Have you heard of servant leadership? Dr Sen Sendjaya says evidence shows it’s the best leadership style for your organisation

Dr Sen Sendjaya is an Associate Professor at Monash Business School and one of the world’s leading authorities on servant leadership. He’s worked to develop leaders in the government, transportation and higher education sectors in Australia, China and Indonesia.

In the lead-up to his presentation at the 2016 Not-For-Profit People Conference, Dr Sendjaya shares his insights on servant leadership, including why it’s a particularly powerful approach for NFP organisations.

Thanks for chatting with us, Dr Sendjaya. You’ve devoted much of your career to researching and teaching servant leadership – so what first piqued your interest in the area?

I’ve had three bad bosses in my life, and the experiences I had working with them were somewhat life-defining. Unbeknownst to them, they actually led me on an intellectual journey to find a better way to lead others. I then stumbled into servant leadership, and started looking into it in a serious, systematic manner when I commenced my PhD research in 2001.

Can you give us a brief overview of how servant leadership differs to other ideas of leadership? And why it is so powerful?

I define servant leadership as a holistic approach to leading that engages the rational, relational, practical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the followers as well as the leaders – so much so that when they work together in such a relationship they’re both transformed into what they are capable of becoming.

The primary difference between servant and other forms of leadership is that servant leadership is focused on followers – not on some leader-defined agenda or even the organisation’s bottom line.

Relative to the transformational leadership approach that is also popular in academia and in practice, servant leadership helps employees to be more more satisfied with their job, have more job commitment, higher intention to stay, and higher organisational citizenship behaviour. And with regard to teams, employees are likely to show higher team performance as well as [contributing to] firm performance.

So how can servant leadership practically improve an organisation?

Through the executive education and development I’ve had the privilege to lead in various organisations in Australia and overseas, I’ve witnessed the increased effectiveness of leaders over the years, and in turn the performance of their teams or organisations.

For example, ‘servant’ leaders become more aware of how their behaviours affect followers. They become more honest in their conversations, more willing to admit their mistakes, and more willing to be vulnerable in front of their followers.

The relationships are no longer transactional – ‘you do this, and I’ll give you that’ – instead, it’s a profound, genuine, and long-lasting relationship that grows between followers and leaders.

Some criticisms of servant leadership are that it’s too radical and too difficult to apply successfully in a workplace. How would you respond?

I actually wrote a book in which I outlined all the intellectual difficulties people have with servant leadership, all stemming from misunderstandings and misconceptions.

Many of us who are parents are actually silent practitioners of servant leadership and never think it’s too radical. Parents lead their children by serving them. They do this by understanding their needs, priorities, and concerns. Parents love and accept their children unconditionally, yet they are committed to help them grow to their full potential and minimise every barrier towards that.

I think servant leadership is the same. Leaders accept followers unconditionally and yet they will do everything in their power to transform them to be the best they can possibly be. So the philosophy is something we are all very familiar with. It’s something that any leader can try to implement if they understand it correctly.

And what’s the value of servant leadership for not-for-profit organisations in particular?

People in the not-for-profit sector are typically there because they want to make a profound difference in the lives of others, or in a cause they deeply believe in. That’s in line with servant leadership, because servant leaders lead others by serving, out of the conviction that they can empower others by clarifying their life’s meaning and purpose.

Servant leaders know they are entrusted with followers, that they have to develop the resources they have in order to grow. And for that they have to be accountable, not only to their followers but also to their board of directors, their own core values, and to someone or something higher than themselves. So I think servant leadership completely fits the core philosophy of the not-for-profit sector.

And finally, what else will you be sharing about servant leadership at the Not-for-Profit People Conference?

I’ll be highlighting the content of my latest book, Personal and Organisational Excellence through Servant Leadership, including the six dimensions of servant leadership – that is, what people can actually do to develop servant leadership behaviours.

I will also discuss how servant leadership can be applied in the not-for-profit sector to inform staff selection, training, promotion and performance evaluation for NFP leaders.

I’ll also share the experiences I’ve had training and developing servant leaders in different organisations in Australia.

Want to learn the six dimensions of servant leadership? Dr Sendjaya will be presenting his session titled ‘Leading by serving: bringing out the best in your team through servant leadership’ at the 2016 Not-For-Profit People Conference to be held on November 21 and 22 in Melbourne. Early bird tickets are still available for a limited time. Find out more here.

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