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  • Published Dec 22, 2023

Leading People: Mastering the Art of Servant and Shepherd Leadership Styles

Explore how Servant and Shepherd Leadership unite empathy and strategy to change the way teams achieve success.

Megan Cook
Megan Cook

Happy Companies Cofounder & CAO

Red pawn standing out amongst various white pawns

The Essence of Empathetic Leadership

What comes to mind when you think of great leaders? Do you see the classic examples of visionaries leading people with decisive actions and inspiring words? Or perhaps you think of those who navigate corporate storms with a steady hand. The term "leadership" can bring so many things to mind. But often, one of the most important aspects of great leadership is the quiet part that happens behind the scenes, which many may not even be aware of - Empathetic Leadership. This means leading through acts of compassion, using emotional intelligence, and the ability of leaders to nurture and grow teams to achieve great things.

Empathetic leaders don't lead by towering over others. They lead by walking alongside them, guiding with a gentle hand, and turning every challenge into a valuable learning opportunity. This skill is needed more than ever and is viewed as a critical part of leading others. Gallup's State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report indicates that only 23% of employees are engaged in their work. This disengagement is an increase since the drop seen in 2020. But that still means that less than a quarter of employees are meaningfully connected to their work.

This should ring the alarm for all business leaders, even by traditional management standards, focusing heavily on ROI. That same Gallup study shows that disengagement at work costs the global economy 8.8 trillion dollars, or roughly 9% of global GDP. So clearly, this is something that has real-world, bottom-line implications for businesses. Great, empathetic leaders realize that they face an important task during these challenging times. They must reignite the spark of engagement and motivation among their teams. They know that improving engagement also improves productivity, creativity, and loyalty. They don't just view their team members as employees. They see them as whole individuals with unique needs, aspirations, and life circumstances.

Quote by Theodore Roosevelt, "Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care"

This empathetic approach is where the Servant Leadership and Shepherd Leadership come into play. These styles focus on supporting and nurturing team members rather than prioritizing the leaders' individual agenda. As Theodore Roosevelt said: "Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

Servant leaders prioritize their team's growth and well-being. They create an environment where each individual feels valued and heard. Similarly, shepherd leaders guide their teams with a gentle hand. They ensure everyone stays aligned with the group's collective goals while feeling supported in their personal growth. At the heart of both styles lies empathy. These empathetic leadership styles involve deeply understanding and valuing team members' feelings and perspectives. They foster a culture of genuine care and connection.

White pawns gathered around one blue pawn

The traditional organizational hierarchy is a pyramid, with the leader at the top. This is fitting; leaders are responsible for communicating what the organization stands for and wants to achieve. Servant leaders and shepherd leaders don't abandon this, but they go a step further, understanding that vision alone is not enough. After communicating direction and strategy as the leader, empathetic leaders take action by flipping the pyramid upside down. They adopt a service mindset to make the vision a reality — to help their people achieve established goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

In this article, we delve deeper into the nuances of servant and shepherd leadership. We'll explore how servant and shepherd leaders approach common workplace challenges. We'll also cover how these approaches can effectively address the current crisis of employee disengagement and why they are more relevant than ever in today's evolving workplace.

What is a Servant Leader?

Servant Leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, a retired AT&T executive, in 1970. At its essence, servant leadership is an approach that transforms the power dynamic between leaders and their teams. This empathetic leadership style challenges the traditional hierarchy where leading people involves giving orders and maintaining control. Instead, servant leadership positions the leader as a supportive guide, encouraging and uplifting the team.

People forming circle raising hands

A good, modern example of this is Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo. During her tenure, Nooyi famously sent letters to the parents of her senior executives to thank them for the 'gift' of their children to PepsiCo. This gesture reflected her deep commitment to recognizing and caring for her employees as individuals. This action went beyond the confines of corporate protocol. The letters made her employees feel appreciated, and their families feel proud. This likely translated to higher workplace satisfaction, as feeling appreciated is one of the most significant factors contributing to an employee's view of their company.

Servant leadership is fundamentally about creating an environment where every team member feels valued, heard, and empowered to grow. Servant leaders, therefore, are not just heads of teams or organizations; they are facilitators, mentors, and advocates who ensure that the collective goals are aligned with individual growth and well-being. This approach, as demonstrated by leaders like Nooyi, can transform workplaces into spaces of mutual respect, collaboration, and heightened productivity, reshaping the core of organizational culture.

The core principles of servant leadership foster not only a nurturing environment in the workplace but also contribute to tangible organizational benefits:

  • Empathy: Central to servant leadership is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathetic leaders cultivate a compassionate work culture, encouraging open communication and mutual respect.
  • Active Listening: This involves genuinely hearing and understanding the viewpoints of team members. Servant leaders validate their employees' thoughts and opinions by actively listening, contributing to a more inclusive and collaborative workplace.
  • Stewardship: This involves taking responsibility for the organization's and its employees' well-being and performance. A servant leader's commitment to stewardship ensures that their actions are aligned with the company's values and objectives.
  • Flexibility: Being adaptable and open to change is vital for a servant leader. It allows for responsive and agile decision-making, especially in dynamic business environments.
  • Healing: This trait refers to the leader's ability to help team members cope with personal and professional challenges. A leader who is attentive to the emotional well-being of their employees can create a supportive and resilient work environment.
  • Awareness: In an age characterized by rapid technological change, cultural diversity, and varied communication styles, a deep understanding of individual needs, preferences, and aspirations is critical. Leaders with high awareness can navigate complex situations effectively and make informed decisions.
  • Persuasion: Instead of relying on authority, servant leaders use persuasion to influence and motivate their teams. This approach fosters a more democratic and empowering work environment.
  • Conceptualization: This involves the ability to visualize the future and plan accordingly. Leaders who can conceptualize are better equipped to guide their organizations toward long-term success.
  • Commitment to Growth: Investing in employees' personal and professional growth is a hallmark of servant leadership. It includes providing opportunities for learning, development, and career advancement.
  • Building Community: Creating a sense of belonging and unity among team members is essential. By fostering a strong community within the workplace, servant leaders can enhance teamwork and employee satisfaction.

Servant leadership has been shown to have significant positive impacts on organizations. Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen, says servant leadership helped her achieve a remarkable company performance turnaround. Bachelder shares her insight on the benefits of servant leadership in her book "Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others." Using approaches like her "listening tour" where she traveled to different location and spoke to stakeholders, restaurant guests and employees - she emphasized learning from the experience of others. During her time as CEO, the value of the company quadrupled. She left the head of the company in 2017 when it was sold to Burger King for $1.8 billion.

What is a Shepherd Leader?

Conceptual photo of diversity with pawns of varying colors in front of a persons palms open as if gathering them towards one direction

Organizations depend on their leaders to set directions for the future. However, taking the lead doesn't always require standing out in front. Instead, a shepherd leader focuses on overseeing from behind. They ensure the collective progress of the team, just like a watchful shepherd ensures the safety and direction of their flock.

Shepherd leadership, similar to servant leadership, is a leadership style that emphasizes authenticity, mentoring, practical communication of a shared vision, and a commitment to the greater good. Shepherd leaders may choose not to stand out in the front but provide unity, clarity, reassurance, and a sense of belonging to all employees and stakeholders. Nelson Mandela popularized this concept of "leading from behind," writing in his book Long Walk to Freedom: "It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership."

Quote by Philip F that reads, "The research shows social capital distinguishes top leaders from others with specific attention to mobilizing and influencing others"

Shepherd leadership allows agile and creative individuals to lead a group towards a shared goal. Philip Fioravante, a noted industrial executive and academic, addressed this in his article, 'The Shepherd Leader: Orienting, Harnessing and Adapting the Collective Intelligence of the Team,' stating "The research shows social capital distinguishes top leaders from others with specific attention to mobilizing and influencing others." It involves setting clear goals, encouraging innovation, and taking charge during important moments to help the team reach its full potential. Shepherd leadership is about improving the overall performance of the entire team. The 'boss' will shine by subtly guiding the team to success, emphasizing the team's goals over personal recognition.

