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Why Serving Leadership? by Dr. John Stahl-Wert

This article was first published on 24 June 2015 in Dr. John Stahl-Wert's personal blog.

Today, there is a growing movement towards Serving Leadership that was not discernable 50 years ago. Organizations around the globe are discovering the transforming impact of this unconventional model that views a leader’s work as more about serving and empowering others rather than being served.

"Findings confirmed a connection between serving leadership... customer focus, productivity, and profitability". - Dr. John Stahl-Wert

Consider Cleveland Clinic, one of the world’s premiere healthcare providers. After receiving unacceptable evaluations in patient satisfaction and employee engagement in 2008, the Clinic launched a multi-phase initiative to embed Serving Leadership principles into its organizational culture. The results were nothing less than dramatic. When compared to other hospital systems in 2008, Cleveland Clinic ranked only in the 43rd percentile for employee engagement. In 2013, it scored in the 87th percentile—a significant improvement that also had a direct, measurable increase in patient satisfaction (Patrnchak, 2015).

Other organizations that have embraced Serving Leadership in recent years include Marriott, Southwest Airlines, Chick-fil-A, Kaiser Permanente, Starbucks, and the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marines, as well as the senior leadership of the Bank of China.

Why are these organizations and their leaders committed to Serving Leadership? From our research and practice, we see the following reasons:

1. Serving Leadership is Simple. The power of Serving Leadership is found in five simple, easy-to-remember actions that make immediate sense to leaders. These actions provide clear language and an overall methodology for leaders to transform their people, their company, and other important areas in their life.

2. Serving Leadership is Actionable. The five actions of a Serving Leader are just that—actions. Serving Leadership brings practical application to leadership development efforts, and it always answers the question, “What next?” In a vast field of theory and concept, Serving Leadership provides immediate application, repeatable practices, and concrete action steps.

3. Serving Leadership is Proven. Though the study of leadership is relatively young, researchers are looking at the cause and effects of different styles of leading. The simple, actionable teachings of Serving Leadership are in direct alignment with those practices that have been causally proven, through ‘Structural Equation Modeling,’ to impact productivity and profit across a broad global study. In other words, findings confirm a connection between Serving Leadership and critical business outcomes such as customer focus, productivity, and profitability.

4. Serving Leadership Makes Sense. Trust in leadership is critical if a company wants the best from its people. Yet people intrinsically don’t trust a leader whose primary motivation is self or ego. Serving Leaders build trust because they view people as an organization’s most precious asset. They are not in their role primarily for themselves, but rather for bigger things like value creation, growing people, and delivering quality products or services.

In an article for Harvard Business School’s website, Working Knowledge, HBS Professor Emeritus, James Heskett, sums up his review of Serving Leadership. He quotes the groundbreaking work of Wharton Business School’s organizational psychologist, Adam Grant. Serving Leaders, Grant writes, “are not only more highly regarded than others by their employees, and not only feel better about themselves at the end of the day, but are more productive as well.”

Considering the time and money leadership development requires, companies continuously search for training and coaching resources that will bear a measurable and justifiable return. As data increasingly demonstrates Serving Leadership’s direct impact on a company’s performance, the decision to invest in this leadership model makes rational sense.

References: Patrnchak, J. (2015). Implementing Servant Leadership at Cleveland Clinic: A Case Study in Organizational Change. Servant Leadership: Theory and Practice, Vol. 2, Iss. 1. Retrieved from http://www.sltpjournal.org.


Dr. John Stahl-Wert is co-author of the best-selling book “The Serving Leader.” He serves as President of Newton Institute and Director of its Center for Serving Leadership. John is coming back to Singapore this October to conduct the "Serving Leader 2-Day Seminar" - click to find out more.