We, the people, love servant leadership. Why wouldn’t we? We’re the ones being served.
Servant leaders take those of us on the lower rungs of the ladder and put us at the top. Their primary role is to serve our needs, growth, and well-being. They’ve got our backs.
What’s the outcome? Well, when we’ve been built up, when we’ve grown with their assistance, we’re in a position to be servant leaders ourselves. And so the positive cyclical pattern continues.
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Maya Angelou
What is servant leadership?
If you’re not familiar with the term, a servant leader is one who “serves” those who would traditionally be considered beneath them in the chain of authority.
In government, this means putting the populace first. In business, it means serving your employee base and customers.
This humble approach takes the classic business model and turns it upside down.
Now, in the servant leadership model, the leader is at the bottom of the business. Their goal is to serve those above them.
For this model to work, the leader needs to have a genuine desire help others. They can’t want to be a leader to garner power and exert authority over others. They lead because they want to assist others. They want to serve their people.
Robert K Greenleaf, the father of modern day servant leadership, wrote in The Servant as Leader essay:
"The servant-leader is servant first... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions...The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types."
What does servant leadership look like?
Don’t get me wrong. A servant leader doesn’t act like a traditional servant.
They’re not at the beck and call of all their employees; solely responsible for emptying the dishwasher or clearing the meeting rooms. (Though, they’re willing to take part in these chores.)
Serving as a servant leader runs deeper than that. It’s about building other people up. Your ultimate goal is to look after their well-being, and to see them grow.
"Servant leaders are not doormats, nor do they take on all of the work." Skip Prichard [Source]
3 examples of servant leadership
I reached out to a number of people to find out their interpretations and examples of servant leadership. The responses were fascinating and illuminating. Here are three of them:
1. Put others before you
Paul Dillon, a former US Army Officer turned entrepreneur, explained it very well. He said that he was trained to be a servant leader, and it’s an example that any company can follow.
‘’As young Army officers, we were taught to take care of our troops first, if you want them to follow you. An officer doesn’t eat until all of his or her troops have eaten. An officer doesn’t change into a dry pair of socks, until he or she is satisfied that their troops are dry and warm. Otherwise, the troops just aren’t going to follow you to places where they wouldn’t go by themselves.”
2. Listen, listen, listen
Zachary Rosser of Katura Design, emphasized the importance of listening and generosity.
“I take employees and partners out to lunch one on one as often as possible. I make time to do this with everyone from the top to the bottom. I talk to them about their ideas for the company, some good and some bad, but I take lots of time to hear everyone out and make them realize they matter.
This then creates a company culture in which people feel like they matter and will be heard, and it makes them more willing to share their ideas. It's consistently resulted in a steady flow of innovative ideas, specific means to improve efficiency.”
3. Don’t ask for something you wouldn’t do
Dr. Froswa' Booker-Drew, a consultant and author with a PhD in Leadership and Change, puts herself in her staff’s shoes:
“As a leader, I don't ask my staff to complete tasks I'm unwilling to do. I always ask my staff ‘What do you need from me?’
“I want to make sure I’m supporting my team when they need me and that they trust that I’ll be there even in the minutiae. I'm highly relational and see my role as a leader as not just completing a task but building people in the process.
“If I want my team to serve those in the communities we've been in, I had to be approachable, personable, and willing to model the behavior that I wanted them to display.“
How can you tell if servant leadership is working?
Simple. Look at those being served. Are they following the leader? Are they growing as people?
As Greenleaf asked: “Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
If they’re not, then servant-leadership isn’t happening.
"The higher your title is, the more your job is to support other people." David Cancel, Drift [Source]
Those who don’t believe in servant leadership
Some don’t support servant leadership, believing it will lead to limitations within the business. Here are a few of the problems they foresee.
Falseness: They think of servant leadership as bogus. That it flies in the face of the traditional business model. For example, a manager will always be truly interested in serving the desires of executives and owners. They can support the members of their team, but they’re always serving the C-Suite.
Authority: They feel servant leaders may have less authority because they’re putting themselves beneath their employees.
Motivation: They believe employees will become less motivated because they’re being coddled by servant-leaders.
Vision: They think a servant leader will start to lose their vision and ability to provide direction because they’re too attached to their employees.
Everyone's welcome to their opinion, but these outcomes suggest a limited understanding of servant leadership.
When you read-up on the topic (and see it in action) it’s clear that servant leadership isn’t about becoming a dogsbody. It’s about putting the needs of your employees and customers first.
Among other things, servant leadership is about supporting individuals to enable them to reach their greatest potential. This generates personal growth, great leaders, and trust (which, in turn, leads to higher levels of loyalty).
Servant leadership is more than leading by example. As a servant leader you’re setting the tone for the rest of the business, but you’re also actively serving your employees (those closest to your customers) and your customers themselves.
Sometimes, it’s a thankless job. But, it’s one that can reap great rewards. If you’ve got any examples of servant leadership at your company, we’d love to hear them. Feel free to share in the comments section below.