Fostering inclusion with servant leadership

It is crucial for organizations to focus on supporting the new way of work, enhancing productivity, and improving cost efficiency to ensure business survival in the post-pandemic world. However, those that are overly focused on these short-term goals risk losing sight of what’s truly important.

As shared in my previous post, diverse teams can help organizations unlock innovations that allow them to adapt to market changes quickly and drive business growth. Such teams are more likely to understand a wider variety of audience and identify unmet market needs as every member may have a different perspective of things. Since the ability to spot and seize game changers is becoming an increasingly mission-critical trait, it is important for D&I to remain a strategic priority.  

The role of servant leaders in D&I

Getting workplace diversity and inclusion right requires a culture where everyone feels they belong and are valued. This responsibility falls on leaders as research has found that a leader’s actions contribute to a 70% difference as to whether an individual employee reports feeling included.

Leaders can build an inclusive culture by embracing servant leadership. Servant leadership is defined as a “philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” Putting it simply, servant leaders have a serve-first mindset, show humility, and are always looking to help unlock their employees’ potential, creativity, and a sense of purpose. Here are some of their common practices: 

  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion: Servant leaders genuinely care and are committed to the happiness, well-being, and quality of life of their employees. They show empathy regardless of the issue, and work together with employees to solve the problem if it is related to work. By doing so, they create a space for employees to raise issues and express their honest opinions without the fear of being judged. Studies have shown that employees who perceive their leaders as compassionate or kind are more loyal to them, which may in turn result in better work performance. 
  • Willing to show vulnerability: Vulnerability is an asset, not a liability, to leaders. Vulnerable servant leaders have the courage to be their authentic selves instead of projecting the expected image of confidence, competence, and authority. They are open and honest about their beliefs and values, are more emotionally available, do not shy to ask for help, take responsibility for mistakes, make amends, and learn from setbacks. All of these make them more human and authentic, helping them build trusting relationships with employees.
  • Practice gratitude: Celebrating small accomplishments can create an environment where everyone wants to do better. Servant leaders are genuinely grateful for what their employees have achieved and express their appreciation by frequently and generously thanking team members.
  • Showing positivity: Studies have shown that unconditional positive regard — the practice of validating feelings, withholding judgment, and offering support — bolsters motivation and fosters authenticity. Servant leaders, therefore, usually provide positive feedback to help employees develop their sense of autonomy and self-competence.

Servant leadership in action

At Cloudera, we believe servant leadership is key to building a diverse, high-performing team. This is why we’ve recently launched a pilot sponsorship program, which pairs executive sponsors and proteges from 19 underrepresented minorities and women who work at Cloudera. Going beyond the typical mentorship program where mentors provide sound advice to mentees, our six-month sponsorship program is designed to forge connections and representation in executive meetings for those who might not typically have it and to elevate talent and voices from across the organization. In short, sponsors will advocate for their proteges to ensure that they have the opportunities to succeed. This, in turn, helps create a more diverse pipeline for leadership positions in the company. 

While we’re still on our D&I journey, I’m glad to share that our initial efforts have bore fruit. Our employees are highly engaged, driven, and willing to help their colleagues even those from a different department or geography — as they believe what they are doing contributes to the organization’s overall goals. 

All in all, servant leaders are akin to gardeners. Their task is to create a nurturing environment and cultivate with care — and this is something that resonates with me a lot. They provide everyone with a safe place to openly share ideas (no matter how radical they may be), collaborate, and experiment, as well as empower them to perform their best. As such, leaders who foster belonging and inclusion in this manner are more likely to have high-performing and creative teams that can help accelerate innovation and enhance business agility. 

Learn how else you can build an inclusive workplace that will help advance your D&I journey here.

Mark Micallef
Mark Micallef

VP, Asia Pacific & Japan

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