Is your company's strongest asset your knowledge workers? If your brightest and most valuable employees quit tomorrow, how would your team or company fare?

Coined by the late management expert Peter Drucker in 1959, "knowledge workers" are your prized thinkers who make your business go around. They work with their heads to plan, analyze, organize, test, program, distribute, search, market, and otherwise generally contribute to the transformation of information in the knowledge economy.

Drucker went to his grave preaching about the importance of increasing the productivity of knowledge workers if you want to succeed. He said this was the most important contribution managers needed to make in the 21st century. Quite prophetic on his part.

The best leadership style for the brightest employees

So that brings up the million-dollar question: How do you lead and manage knowledge workers to get the best out of them? How do you motivate highly paid, independent thinkers who own so much of an organization's intellectual and creative knowledge? And, on top of that, how do you do that when so many of them don't like to be managed? 

I've been thinking about that for a long time and have determined through several years of research, exploration, and observation that one leadership theory and practice moves to that end better than any other:

One notable researcher in the trenches of academia validating the practice of servant leadership is Dr. Dirk van Dierendonck, professor of human resource management at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

Through his extensive research, he has concluded that leaders function at their best when six key servant leadership characteristics are present: 

  • Empowerment and development of people
  • Expression of humility
  • Authenticity
  • Interpersonal acceptance
  • Providing of direction
  • Stewardship

1. Empowering and developing people

According to Dierendonck, this is about "giving people in the workplace responsibility for their own actions." It's a perfect fit for an autonomous knowledge worker seeking more freedom at work. 

Since knowledge workers typically know more than bosses do about their own areas of specialization, you empower further by allowing them the space to perform. Steve Jobs may have had an enormous ego as the head of Apple, but he understood his place in the knowledge economy when he famously quipped,

It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

As with Jobs, your best move is to intentionally not be the smartest person in the room. Just get out of the way and let knowledge workers do their thing.

Being closer to the ground, knowledge workers may also know more about the customer's needs, wishes, and expectations to problem solve, delight, and offer a richer customer experience. That's why Drucker advised managers, "Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy."

2. Expressing humility

Dierendonck writes: "By acknowledging fallibility and the limits of one's own knowledge, the servant leader helps to facilitate a learning environment: one in which employees can learn and develop through their own experimentation and by learning from others." 

That takes humility, which is a leadership strength of few. But it works.

Unfortunately, skeptics in command-and-control power structures miss the many opportunities to shift to a more human workplace led by servant leaders. They are blind to the possibility that promoting a learning culture within the organization in which people are trained, developed, coached, and mentored, in which people advance into new career paths and experience new roles and responsibilities, is a clear competitive advantage.

3. Authenticity

Dierendonck found authenticity to be a significant factor as it "enables the servant leader to show very clearly to employees that not only can they be themselves, but also that the work environment genuinely encourages and welcomes this."

To clarify, "being themselves" isn't license for anyone to display bad manners or pet peeves that make spouses cringe at home. It's acting with integrity and being your "best self." Dierendonck uses examples such as the shared cultural values of "do as you have promised" and "show consistency in actions and morality."  

4. Interpersonal acceptance

This is "the ability to understand and experience the feelings and motivations of others," states Dierendonck. In other words, one cannot espouse the servant leadership way without empathy, compassion, and forgiveness, especially when people make mistakes.

Dierendonck adds, "By accepting employees as individuals, the servant leader shows understanding and appreciation of their unique perspectives and allows people to feel that they matter."

5. Providing direction

One of the hard skills (as opposed to "soft skills") of every servant leader is to set the right goals and expectations for employees, as well as to create the kind of work that is fulfilling and has meaning and purpose for each individual contributor.

Dierendonck explains further: "To provide direction, the servant leader must make work dynamic and have it tailored to the abilities and needs of employees."

This is especially true for women. Allow me to explain.

Anne Brafford, author of Positive Professionals, references a 2012 study that found that meaningful work was a clear difference maker for satisfied career women everywhere. If companies are looking to prevent the turnover of their female workers, or looking to increase their diversity by hiring and promoting more women (especially into leadership roles), managers must craft jobs that play to their strengths, and which they're excited about doing. 

6. Stewardship

Dierendonck says that stewardship "is the willingness to take responsibility for the larger institution and to focus on service instead of control and self-interest."

This is really the crux of servant leadership -- not only to serve those entrusted to your leadership but also to align everyone to serve a bold mission with the utmost loyalty and commitment.

It's bringing everyone together in a Jim Collins, "Get the right people on the bus" sense and driving toward one common purpose. 

Dierendonck says, "By setting the right example, leaders can stimulate others to act in the common interest."