The art of leading global teams is a difficult one, even in the best of times. Amid economic uncertainties, the inability to travel across borders, and an unprecedented pandemic, effective leadership may seem impossible. And yet, in these difficult times, your employees may be looking to you for guidance more so than ever.

So, what does the evidence say is the most effective way to lead during a crisis?

Studies indicate that tactics from the servant leadership approach maintain their effectiveness whether offered virtually or in-person. And given its emphasis on putting followers first and helping them to cope during challenging times, servant leadership is an answer for managers looking for a leadership style to thrive now and into the future, post COVID-19.

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is an other-oriented leadership approach, focused on building and maintaining meaningful relationships with followers, as well as having a broader concern for the organisation and larger community. Servant-leaders behave ethically, seek to empower their employees, and put others first, whether that is employees or members of the community.

Servant leadership is good for your people. Employees who work with a servant-leader are likely to thrive in the workplace, by experiencing high levels of wellbeing, engagement at work and in their home life, meaningfulness in their work.

Servant leadership is also good for business. Over 200 academic peer-reviewed articles demonstrate servant leadership increases organisational (firm, operational, customer-orientation), team, and employee performance. More importantly, servant leadership can influence performance by almost 20% more than traditional leadership approaches focused solely on task management and organisational goals.

Servant leadership has been working for many organisations before COVID-19 and continues to work throughout. For example, Home Depot has continued to put their employees and their local communities first during the crisis, guaranteeing wages for employees infected or quarantined, providing additional vacation time to cope, and donating personal protective equipment to hospitals. Despite the costs associated with these measures, Home Depot stock evaluation has earned record highs during COVID-19.

For senior managers, there are many ways demonstrations of daily servant-leader behaviours can have a significant impact to help their organisation and employees thrive.


How to be a servant-leader during COVID-19

  1. Explicitly show concern: The best leaders show genuine empathy for their people, and chaotic times like these are when people need empathy the most. When you do meet with your employees, virtually or otherwise, spend time checking in with their mental and physical health. If you are not forthcoming about your feelings, your employees will not be either.
  2. Do not put career development on hold: Many people are using this time to reflect on what they want to do in the future. Book time with your employees to discuss their career trajectories over the next 12-24 months and how the organisation can help them achieve these goals. Employees need to see and believe that you are prioritizing their development. This can also communicate that there is life after COVID-19.
  3. Think about when you are holding your meetings: Putting the needs of your employees first is key to servant leadership. Try to consistently schedule your meetings at the same time of day (daily or weekly) to help employees build a routine with their work and family, but make reasonable accommodations for their other commitments. Ask your team members about those commitments – they may not tell you unless you directly ask them.
  4. Empower your employees: Checking in with your employees regularly is harder online. Instead, give them more autonomy to make meaningful decisions. You have plenty to worry about; let your employees take work off your hands. But don’t take this too far – practice smart empowerment by giving them clear starting and endpoints, offering them the resources they need to succeed, and encouraging them to reach out to you if they need help.
  5. Behave ethically: It’s easy to turn a blind eye to bad behaviours; ethics can easily slip through the cracks during times of chaos. For a servant-leader, ethics doesn’t just mean following the law, engaging in fair practices, and avoiding discrimination. The servant-leader aspires to a higher level of morality across the organisation, treating their followers with dignity and respect.
  6. Remember your community: A core tenet of servant leadership is keeping the community in mind, and making sure followers understand what the organisation and team are doing to make the world a better place. Employees are more motivated when they see their work as meaningful. This is a conversation worth having with your followers: is there some way your work is helping others? Is there a way, no matter how small, that your work helps people during the COVID-19 crisis?
  7. Demonstrate conceptual skills: The challenge for leaders is to prioritize others while improving business performance. The best leaders learn as much as they can about both what the business is doing, and what new challenges and opportunities might arise in the environment next. Are you proactively in contact with your leaders and the decisions they are making that impact your team? Are you discussing complex situations with your team openly so that you can best plan together for what comes next?


Want to learn more? Click here for a deeper dive with more information on servant leadership, the evidence for its impact on organisational performance, and how you can implement it in your team or organisation.

Nathan Eva

Assistant Professor in the Department of Management at Monash Business School. His work examines post-heroic theories of leadership (servant, ethical, collective) and how they have profound and lasting effects on follower and organisational performance, innovation, and helping behaviours. His research challenges the idea of heroic leadership and argues we need to rethink how we lead and what leadership behaviours we should reward. His peer-reviewed work appears in outlets such as The Leadership Quarterly, Human Resource Management, and Journal of Business Ethics. Dr. Eva is a committee member of the Network of Leadership Scholars and a facilitator for the International Leadership Association’s Leadership Education Academy.

Jeremy D. Meuser, Ph.D

Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Mississippi. Jeremy brings an eclectic background to the study of leadership, holding degrees in computer engineering, philosophy, and spirituality, and a Ph.D. in business administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago and entrepreneurial and managerial experience in the private sector in information technology, high school teaching, and internships in the medical field. He published servant leadership research in the Academy of Management Journal and The Oxford Handbook of Leadership in Organisations. Dr. Meuser’s teaching experience includes leadership development. He currently serves as the Eminent Leadership Scholar Coordinator and Co-president of the Network of Leadership Scholars.

G. James Lemoine

Assistant Professor of Organisation and Human Resources, and a researcher with the Center for Leadership and Organisational Effectiveness, at the University at Buffalo (State University of New York). His research focuses on leadership, ethics, and creativity, and has been published in the Harvard Business Review and Business Horizons, as well as academic journals like the Academy of Management Annals and Journal of Applied Psychology. His work also frequently appears in magazines such as Forbes, Inc., Fast Company, and Entrepreneur. Prior to obtaining his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, he was an entrepreneur, consultant, and manager at companies such as AT&T.

Karryna Madison

Ph.D. student in the Department of Management at Monash Business School. Her research explores how gender interacts with communal approaches to leadership. Specifically, how gender roles shape our expectations and evaluations of leaders’ other-orientated behaviours. Karryna has presented her research globally including Indonesia and the United States. Her teaching experience includes leadership and international business.

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