Last Updated on

Organizations often claim to encourage risk-taking, but are typically reluctant to greenlight experimental innovation efforts for fear of failure. What’s more, by the time an “experimental” project is set to launch, layers of management will have likely reviewed and approved the “risky” project in advance.

The issue is that there’s always going to be a natural failure rate when taking risks. Expecting 100% success only rewards safe bets. Not only is this approach stale and uninspired, but it also discourages employees from implementing new ideas that could lead to positive business outcomes.

While there is no silver bullet for building a culture of experimentation, one way executives can help spur innovation in their organizations is by practicing servant leadership.

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership in a workplace context means ensuring that your employees’ needs are being served and to focus on their growth and well-being. Instead of exercising authority over their direct reports, servant leaders share power, prioritize the needs of their team members, and help employees reach their highest potential.

How can servant leadership help spur innovation?

Because employees are uniquely positioned to understand the intersection of business operations and customer demand, their perspectives and acquired expertise should be at the center of any strategy to help their company survive and thrive. As such, business leaders must create a culture where people are empowered to share new ideas and develop more efficient processes.

Risk-taking in the Workplace

When looking at risk-taking in the workplace, it’s important to distinguish between personal risk and business risk. Personal risk is when employees feel they might lose status or even their job for proposing or doing something new.  Business risk is when employees get new ideas, evaluate the pros and cons, get team and management buy-in, and then implement them.

Ideally, leaders should encourage business risk while minimizing personal risk. Jim Haudan, co-founder of Root Inc., states that “often the best way for leaders to serve employees is to create a low-risk space for them to experiment with their ideas,” reconciling the seeming contradiction between “low-risk” and “experiment.”  The best servant leaders make it safe for people to take risks.

10 Key Principles of Servant Leadership

To get the most out of their teams and accelerate innovation, business leaders must first create a safe environment that encourages risk and tolerates the occasional failure. In order to serve the needs of their people and create a culture of innovation, servant-leaders must consciously practice the following habits:

1. Listening

Often, leaders tend to make decisions unilaterally and then communicate their orders to the team. This style of leadership leaves no room for negotiation and collaboration. Servant-leaders, on the other hand, actively listen to their employees’ concerns and suggestions. They allow their direct reports the opportunity to be involved in the decision-making process.

2. Empathy

In order to effectively lead a team, leaders must be able to connect with their followers and make efforts to understand their employees’ intentions. Business leaders can practice empathy by tackling problems with an open mind, briefly setting their opinions aside, and respecting other people’s perspectives.

3. Healing

When employees with different roles and priorities work together, conflict is inevitable and can result in emotional stress, work interruptions, and decreased productivity. Employees in conflict with each other are unable to collaborate nor innovate.  Good servant leaders must be able to de-escalate situations and resolve issues to build a healthy and cooperative workplace.

4. Awareness

Effective servant leaders must be aware of their surroundings to serve those around them. They must be aware of their industry and the business environment. They must learn about investing in building their employees’ skills and knowledge to keep up with emerging technologies. Finally, they must identify their own weaknesses and leverage their strengths to maximize their organization’s performance.

5. Persuasion

Rather than relying on their authority to coerce people into compliance, servant leaders cooperate with their employees.  They use persuasion to encourage people to take action and empower them to work together to achieve business goals.

6. Conceptualization

Though organizations may preach the benefits of innovation, managers may be reluctant for their direct reports to take time away from their everyday responsibilities for experimental innovation efforts. In contrast, servant leaders are open to new ideas and are able to conceptualize the benefits of experimentation. They can find solutions that give employees opportunities to take worthwhile risks without interfering with the day-to-day operations.

7. Foresight

Closely related to conceptualization, foresight is when servant leaders can plan for the future of the company by learning from the past and evaluating the present. Leaders with foresight understand that their organization’s success depends on their ability to adapt to the changing technological landscape and make efforts to future-proof their companies accordingly.

8. Stewardship

As people who have been entrusted to lead, servant leaders hold themselves accountable for the wins and losses of their teams. They actively take measures to give their company a competitive advantage, ensure that everyone’s actions are in line with the organizational values, and lead by example.

9. Commitment to the Growth of People

Instead of doing employees’ jobs for them, servant-leaders enable them to progress on the job and allow them to learn from failure without fear of reprisals. If new experiments fail, so long as the mistakes aren’t catastrophic, servant-leaders embrace these missteps as valuable learning opportunities. They emphasize the importance of celebrating successes and learning from failures as a team.

10. Building Community

Servant leaders understand the importance of building a community in the organization to promote collaboration and rapport among employees. They provide opportunities for people in different functions to interact with one another through social events or cross-functional projects. When employees develop positive relationships with one another, they are able to learn and leverage each other’s strengths to collaborate on new ideas.

Business leaders, executives, and managers must continuously demonstrate the above key behaviors in order to truly serve the needs of their employees. By practicing servant leadership, executives can build a culture of innovation where employees are inspired to learn, encouraged to take new risks, and feel safe bringing radical solutions to market.

Dive deep and learn more in our Accelerating Innovation & Time-to-Market ebook.

Click here to learn more about Udacity’s enterprise offerings.

Start Learning