Shepherd leadership hinges on several key traits:

  • Adaptive Orientation: Shepherd leaders are adept at navigating the dynamic business environment, making course adjustments, and embracing calculated risks while maintaining a firm stand for greater outcomes.
  • Harnessing Collective Strength: These leaders excel in uniting diverse talents and strengths, fostering a collaborative and inclusive culture. The focus is on bringing out the best in each team member and aligning individual contributions with the organization's objectives.
  • Observant and Insightful: Just like a shepherd keenly watches over their flock, these leaders are highly observant, picking up on subtle cues and emerging trends. They use these insights to guide the team effectively.
  • Authentic and Mentoring: Authenticity is at the heart of shepherd leadership. These leaders are genuine in their interactions, offering guidance, support, and mentorship, thus nurturing a culture of trust and mutual respect.

Laxman Narasimhan's tenure as CEO of Starbucks offers a compelling example of shepherd leadership, with a style marked by deep engagement, empathy, and a commitment to nurturing growth. As a part of his training, Narasimhan got on-the-floor experience working as a barista at multiple Starbucks locations across the globe, including London, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, and Mexico City, donning his green apron and working a half day behind the counter each month.

This immersive experience allowed Narasimhan to understand the daily challenges and culture of the company from the perspective of its employees, known as 'partners' at Starbucks. His focus on building connections with people, a key aspect of shepherd leadership, is evident in his ability to relate to individuals from different backgrounds. This skill was developed through personal experiences and a global career. Narasimhan's admiration for the company's history and customs and his way of dealing with and conquering challenges shows the shepherd leader's belief in leading an organization with understanding, respect, and a vision for everyone's development. By building empathy, Narasimhan exemplifies a leadership style rooted in understanding, nurturing, and guiding the organization toward success while honoring its values and people.

Laxman Narasimhan, Starbucks CEO, training as a barista at a Starbucks store

Laxman Narasimhan, Starbucks CEO, training as a barista at a Starbucks store. Source: Starbucks

The Servant and Shepherd Leadership Approach to Common Challenges

Leaders will inevitably face challenges, ranging from team dynamics to implementing organizational change. With their empathetic and team-oriented approaches, the distinct but complementary styles of servant and shepherd leadership are uniquely equipped to address these challenges. When exploring some common challenges and how servant/shepherd leaders approach them, we see how these styles can lead to innovative problem-solving, stronger team morale, and sustainable organizational growth.

Challenge: Adapting to Technological Advancements

  • Traditional Approach: Traditional leaders may prioritize rapid technology adoption primarily for efficiency and productivity gains, sometimes overlooking the individual learning curves and support their team members require.
  • Servant Leader Approach: Servant leaders will facilitate team learning and encourage innovation. They will work to provide resources to help with the team's adoption of the new technology.
  • Shepherd Leader Approach: A shepherd leader will guide the team through change, ensure cohesive understanding, and focus on collective goals amidst technological shifts.

Challenge: Navigating Team Conflicts

  • Traditional Approach: A traditional leader might take a more top-down approach to conflict resolution, imposing solutions that might not address the root causes of the conflict, potentially leading to recurring issues.
  • Servant Leader Approach: Servant leaders actively facilitate conflict resolution, empowering team members to voice concerns and collaborate on solutions, encouraging candor without compromising psychological safety
  • Shepherd Leader Approach: Shepherd leaders would guide from behind, subtly influencing and nurturing team unity and direction, prioritizing a resolution that benefits the team as a whole.

Challenge: Handling Underperformance

  • Traditional Approach: Traditional leaders may focus more on the immediate consequences of underperformance, such as reprimanding the individual or quickly moving to replace them, without investing time in understanding and remedying the underlying causes.
  • Servant Leader Approach: Servant leaders address underperformance through supportive guidance, offering resources and personal development opportunities to help the individual improve.
  • Shepherd Leader Approach: Shepherd leaders seek to understand the reasons behind the underperformance and work collaboratively with the individual to find solutions. They gently guide, closely monitor progress, and provide directional feedback for improvement.

