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Servant Leadership

“Good leaders must first be good servants.” Robert Greenleaf

Robert Greenleaf is considered by many in the leadership field to be the founder of the modern Servant Leadership movement. His thoughts and works influenced a whole generation of managers and leaders by sharing this concept as a favorable and effective leadership style.

What Is Servant Leadership?

In 1970, Greenleaf published his first essay, entitled “The Servant As Leader”, which introduced the term “servant leadership” into the contemporary lexicon of management theory. Later, the essay was expanded into a book, which is perhaps one of the most influential management texts ever written. Of his philosophy, Robert Greenleaf wrote in “Essentials”,

“The servant-leader is servant first… Becoming a servant-leader 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… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

The Responsibilities of Leadership

Let’s be real: when we are elevated into a position of leadership, we become accountable for the expectations, objectives, and the delivery of the same within our sphere of influence. We are responsible for the ways and means of achieving those things, as well as the team members and their energies and efforts in accomplishing those things. Each day, and in every opportunity, we are directed and governed by the goal of getting things done through others.

I believe the biggest question we face in this leadership role and in our given capacity is, how do we conduct our leadership in the pursuit of getting things done through our teams?

Consider that question. Pause and reflect. When you and your team have something to get done, what tempers all of your efforts? How do you respond?

Start Thinking about Servant Leadership Today

Get a sheet of paper and a pen. Draft your answers to some or all of following questions:

  • How do you define service? What is servant leadership to you?
  • When you have goals to meet and exceed, how do you balance your needs with the needs of others?
  • How would you rate your abilities in Greenleaf’s Principles of Servant Leadership:
    • Listening
    • Empathy
    • Healing
    • Awareness
    • Persuasion
    • Conceptualization
    • Foresight
    • Stewardship
    • Commitment to the growth of people
    • Building community
  • How do you typically demonstrate servant leadership? Where does it fit into your daily routine?
  • If your team was asked about your leadership, how would they define it?

Where do these answers take you? Where is your focus regarding whose needs or aspirations? What is your relationship with servant leadership? I find that when we truly have the posture of servant leadership, we are focused on the best interests of others above our own. We strive to make others successful, knowing our success becomes the result of theirs.

Exercising Servant Leadership

Perhaps the take-away is to be better at (or at least more aware of) servant leadership. If you research it, you will get plenty of insight. Beyond Greenleaf’s obvious influence, this concept is universal. It is timeless, and has its roots as far back as a tenet in ancient Eastern and Western philosophies, as well as the life of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It is also broad in its application. In sales and service, it is about the customer. In our communities, it is about investing in those in need. In leadership, it is about our team members.

In a way, servant leadership is close to being an oxymoron. To lead, one must follow – by serving others. One must put the needs of another ahead of their own. Why is this good for leadership? In the past, managers operated on a transactional basis with employees. An exchange of service. “Do this in exchange for pay and benefits.” One will only contribute so much in that kind of arrangement. When a leader gets to know what matters to the team member, when they care about what the team member needs, possibility expands.

The thing is, it does not really take a ton of effort. Lead by example. Make sure the team has the “why” in things. Encourage collaboration; up and down, and side to side. Help them grow, personally and professionally. Ask for their feedback, insight, and ideas. Give them credit and celebrate their accomplishments. Share your appreciation for what they do. Care for them. In fact, do not stop there; make it a practice with each day given…care for every person.

It is easy to be self-centered. That comes naturally. To mindfully, intentionally, actively serve someone else…that is harder. And potentially the greatest achievement you will ever have. Be part of someone else’s success. Lift them up. Trust me, your shoulders are strong enough!

 How to Exemplify Servant Leadership

  • Define and communicate organizational service and servant leadership
  • Have your team evaluate the quality of leadership within your organization
  • Look for specific opportunities to have your team share insight on upcoming projects
  • Schedule one-on-one time with your team to get to know them. Plan a 30-minute touch base
  • Pick a servant leadership principle and make it a focus for the day or week
  • Make an obvious effort of showing your appreciation. Maybe post a “Thankful Thursday” message celebrating a team member or team on LinkedIn

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