Why management consultants should be Servant Leaders

Guest contribution by | 23.01.2020

The changing world of work and the development towards “agile companies” makes new demands on today’s management. Flexibility, an open feedback culture and personal and professional development are increasingly demanded of employees – and in this context, leadership is being rethought. A modern concept is now frequently encountered: “Servant Leadership”. But what is it all about and why is it so important for management consultants in particular?

Focus on development

Many people who grew up in great prosperity are now looking for real meaning in their lives – and of course they do so at work. Such people want to experience leadership that is as meaningful as it is purposeful, and would rather follow a vision than follow orders.

This is exactly where Servant Leaders come into play: they unfold the development potential of people by “serving” them and promoting their growth. This leadership style is based on an uncompromising orientation towards the well-being of the organisation and its individuals.

While traditional leadership asks the question: “How can I lead people in a way that you do what is expected of them,” the Servant Leader asks: “What can I do for others to unfold and develop in order to achieve community goals?

This approach is already widely used in many US companies: One third of Fortune 100 companies (list of the world’s largest companies) claim to practice the idea of Servant Leadership.¹ And many well-known management authors are convinced that Servant Leadership will become the leadership culture of the 21st century.

Servant Leadership is an honest orientation towards the other person and the common good. But this often contradicts common experience – which is why a fundamental advance consensus of values is needed in an organisation for this approach to succeed.

The core idea of Servant Leadership

The core idea of Servant Leadership turns classical hierarchies upside down. Because the servant leader is the counterpart to the dominant leadership of self-centered individual actors. This approach is also extremely interesting for management consultants. Usually a consultant is brought into a company to lead and not to follow. However, the goal should be to grow beyond the traditional consultant/client relationship and become a trustworthy consultant. The management consultant thus builds on personal and professional growth – with the goal of efficient and honest cooperation, high (personal) responsibility and charity.

Servant Leadership is not to be confused with a management technique, however, but rather a value-based basic attitude that subordinates one’s own immediate benefit to the well-being of those being led and the organisation.

The approach allows it to be characterised by three principles:

  • Employees or customers are recognized in their personality, encouraged and their individual needs are satisfied. The goal is their personal growth so that they can develop into self-serving leaders.
  • Servant Leaders show empathy, relationship building, honesty and integrity as well as visionary, social responsibility.
  • They draw the strength for these qualities from their own value orientation.

If Servant Leaders care for their fellow human beings and create trust, this creates security. In our Western world, this is a strong basic need – so whoever manages to satisfy this need will find loyal followers. In the context of the world of work, others follow a person because they want to, not because they have to.

Characteristics and success factors of Servant Leaders

A “serving” management consultant is not primarily looking for recognition, money or status, but acts from an intrinsic motivation.

These characteristics define Servant Leaders:

  • Active listening – without prejudices or evaluations
  • Be empathetic and accept people in their diversity
  • Supporting the development of talent
  • Acting with foresight and intuition
  • Perceive conflicts and solve them honestly
  • Convince through trust and enthusiasm
  • Promoting individual responsibility and community

Creating enthusiasm by challenging and encouraging, exemplifying values, empathy and a vision are essential characteristics of Servant Leadership. Traditional leadership usually focuses on the “how” and “what”, but Servant Leadership has a broader perspective that makes it clear to employees “why” they are doing something for their organisation. This can benefit not only those being led, but also the organisation. Servant Leadership simultaneously achieves individual needs satisfaction and organisational performance improvement as well as a strengthened sense of community. Organisations that use the principles of Servant Leadership are usually economically more successful than average.

How can Servant Leadership be implemented?

Servant Leadership is a value-driven philosophy that embodies the idea of change. In everyday business life, however, the philosophical approach should be broken down into concrete actions and attention should be paid to a cautious change of values and motives.

The following behavioural patterns in dealing with others play a central role in this:

  • Setting expectations clearly and conveying meaning (Inspire)
  • Enabling interesting and challenging tasks (stimulation)
  • Responding to the individual (respecting individuality)

Clients can often tell with certainty whether a management consultant is an expert in his field. What they often do not know, however, is what drives the consultant. Therefore it is important to live values openly from the very beginning. And it is the management consultant’s job to take the first step and be a positive role model.

As a client, you should keep these key competencies in mind:

  • Authenticity: It takes a lot of courage to express an opinion that you as a client will not share. Authenticity does not mean that you as a client and principal always find everything good or right – it is important that you know what your consultant stands for. And a Servant Leader can only do this by remaining authentic.
  • Honesty: Consultants propagate team spirit, they report on progress and success. But they often give bad news as late as possible, hoping that the project will be finished before then. This shortsightedness is a major obstacle to gaining trust. A truly trustworthy consultant will therefore provide honest feedback and information.
  • Clarity: Clear communication can solve many problems before they even arise. It helps in planning and making decisions. So ideally, always look for consultants who communicate clearly and unambiguously with you.

One last thought: A trustworthy advisor, also called a consigliere (not to be confused with dubious roles from mafia movies), grows beyond merely looking after a specific project. He is able to use his expertise to help clients in the long run. He thus becomes a consultant who is able to offer advice based on what is best for employees and the company. That is Servant Leadership.


Note (in German):

[1] Dr. Jürgen Weibler: Servant Leadership (https://www.leadership-insiders.de/servant-leadership/)

Marc Thiel
Marc Thiel

Marc Thiel is an expert in agile project management. After his apprenticeship as a banker he decided to study business administration. He then gained more than 12 years of professional experience in the finance and insurance industry, before specialising primarily in the automotive, tool and insurance industries.