Servant Leadership

Digital Transformation – Servant Leadership (10 minute read)

The year 2017 will be the year of digital transformation across traditional banks, as they respond to emerging technology and Fintech competition. Many moons ago, during my MSc, my Professor of Change Management, Bernard Burns, used to say; “the key component of successful change is culture”, and this is still true today. Overhauling strategy but omitting to address internal culture appropriately is a recipe for failure. Servant leadership is needed to drive the right culture in today’s fast paced digital business environment. For successful transformation leadership is needed at every level, with a priority given to people rather than process. I attended a session on servant leadership recently; the keynote speaker was Angie Main. Here is my take on her talk. I have expanded on each topic to provide further context.

The phrase servant leaders was made popular by Rob Greenleaf in 1970. He flipped the traditional thinking of management on its head. He defined servant leadership as:

“A philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organisations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world”

Although I would never say no to an Americano, servant leadership is not just about buying your team decaf Cappuccinos or gluten free cakes. It is a practical philosophy that drives productivity and effectiveness, whilst being genuine, transparent and empathic. A servant leader will focus on serving and enabling people to grow, become wise and embrace autonomy.

Principles of a servant leader

Angie explained that servant leaders should embody 3 key principles:


A servant leader will influence others by coaching them rather than using their organisational position of power. Influential leaders are empathic and can motivate others by adapting their communication style specifically to that individual. They are genuine and trustworthy, and people generally follow them without being asked.


A servant leader knows how to truly listen. I love the TED Talk 5 ways to listen better where Julian Treasure states listening is when you make true meaning from sound: on average we spend 60% of our time listening to others and only retain about 25%. He gives 5 top tips which I use to make me a better listener:

-Silence: Stay silent for 3 minutes every day.

-Mixer: In a noisy place recognise all the different channels and types of sounds.

-Savoring: Appreciate mundane sound and recognise patterns within these sounds.

-Listening positioning: Adapt your listening position to what you are listening to.

-RASA: Receive information, Appreciate and acknowledge, Summarise what you have heard and Ask relevant questions.


A servant leader has to be humble in their approach: they appreciate others’ skills, knowledge and experience. It is important for a servant leader to be open to others, admit mistakes and ask for help rather than sticking to their views for the sake of their pride.

Behaviours of a servant leader

Angie has compiled a list of behaviours that are needed to be an effective servant leader. These behaviours also build the foundation for successful cultural transformation.


Innovation has been talked about for many years and is one of the most misused words in organisations. Servant leaders need to be innovators and be effective in a rapidly changing environment. Being an innovator is about driving value with new approaches, continuous improvement and continuous learning. Waiting at the departure gate at Heathrow to board my Eurowings (yes, I travel in style) flight to Hamburg last week, I met a business consultant who explained; “consultancy is free; everyone has an opinion, however the value comes from execution.” The same is true for an innovator, they will share their ideas and form a vision but more importantly they will spearhead the execution of the vision.


A servant leader will push their team in a sustainable way to deliver results. They use their spidy senses (intuition) and facts on the ground (analysis) to leverage the strengths of the team and make them high performing. If you imagine each team member as a jigsaw piece; the servant leader is able to arrange the puzzle (team) together and create teams that are able to perform at their best.


The art of delegation is an interesting behaviour to master and it has to be executed differently depending on the specific environment. A servant leader gives appropriate autonomy to their team so that members can develop their own skills, knowledge and abilities. The trick with delegation is to empower others by building a sense of connection, purpose and common goals. A servant leader will provide clear direction for the outcome and trust the team to work out the appropriate path. I have seen good servant leaders ask open questions such as: “what do you think we should do in this situation? What steps should we take?”.  Asking open questions enables the team to learn to problem solve and find the most appropriate solution.


Numerous papers have been written about effective communication. Servant leaders have high emotional intelligence; they take time to listen to their team. They are aware of the team’s emotions and use congruent empathy to encourage the team to progress. Effective communication is the glue that brings all your skills to the table. You can be a highly skilled leader, but without good communication it’s almost impossible to lead a team effectively and more importantly in a sustainable way.


A strategic leader is an air to air missile (without the explosion at the end!). A missile is asymmetric in design to ensure it is nimble; once fired it makes thousands of course corrections every second whilst still focusing on the target.  A servant leader is nimble and adaptive to the ever changing environment, however is able to align their team to the long term goals. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) has a great article with an assessment on Strategic Leadership: The Essential Skills. It talks about how a strategic leader needs to be able to anticipate, challenge, interpret, design, align and learn.


This behaviour can be visualised as a conductor of an orchestra harmonising a large group of musicians. Consensual leaders value the ideas of others; they encourage group discussions and collaborative working. They spend time enabling an environment of trust and transparency where their team feel their opinion will be heard and actioned. A servant leader brings together a wide spectrum of views and harmonises an agreed outcome.


This behaviour is about getting things done in the short term to deliver value as safely and quickly as possible. This isn’t a skill that can be learned through books; it’s a skill that is learnt through experience. A servant leader will use their past experience to adapt and synthesise tactical solutions.


They say a smile is infectious: the same can be said for excitement. This behaviour is not about being “enthusiastic parker” from Friends. It’s about being visibly passionate about the work that you do. A servant leader can calibrate their energy levels to their audience; they provide a consistent balance of a calm and excited approach to their work. They stay calm during conflicts and pressure and get excited when they want to share positive energy.


In today’s fast paced, digital business environment a rigid, command-and-control, top-down approach to transform organisations is no longer effective. Servant leadership is just one of many behaviours that a leader will need to embrace to ensure their organisation stays relevant. Without addressing the culture aspect organisations will lose their top talent, damage bottom line and open up vulnerabilities to the competition. People need to feel their work is a purpose-driven work environment, demonstrated consistently across the employee experience. Barclaycard have created a great video on servant leadership, definitely worth a watch.

Servant leadership is a timeless concept and history is peppered with examples of great servant leaders. Two of my heroes that embody servant leadership behaviours are Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. If you look at their lives they embody the principles of influence, listening and humility and demonstrate the 8 behaviours mentioned above. I hope that my blog has helped you think about your own skills and where you might develop your skills. Servant leadership is a sustainable form of leadership that should be the choice of those who want to drive grass roots transformation.

Written by

Bhavesh Vaghela

Digital Specialist

One thought on “Servant Leadership

  1. Intriguing post!
    The linkage between servant leadership & the Agile behavior traits is indeed thought provoking!
    Thanks Bhavesh – keep it coming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *