The idea of servant leadership might at first seem contradictory. Doesn’t being a leader mean that other people do things for you or do what you tell them?
For some leaders, that is the case. Their position is simply about having power and using it. They are focused on what is best for them and use all of their resources (including other people) to move up the ladder in pursuit of more power and prestige.
This doesn’t necessarily mean those types of leaders are bad at their job or tyrants stomping around the office. However, they aren’t using their leadership position and skills to the fullest potential for themselves and the others around them.
Servant leadership shifts the focus from what other people can do for you to how you can serve their needs and help them grow. The former CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, Kent Keith, said, “The simplest way to explain it [servant leadership] would be to say that servant leaders focus on identifying and meeting the needs of others rather than trying to acquire power, wealth and fame for themselves.”
At the heart of servant leadership is the emotional intelligence competency of service ethic. The Institute for Social and Emotional Intelligence® defines service ethic as “anticipating, recognizing, and meeting customers’ needs.”
However, service ethic isn’t just about customer service. In the case of true service ethic and for servant-leaders, everyone is your “customer.” Your coworkers, team members, clients, employees, neighbors, friends, family, etc. are all your customers. Providing “good customer service” to all of those people improves our interactions and relationships with them.
How can you develop yourself into a servant-leader who puts others first? And what is the impact on your organization?
Be Available and Truly Listen
The first step to developing service ethic and becoming a great leader is to be available and take time to truly listen. Yes, we spend a lot of time talking about how important it is to listen. That’s because it is such a critical component of leadership, communication, and building relationships.
Active listening allows you to better understand the emotions of the other person. When you listen for understanding instead of simply waiting for your turn to respond, you are able to connect better and show the other person you truly care and respect their thoughts and opinions. Listening is the first step toward clearer communication.
Along with listening, you need to make yourself available. This means putting down your phone, closing your laptop, and putting away any other distractions when you’re speaking with someone. If you’re busy writing an email while someone is trying to describe a problem to you, they don’t have your full attention.
It also means allowing time in your schedule to meet with your employees. I know that everyone is busy, but for servant-leaders, the time spent helping your employees grow and solve their problems is an important use of your time.
Hopefully it’s obvious that if you want to be a good leader, you need to show respect to the people you work with. But respect isn’t just about an absence of rude and hostile actions, it’s also about intentionally taking time to show others you respect them.
This can come in many forms. It can be as simple as knowing everyone’s name and saying hello as you walk through the office. Everyone from the CEO to the janitorial staff deserves your kindness.
Respect can also mean including your employees in the decision making process when possible and accepting ideas from them. This shows that you value their input and ideas and see them as valuable members of a team, not just cogs in the machine.
One of the most obvious differences between servant leadership and other types of leadership is that servant-leaders work to persuade others to agree with their point of view as opposed to forcing the decision because of their position. Servant-leaders respect others enough not to treat them like children by demanding compliance without understanding.
Helping Without Reward
Business seems to have the mindset of getting and taking all that you can. More profits, more shares, bigger numbers. Everyone seems to be focused on the question, “What’s in it for me?”
But servant-leaders go out of their way to help others and show appreciation, even if there’s no immediate reward for themselves. Taking a moment to give a sincere thank you or just taking out the trash in the break room are simple tasks that go a long way toward building loyalty and good will within an organization.
Over time, you’ll see that building a culture of helping brings numerous benefits. Projects run more smoothly when others are willing to step in and assist when things get hectic. Employees who feel appreciated and supported are more likely to stay with the organization longer. It’s a healthier workplace because people are treated well and treat others well by following your example.
Commitment to Growth
The biggest aspect of servant leadership is a commitment to the growth of your people. Servant-leaders see each team member as valuable and work to develop them to their fullest potential.
In servant leadership, you are working to help others become leaders. When you focus on cultivating growth, you are building the next generation of leaders for your organization. As a servant-leader, when one of your employees gets a promotion, it’s a cause of celebration, even if they are moving past you on the career ladder. There is no competition or jealousy within servant leadership. A win for one person is a win for all.
Servant-leaders provide the resources and tools necessary for their team to grow. They also know the strengths and weaknesses of each team member. A good leader can rearrange the team to make the best use of their skills, even if someone ends up in an unexpected place because you were able to uncover or develop new talents.
Since servant leaders are focused on developing each employee instead of just themselves, the employees are more engaged with the work, bringing innovation and efficiency. This reduces turnover, and therefore, reduces the cost of having to train new employees.
Servant leadership is not necessarily an easy path to choose. It requires a humble disposition and a willingness to understand the needs of others. It requires empathy and the ability to change yourself. However, the benefits will help build your organization into something everyone is dedicated to and happy to be a part of.
Becoming a servant-leader doesn’t mean that you become a pushover either. Leader still makes up half of the word. Your attitude just changes from “I want to win,” to “I want US to win.”
If you want to learn more about servant leadership, I recommend reading Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. He originally developed the concept of servant leadership and his work is still a top authority on the subject.