The Art & Practice of Servant Leadership

By: Sattar Bawany, Managing Director, EDA Asia Pacific & C-Suite Master Executive Coach

Increasingly, companies are recognizing that leaders who demonstrate high emotional and social intelligence competencies are crucial to their organizational effectiveness. Why? Because ultimately it is the people within the organization – leaders, managers, and individual contributors at all levels – who must translate corporate strategy and business goals into action. They must understand the organization’s vision and make it their own. They must become its champion by influencing others to follow them and help them implement. This is the essence of leadership in a High-Performance Organization (HPO) (Bawany, 2014). (See Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Framework for Developing High-Performance Organization (HPO)

From the ongoing longitudinal research by EDA Strategic Partner, Centre for Executive Education (CEE), we believe that leadership is all about envisioning the future and energizing the organization, including the team, to achieve that vision. This includes the ability to impact and influence your followers with humility, and leveraging the right leadership styles by engaging relevant emotional and social intelligence competencies. The end result? Achieving your organizational goals.

The Results-based Leadership (RBL) Framework

Because individuals in organizations can rarely be successful alone, they must influence, lead, and coordinate their efforts with others in order to achieve their goals – to translate vision into action. A leader’s success rests in large part upon his or her ability to influence the different groups he or she must relate to in the organization: their superiors, peers, and direct reports.

The Results-based Leadership (RBL) Framework presents an operating model and proven approach for putting employees first. Putting the customer first has been the mantra of many companies for a long time. However correct that this mantra may be, perhaps it’s time to question the wisdom of it. Some companies already have, that is, put the customer second, after employees. The results are surprising and enlightening – engaged and contented employees and companies cited for their best practices. Moreover, customers are satisfied (Bawany, 2015). (See Figure 2).

Figure 2 – Framework for Results-based Leadership (RBL)

Importance of Empathy as a Leadership Competency of Servant Leadership

In our executive coaching engagements over the years, our Coaches have found that many leaders and managers vaguely understand the impact empathy has on leadership effectiveness. One of the reasons, we have found out, is that very few of them have been trained or taught how to cultivate empathy in their lives and work as a daily practice.

The empathetic leader put themselves in their followers’ shoes and attempts to see things from their perspective. Empathy doesn’t mean agreeing with someone. Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy doesn’t mean telling them that they are right, or even addressing their concern. Demonstrating empathy shows that you care enough to give someone else’s issue the same level of respect and attention they do.

The life of a leader has plenty of demands and pressures. Having the relevant leadership skills and competencies to handle them would seem to be a pre-requisite for success. We have identified several specific skills from a wide array of Emotional & Social Intelligence (ESI) competencies, as the ones that differentiate successful leaders from other people. Fortunately, these skills can be improved with the proper training and coaching (Bawany, 2015).

One of these ESI competencies is Empathy. Empathy can be simply defined as the ability to be aware of and understand how others feel. It is a key component of people-oriented and participative leadership. This would include being sensitive to the feelings, concerns, and needs of the co-workers and being able to see the world from their perspective.

For a Servant Leader, Empathy can also be seen as demonstrating an active concern for people and their needs by forming close and supportive relationships with others. Leaders who lack empathy may be perceived by others as cold, uncaring, and having little interest in them as people. Leaders, who score high on this competency, work to develop close bonds with others. They spend time getting to know people and are able to give their colleagues the feeling that they are personally involved with them. They tend to emphasize the importance of being generous and kind and displaying a sincere interest in the well-being of others. If carried to extremes, however, this closeness may cloud a leader’s objectivity and result in decisions which do not properly consider the organization’s best interests. Hence it would be crucial for the leader to bear in mind the saying “familiarity breeds contempt”.

Servant Leadership Lessons from the CEO of Microsoft

In today’s hyper-competitive, disruptive VUCA driven business environment, we need a new breed of CEOs and Business Leaders which are defined less by “commanding and controlling” or “autocratic/coercive and pacesetting” leadership styles but rather more of “inspiring and empowering” or “authoritative/visionary and coaching” leadership styles (Bawany, 2015).

A great example of a leader which demonstrates this approach effectively and successfully is Microsoft Corporation CEO, Satya Nadella. Unlike his predecessor, the notoriously combative Steve Ballmer, Nadella has dramatically revived Microsoft’s reputation and its relevance by emphasizing collaboration and what he calls a “learn-it-all” culture versus the company’s historical “know-it-all” one. As Fast Company’s senior editor Harry McCracken explains in Microsoft Rewrites the Code, the results have been eye-popping: more than $250 billion in market value gains in less than four years—a feat that, quantitatively, puts Nadella in the same league of Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Larry Page of Google and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

Nadella demonstrates humility when a few months into his tenure, he made a major faux pas at a conference for women engineers that spawned a wave of criticism. He owned up to the mistake and admitted to biases that he hadn’t realized. The episode ended up building his credibility in the long run.

Nadella’s leadership style is to emphasize what’s been done right. He starts each senior leadership meeting with a segment called “Researcher of the Amazing,” showcasing something inspiring at the company and by doing so he created an organizational climate of trust partnership with his co-leaders (See RBL Framework).

Nadella is a strong believer in talent management and has been personally involved in the recruitment of new talent into the company. He has also emphasized the importance of an outsider’s perspective in steering the organization to greater heights. But he has put even more focus on unleashing potential within the leadership team, including high-potential leaders. He’s created a high-performance driven culture with his empowering and coaching style of leadership which relies on managerial coaching as an organizational development tool. He also believes that re­sis­­tance to change is a behavior rather than a fixed personality trait that can be addressed with coaching.

Finally, Nadella demonstrates empathy as he recognizes that his co-leaders and employees’ perspective is real and important to them. It may not be real, or important, to him, but it is very real and important to them. He gives it the same level of respect and attention they do.


In a high-performance driven culture, putting yourself in your team members’ shoes can go a long way when you’re trying to help them in their job. We connect emotionally to them so that we can understand them better, and ensure they always feel confident in what they are doing. We don’t just feel for our people, we feel with them.

As Servant Leaders, we must work with, and through, others to accomplish organizational objectives and achieve success. The better we become at seeing things through others’ eyes, the better we will influence and inspire them. Empathy may not seem like a “business” concept, but it’s a behavior worthy of practice if we aspire to be great leaders that drive success within our organizations.

About the Author:

Professor Sattar Bawany is the Managing Director & C-Suite Master Executive Coach with Executive Development Associates (EDA) in Asia Pacific. He is also the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Executive Education (CEE). EDA is the Strategic Partner of Centre for Executive Education (CEE) in offering a suite of Executive Development solutions in the Asia Pacific region.


Bonnie Hagemann & Sattar Bawany (2016), Enhancing Leadership and Executive Development – Latest Trends & Best Practices in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 03.2016.

Sattar Bawany (2016), “Transforming the NextGen Leaders in a VUCA World” in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 07.2016

Sattar Bawany (2015), “Results-based Leadership: Putting Your Employees First before Customer & Profits” in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 05.2015.

Sattar Bawany (2014), “Building High Performance Organizations with Results-based Leadership (RBL) Framework” in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 11.2014