The Shift from Diversity to Inclusion: On the road to Servant Leadership

The Shift from Diversity to Inclusion: On the road to Servant Leadership

Workplace diversity and inclusion is a global issue (Farndale, Biron, Briscoe, & Raghuram, 2015).  More than just a lofty idea, workplace diversity continues to challenge organizational leaders.  In fact, some organizations that employ strategies to embrace a diverse workforce may still fail to practice inclusion.  One area where organizations fail to address diversity and inclusion, is in the leadership ranks.  Many organizations purport to be inclusive, but do not have the type of representation in the leadership ranks to substantiate such a claim.  Furthermore, the leadership style in non-inclusive organizations may be holding potential leaders back. 
Servant leadership theory breaks from the traditional “only the strong survive” mentality and instead, fosters collaboration.  One-on-one interventions, such as coaching, are great opportunities to demonstrate the dimensions of a servant leader (Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to growth, and Building community), which can also be used in team/group coaching (Parris & Peachey, 2013).  When coaches mentor clients, the discussion is a form of servant leadership because there is no leader-follower dynamic. 
There is no consensus on the definition of servant leadership (Parris & Peachey, 2013), but the theory has been widely accepted as tenable and constructive.  Robert Greenleaf coined the term Servant Leadership, in the 1970s to describe the lifelong journey of placing the needs of others before your own.  Servant leaders are defined by the content of their character and an ability to commit to service to others (Parris & Peachey, 2013).  Servant leaders build trust among their subordinates and rely on these trusting relationships to influence behavior (Beck, 2014).  
According to Otero-Neira, Varela-Neira, and Bande, (2016), it took two decades before Greenleaf’s theory underwent the scrutiny of academic research.  Currently, there is a dearth of empirical research on the implementation of Servant Leadership in organizations. Research shows that servant leadership theory is viable at the individual as well as organization level and thus has the potential to inform the decisions practitioners make regarding individual and team interventions (Parris & Peachey, 2013).
I consider myself a servant leader.  As a coach, I ask myself the same tough questions that I ask my clients. How else would I know they were tough questions? I see my clients as equals.  In my opinion, the relationship between coach and client is the closest realization of Greenleaf’s theory in the modern workplace.  When Greenleaf spoke of listening, he foreshadowed the active listening techniques employed by professional coaches around the world.  Coaching allows me to connect with others, and as I listen to their goals, we enter into a collaborative process that allows me to serve them. Each experience is unique and humbling. Coaching clients can expect to be healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants (Beck, 2014; Parris & Peachey, 2013).
My perspective is that servant leadership theory will not only change how leaders interact with subordinates, but it will also empower followers to step into leadership positions with an increased sense of value.  Progressive leadership theories, like servant leadership, encourage collaboration and foster relationships built on trust and mutual respect.  Servant leadership is based on leaders empowering followers.  Effective coaches use the dimensions of servant leadership to empower managers and leaders.  The result of sustained support and empowerment should be increased diversity and inclusion in the leadership ranks.  
How does servant leadership fit with your current leadership style?
What other ways have you seen diversity and inclusion implemented?
Beck, C.D. (2014). Antecedents of servant leadership: A mixed methods study. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 21(3), 299-314. Retrieved from:10.1177/1548051814529993
Downey, S. N., van derWerff, L., Thomas, K.M., Plaut, V.C. (2015). “The role of diversity practices and inclusion in promoting trust and employee engagement”. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(1), pp. 35–44.
Farndale, E., Biron, M., Briscoe, D. R., & Raghuram, S. (2015). A global perspective on diversity and inclusion in work organisations. International Journal Of Human Resource Management, 26(6), 677-687. doi:10.1080/09585192.2014.991511
Parris, D., & Peachey, J. (2013). A systematic literature review of servant leadership theory in organizational contexts. Journal of Business Ethics, 113(3), 377-393. Retrieved from
Otero-Neira, C., Varela-Neira, C., & Bande, B. (2016) "Supervisory servant leadership and employee’s work role performance: A multilevel mediation model", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 37 (7), pp.860 – 881. Retrieved from:10.1108/LODJ-11-2014-0230




