Servant leadership can help deliver high-performing workplaces

Starmer has repeatedly made references to "serving the people" - ©

The term 'service' has become something of a buzzword in the general election campaign. But how can we authentically embody the principles of service?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has made constant references to "serving the people", committing to return politics to the principle of public service.

While the rhetoric is powerful, it begs the question: how can political parties and organisations alike authentically embody the principles of service, rather than merely using it as a catchphrase?

The concept of servant leadership is not new. It’s an approach first popularised in the 1970s which has recently come back into the spotlight, as leaders look for ways to meet employees demands for greater trust, candour, flexibility, and fairness.

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Servant leadership reframes traditional hierarchical approaches and aims to build thriving, productive environments by prioritising the wellbeing and development of employees. Servant leaders strive to create supportive, psychologically safe teams, in the belief that this will bring out the best in their people and ultimately create happy, healthy, harmonious and high-performing workplaces.

What does that look like in practice?


Just as politicians must strive to understand the electorate's challenges and motivations, leaders need to understand what drives their employees and what support they need to succeed. Servant leaders create common purpose by actively listening to the needs, goals and aspirations of employees, and finding ways to align these with the purpose and vision of the organisation. They recognise that doing so is the key to world-leading business performance. 

High trust

Recent high-profile scandals including the political betting scandal have exacerbated the low levels of trust that people have in politicians from across the spectrum. How will you restore trust?” is one of the questions that dominated the final pre-election leader’s debate. 

There is a direct correlation here with organisational life. When trust breaks down, it has a disproportionately negative impact on everything from employee engagement and performance to talent attraction and corporate reputation. To be a servant leader means prioritising openness, transparency and a genuine desire to listen and engage in dialogue, particularly in the face of adversity.

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The lack of integrity and honesty across the political spectrum has provided constant fodder for newspaper headlines in recent years. The emphasis in public life has been on ‘defend and deny’ rather than taking responsibility for what has gone wrong and learning from it. I see the same scenarios playing out in our organisations.

Servant leaders use the values of their organisation as a golden thread that runs throughout their everyday behaviours and interactions. It’s about role modelling the ethical, principled behaviour that will inspire and motivate followers to be at their best and do the right thing. 

Constructive conflict resolution

Our political discourse has become increasingly binary, oppositional, adversarial and confrontational. As the latest statistics show, damaging and dysfunctional conflict is rife in our organisations too. The CIPD's Good Work Index estimates that a quarter of employees have experienced conflict at work over the last year; people with protected characteristics are more severely impacted.

How we resolve our disagreements underpins the culture of our organisations, and it defines the experience employees have of work on a daily basis. Servant leadership means helping people learn how to disagree well. It’s about moving away from a reductive right-wrong, win-lose mindset and resolving conflicts, complaints and concerns through expansive adult, face-to-face dialogue. This people-centred, values-driven approach helps restore relationships and creates workplaces characterised by the healthy, productive debate we need to drive creativity and innovation.

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In today’s climate of change and disruption, servant leadership is a highly effective leadership approach which will help leaders engage with their people and create truly transformational cultures.

I just hope our political leaders are listening.

By David Liddle, president of the People and Culture Association and CEO of the TCM Group

Image: UK Parliament