Challenge: Managing Change and Uncertainty

  • Traditional Approach: Traditional leaders might implement changes more directly, with less emphasis on team input or guiding the team through the change, which can lead to resistance or confusion.
  • Servant Leader Approach: Servant leaders support and empower team members through change, ensuring open communication and participative decision-making.
  • Shepherd Leader Approach: Shepherd leaders guide teams with a reassuring presence, providing clear direction and stability amidst uncertainty.

Challenge: Ensuring Accountability and High Standards

  • Traditional Approach: In contrast, traditional leaders may enforce accountability primarily through strict controls and oversight, potentially leading to a culture of compliance rather than a genuine commitment to quality and standards.
  • Servant Leader Approach: Servant leaders approach accountability and high standards through collaborative goal-setting and supportive feedback, empowering team members to take ownership.
  • Shepherd Leader Approach: Shepherd leaders guide by setting clear expectations, monitoring progress, and offering protective oversight. They lead by example and encourage self-reflection in their team.

Challenge: Fostering Innovation and Creativity

  • Traditional Approach: Traditional leaders might focus on innovation as a means to an end, often imposing structures or processes that can stifle creativity or failing to provide the necessary support and freedom for creative exploration.
  • Servant Leader Approach: Servant leaders promote innovation by encouraging autonomy, providing resources, encouraging open collaboration, and supporting well-considered risk-taking when appropriate.
  • Shepherd Leader Approach: Shepherd leaders encourage creativity by setting a clear vision, nurturing a safe environment for experimentation, and gently steering efforts toward shared goals. They understand that creativity thrives in a supportive and non-judgmental atmosphere.

Creating Opportunities For Connection

As Simon Sinek, leadership expert, states, "Leadership is not about being in charge. It's about taking care of those in your charge." This philosophy lies at the core of both servant and shepherd leadership. The advantages of embracing these leadership styles are significant. They create environments where trust, mutual respect, and collaboration are not just occasional occurrences but the standard. This shift is beneficial and crucial in today's work landscape, characterized by rapid change, digital transformation, and a growing emphasis on work-life balance.

It is important to consider that, because these styles and their problem-solving approaches are all centered around connection and communication. This means they will have unique benefits and unique challenges. For example, the transition to remote and digital work environments following 2020. The lack of physical presence and reduced face-to-face interactions can hinder the empathetic connection these leadership styles thrive on. Leaders must adapt to maintain team cohesion and understand their team members' needs in a virtual setting.

Leaders can no longer depend solely on casual office interactions like impromptu meetings or water cooler chats to connect with their teams. Tools like Happy become essential for effective team connection as more teams work remotely or in hybrid settings. Happy offers resources like Happy Profiles, which act like user manuals for each team member, enabling leaders to tailor their approach and better empathize with their teams' unique needs in environments lacking physical interaction.

Leading with Empathy in the Modern Workplace

Close up of coworkers hugging in a circle

Servant and shepherd leadership may have slightly different methodologies in their approach, but where the two styles converge is the emphasis on empathy and the empowerment of their team as the most critical aspect of leadership. Bill Gates stated, "As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others." This empowerment is at the heart of both servant and shepherd leadership. These leadership styles foster a culture of mutual respect and collaboration by emphasizing empathy. The result is higher employee engagement, leading to improved productivity and innovation.

Leadership is about more than a title. It is about the legacy you leave and how you want to be remembered. Leaders who prioritize their team's well-being and help nurture an empowered and collaborative environment will ultimately be recognized for more than their accomplishments alone. They will be remembered for their compassion, positive influence, and their ability to inspire a culture of growth and unity.

By placing people at the center of their leadership philosophy, these leaders don't just achieve short-term goals; they build lasting relationships and foster a legacy of impactful, empathetic leadership. This approach not only enhances team dynamics but also sets a powerful example for future leaders, demonstrating that true leadership success is measured not just in profits and productivity but in the positive impact on the lives of others.

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