Servant leadership is set to be a hallmark of the next senior-management team at Starbucks, if outgoing chairman Howard Schultz’s farewell to the firm’s staff is anything to go by. 
In his earnest letter, Schultz – who will leave his role on 26 June – writes that CEO Kevin Johnson “is a true servant leader, and he will lead Starbucks as this great company enters its next journey … I am honoured to call Kevin my friend and partner. And Starbucks is fortunate to have him”. Schultz described the leadership team he will leave in place as “extraordinarily capable”, and noted that, like him, they “believe that Starbucks has a responsibility to use our scale for good”.
In a recent column,  Sameer Dholakia – CEO of email-delivery platform SendGrid, and a self-described servant leader – explains the underlying principle of his management approach like so: “A servant leader must create an environment where all of his employees can do their best work. The servant leader succeeds in this task by breaking down barriers, providing clear direction and encouraging people to think outside the box. The most immediate and practical way to do this is to simply ask the teams and individuals you meet, ‘what do you need?’”
Yet in a profile of Dholakia published last August,  Forbes describes the management style that he favours as “unusual”, suggesting that it doesn’t have as significant a following as some of the more authoritarian or delegation-based leadership models. Indeed, the piece notes that Dholakia spends about half of his working hours meeting with SendGrid employees, within a system that depends upon “inverting the traditional organisational chart and putting the CEO at the bottom”.
In which ways does servant leadership improve upon more traditional models?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Servant leadership is interpreted in different ways by different people – indeed, in 2015 I wrote an explanation of the term as I see it in a column for Dialogue Review. The crux is that there’s a higher purpose at stake – so you choose to work at your organisation because it has a particular vision of a greater good, or because you passionately believe that the mission it is pursuing has a value beyond purely financial value.
“As such, you take the view that everyone in the organisation, from the CEO downwards, should be supporting each other to be the best that they can be, and to deliver on that vision or mission.”
Cooper adds: “Servant leadership stands as a marked contrast to authoritarian, ‘Do what I want you to do’ management styles. Instead, you ask the question, ‘How can I help you to do what you need to do, in order to deliver your part of the vision?’ It’s asking, not telling, and that’s what defines its servant-like aspects. Essentially, everybody is a servant of the higher ideal.”
For further thoughts on aligning values in organisations, check out these learning resources from the Institute
Image of Kevin Johnson (L) and Howard Schultz (R) at Starbucks product test courtesy of Starbucks Newsroom
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- 17 October 2018