Michael Thompson's picture Michael Thompson | May 6, 2017 12:08 pm MST

Servant leadership can be an off-putting term for the uninformed. For myself, as a young building site manager early in my career, I had a deep underlying concern that my inclination to help others would be viewed as a weakness; limiting my chances for promotion. My personality was not such that allowed me to embrace the authoritarian, forceful, and threatening leadership tactics prevalent in the building industry in the 1990s. Seemingly everyone in leadership roles around me was a tyrant of sorts, and expected me to be the same. I never could get myself to conform. Instead I simply learned what I could, kept putting the project, client, and team ahead of myself, and did the best work I could produce. It was only after many years that I realized what made people want to work with me, what made them excited to walk onto my job sites, what inspired high performance, and what saved me every time I needed help, was the fact that I had been practicing servant leadership all those years. People had become as committed to me as I was to them; be they clients, subcontractors, coworkers, or executive leaders. I am not surprised, Chris, that your servant leadership style has taken you to a position of respect and trust from, and with, your clients. 

The great advantage of servant leadership for the individual leader is exactly what I discovered it to be, before I knew the style had a name: Servant leadership is a long-term leadership style that positively impacts the leader, followers, and the overall organization by promoting selflessness (Greenleaf, 2007). That selflessness, in turn, promotes teamwork, support, engagement, pro-social behaviors, and organizational commitment. After all, who wants to leave a business where everyone is there for you?

I agree that adopting and promoting the servant leadership style promotes inclusiveness, which is what really matters for an effective corporate diversity program. It does not matter how diverse the workforce is if portions of the workforce are as excluded from the organization within as they would be without.

The key, in my experience, is the psychological safety generated through proactive inclusion efforts. As one of the purported benefits of diversity is the diversity of thought, added creativity, and potential for innovation gained by way of additional perspectives, those additional perspectives might never be known if everyone does not feel safe to voice them (Gong, Cheung, Wang, & Huang, 2012).



Gong, Y., Cheung, S. Y., Wang, M., & Huang, J. C. (2012). Unfolding the proactive process for creativity: Integration of the employee proactivity, information exchange, and psychological safety perspectives. Journal of Management38(5), 1611-1633.

Greenleaf, R. (2007). The servant as leader. In Corporate ethics and corporate governance (79-85). London, England: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Christopher Hicks's picture Christopher Hicks | July 12, 2017 11:47 am MST


I think your comment, "People had become as committed to me as I was to them", says it all. People want to feel valued and as you stated, safe to voice their perspectives. I think it is also important to acknowledge that it is very difficult to feel valued or safe in an organization where it is unlikely that you will be able to reach your highest potential. Many talented candidates opt to leave organizations for the rare chance of advancement or a seat at the leadership table.   

Shequetta Green's picture Shequetta Green | May 11, 2017 8:17 pm MST

Great post Christopher!  The theory of servant leader is very applicable to many different organizations.  When I was in the Army I saw this more than any other position I've had.  We always saw each other as equals because we understood that the chain does not work without all links in place and working as they should.  I found in having subordinates respect works a lot better than fear or dominance.  Some leaders believe it is acceptable to use subordinates to do their "dirty work".  During my time in the Army, we always said we would never ask our soldier to do something that we would not stand beside them and do with them.  At the end of the day, no matter what your rank or position, the person next to you, no matter what their rank or position, can be the one to save your life on the battlefield.  IIt is important to respect everyone from bottom to top.  My point is I love the servant leader because it humbles everyone involved.  As a leader, you are able to put yourself in the subordinate's shoes and treat them the way you would want to be treated.  As a subordinate, you take the good qualities you are learning with you into your own leadership role.  What qualities do you believe a person has, which would allow them to reject this type of leadership style?

Christopher Hicks's picture Christopher Hicks | July 12, 2017 12:44 pm MST

Greetings Shequetta,

In my experience, it is not that some people reject servant-leadership, it is that they have not discovered it yet. I did not discover it myself until years after coming into contact with it. I am also a veteran, and in my early twenties I thought the only way to be percieved as a competent leader was to be the toughest Marine I could. However, as I matured, I realized that my most effective superiors were those that invested in me, unconditionally. I soon realized that I had a burning desire to emulate this type of selfless leadership. We are all a work in progress!

