team? How can we benefit from these leaders? As stated earlier, servant leaders are those who put others’ interests before their own agenda. That’s one of the many traits of such leaders. Now, in the team set up and the individual set up, what do these interests mean? Simply put, it’s the vision of the organization, and as teams and individuals, how each one can be part of this journey.

In this journey, there will be conflicts and differing opinions. Here is where the servant leader brings his persuasiveness, a key skill, to the table. And how do they do it? They do it by creating a purpose to the team’s existence and by intrinsically keeping them motivated. By exhibiting agile values like trust, openness and respect, they bring out the best intent in each decision.

This step needs to be repeated more than once. Such leaders are like the people perched upon the high mast on the ship. They have the vision of where the ship is headed. And they steer the team in the right direction. Once the team realizes the intentions of such leaders, they serve them selflessly to carry out that vision.

So, what will happen next? This is my hypothesis from working with some great leaders in my organization. Like the story in the Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East” where the travelers thought Leo to be the servant of the group, we start thinking the same. We feel we have no leaders to lead us, but one who just serves us. Now, every individual has different reactions to it. But generally, it varies from contempt (a weak leader/spineless), opportunist (I can do whatever I want in the mask of autonomy), to a sense of reverence. Our conditioned mind at first refuses to accept anything that is out of the ‘norm’, but slowly we begin to transform. It reflects first in our work and then at multiple levels. We suddenly feel ‘free’ to do something and be accountable to it. This is a first step in realizing our autonomy. And how did that come about? It’s the psychological safety created by the leader. We no longer look up to leaders for work and ask if this is right or not. We do it because we are aligned to a larger vision of the company.

Suddenly, the leader becomes a bit endearing. We start to look beyond the day-to-day cart wheel of work/sleep mode and begin to ask questions, questions about how/why/what we are doing? How does all this impact my life? What is my greater purpose? This is where most of them quit jobs and become zen masters (lol)!

This is where we really ask some pertinent questions about the purpose of our own job, our chosen field, our career, and in some cases our life. The other trait of great servant leaders is their ability to be a coach. That’s where they guide us in realizing the higher purpose of our existence.

Suddenly, we begin to emulate these leaders. We too crave the need to help fellow human beings as humans, and not as resources. And not drive someone to a self-serving goal, but to serve others and be a medium through which they carry out their vision, goals and purpose!

The Big H.

Till now, we have covered the nuances of servant leadership, the aspirational parts of being a true leader. But we can’t help but wonder, HOW does one become one? Where should one begin?

 Joe Larocci, author of Servant leadership in Workplace, identifies three key areas that any leader should begin working on:

  1. Developing people
  2. Building a trusting team
  3. Achieving results

They should be coupled with the principles outlined earlier in this article. This is the first step for any leader who steps into the servant leadership realm.

Where should one begin?

In my experience working with servant leaders and trying to become one, I have realized the power of vulnerability. When we exhibit human values like trust, openness, courage, and empathy, we realize that vulnerability comes naturally to us. Once we begin this journey of being vulnerable, we begin to see things, hear things and feel things in a totally different way.  That transformation is magical. It’s as if an unseen burden is lifted off one’s chest. One will feel lighter and has better clarity of thoughts. It’s in this space we begin to look at individuals we set out to lead, as our own.

Start small and keep asking these questions along the way.  Am I exhibiting human values? Am I comfortable with being vulnerable to myself and to people around me? Can I attune myself to the said and unsaid words of the people whom I lead? When the answers come from within, they are true and guide you along the way.

So, what are you waiting for? Stand up, take a deep breath, gingerly step ahead in the direction of this true leadership way. The steps might wobble a bit at the beginning, like a toddler setting out on its long journey. But along the way, realize they will become more confident, and three will be a rhythmic march ahead. Along the same way, there will be more footsteps following you, marching towards the same destiny. A destiny to greatness.

And the journey of a servant Leader will be a never-ending circle...


About the Author

Vikram Raghuram is an agile coach with a fortune 100 IT organization. Has 15 years of experience in training, facilitating, and leading teams and projects. He firmly believes that agile transformation is not only for organizations, but for people transformation too. He likes to believe that the agile values are nothing but human values and when adopted in the right way, we can help build better communities and cultures around us along with better organizations and ways of working. Raghuram holds a bachelor’s degree in science from Bangalore university, and is from Bangalore, India. When he is not working, he likes to listen to music, loves physics, and has a passion for learning philosophy and human behavior. 

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