Valerie Barney's picture Valerie Barney | May 14, 2017 8:14 am MST

The think the idea of leader-follower in a servant leadership approach is a thing of the past. The components of servant leadership that you mention are there to guide, inspire, and challenge those in any type of role. Interacting and learning from those around you, whether a client or a leader are ways in which individuals grow. This form of self-actualization and achievement is essential for one to increase his or her capabilities. Through a collaborative effort, ideas grow, which can foster empowerment. Servant leadership allows individuals to be sensitive to others’ needs, as well as form mutual and organizational respect. To ensure servant leadership is suitable for various leadership styles, one must base leadership on several essential components. For example, leadership is about understanding and acceptance; understanding and accepting the contributions of others. Leadership is about listening; listening to the client to ensure his or her needs are met. Leadership is also about team-orientation; orientation to increase synergy and team cohesiveness.


Christopher Hicks's picture Christopher Hicks | July 12, 2017 12:09 pm MST

Thanks Valerie,

I agree that leadership is about the ability to listen. I also feel that diversity in leadership, affords us opportunities to listen to those who may say something new. 

Kimberly Usrey's picture Kimberly Usrey | May 23, 2017 9:23 am MST

I enjoyed reading your blog on servant leadership and how the theory takes us away from the leader-follower dynamic and promotes collaboration. In my previous job at a manufacturing plant the owner of the business displayed the qualities of a servant leader. He would make sure employees at each level of the company felt comfortable to provide input and suggestions for how certain processes could be different and lead to more productivity. He would also step in and work alongside the employees on the plant for when the workload became overwhelming. There also times when he thought something should be done a certain way but before he implemented those processes he discussed it with the employees in that area to see how they felt and if there were suggestions to improve upon the way certain things are done. For myself, I believe I lean more towards being a servant leader. I am however still developing my leadership skills and your post has really motivated me want to develop more into this type of leadership style. 

Christopher Hicks's picture Christopher Hicks | July 12, 2017 12:14 pm MST

I am glad you enjoyed reading the blog, Kim!

I am also excited that you have been in contact with a servant-leader, in my experience, it is only a matter of time before you decide to adopt their leadership style as your own. Be patient, and allow yourself time to grow. 

Simona Parker's picture Simona Parker | June 11, 2017 1:24 am MST

I identify as a servant leader because I believe employees have needs that should be met to yield high performance.  Those needs include proper training, fair treatment, and trust.  Without these basic needs, employees may feel overlooked as I have within the last two weeks of my employment.  Employees have a need to know their job and the responsibilities required of them.  Fair treatment may be to include them on some decision-making process suitable for their rank in the organization, and trust is simply allowing employees room for mistakes and growth.  So far, I have not seen diversity other than the mixture of different ages, backgrounds, and social status.  To me inclusion means allowing employees to feel they are a part of the group.  So far, I feel excluded from my workgroup and have little trust in the organization. 

Christopher Hicks's picture Christopher Hicks | July 12, 2017 12:28 pm MST

Thanks for your candid comments, Simona. Unfortunately, many people find themselves working for an organization that does not deserve their trust. You touched on a key aspect of inclusion that I did not mention in my blog, belonging. In my opinion, belonging is an important factor in improving employee engagement. It is always amusing to me to see managers react to the variance between how they rate their own credibility and how their subordinates rate them.

Can you think of any ways that your organization could earn your trust? 

Dorothy Williams's picture Dorothy Williams | June 28, 2017 11:45 pm MST

Hi Chris, great blog and thought provoking Servant Leadership review. Life Foundation Training Center staff and volunteers seek the best way to serve the organization. Servant Leadership is our approach to managing and team building. We have optimal leadership, authentic leadership, humble, relentless and committed leadership. My biggest job as CEO and Director of Special Programs is actively listening, 360 degrees top to bottom, and hearing before deciding. I do have and show empathy; practice separating the person from work, walk a mile in the client, staff and volunteers shoes. Become personable with appropriate individuals. Servant Ledership inclusiveness and diversity from my perspective is also about healing; help the staff, volunteers, clients, and myself to become whole. I do consider the history of all people concerned at the center so that we can help build a Servant Leadership environment of inclusion and diversity with all individuals involved in the programs and the communities throughout Chicago Metropolitan area and outlying suburb.



Christopher Hicks's picture Christopher Hicks | July 12, 2017 12:43 pm MST

Thank you Dorothy,

I have not looked at servant-leadership theory through the lens of healing, but I will reflect on it in the upcoming weeks and months. However, I completely agree that servant-leadership theory can inform diversity practices in organizations. And yes, some diversity practices may lead to stakeholders becoming whole. I think that inclusivity is a powerful and pro-active way to strengthen the entire organization.

Thank you for all of your courageous work out there in Chicago, please feel free to reach out if I can ever be of assistance. 

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