I once had a boss that faithfully preached the importance of “servant leadership.” He thought that serving instead of commanding, showing humility instead of brandishing authority, and seeking to enhance the development of his employees in ways that unlock potential and creativity, was the best way to lead. He sought to lead by example, and he expected his direct reports to do the same.
It’s an interesting, and potentially transformational leadership style, and it can produce amazing results when applied and done well. It caused me to re-think the way that I managed people within the organization for which I worked.
The concept gained attention and traction with Robert Greenleaf’s 1971 essay, The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf went on to found the Atlanta-based Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. He described servant leadership like this: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”
Southwest Airlines, under the guidance of founder Herb Kelleher, is frequently cited as the model servant leadership corporation. Kelleher’s philosophy of putting employees first resulted in a highly engaged, low-turnover workforce and almost 40 years of profitability – quite a feat in that particularly volatile industry!
So, what is servant leadership? At its core, it’s a nontraditional method of driving toward results within an organization. Experts often describe the majority of traditional business leaders as managers who mainly function as overseers of a transaction. That is, employees maintain desired performance levels, and, in exchange, they receive salary and benefits. Simple as that. Employees are proverbial cogs in the wheel who exist solely to help the organization advance its goals. Leaders act as taskmasters who dole out authority and don’t care how work gets done, as long as it’s delivered on time.
Contrast that to the servant leader who moves beyond the transactional aspects of management, and instead actively seeks to develop and align an employee’s sense of purpose with the organization’s mission. If successful, advocates say that empowered staff will perform at high, innovative levels. Employees feel more engaged and purpose-driven, which in turn increases the organization’s retention and lowers turnover costs. Well-trained and trusted staff continue to develop as future leaders, thus helping to ensure the long-term viability of the organization.
But this style isn’t something that you can wake up one day and apply to your organization. According to experts, in order to reap the rewards, several things need to happen. Servant leadership ultimately starts with an unselfish mindset. If you have selfish motivations, then you are not going to be a good servant leader. Moreover, the organization at large needs to provide a sustainable workplace culture in which this type of leadership can thrive. And for the servant leader, behavior isn’t just what gets done, but how it gets done.
Experts offer a range of best practices for top executives who aspire to become successful servant leaders. Most experts agree, however, on one bedrock principle: successful servant leadership starts with a leader’s desire to serve his or her staff, which in turn serves and benefits the organization at-large. That is, setting aside the age-old management mentality of ‘what have you done for me lately?’ and the power-play mentality of ‘do it because I said so.’
A key component of servant leadership is coaching – or mentorship. One expert’s view suggests that if a manager is not spending at least 25 percent of his or her time developing future leaders, then “you’re really not fulfilling your responsibilities as a leader.”
Another core aspect is to selectively relinquish power, so that employees can lead certain projects and take ownership of initiatives. The theory here is that giving up power and having others lead builds confidence in people.
Trust is also key. Trust is both a defining characteristic and defining outcome of servant leadership, says Stephen M.R. Covey, former CEO of the Covey Leadership Center. Covey suggests that it’s important to remember that servant leaders are both servants AND leaders. “You do serve, but it still requires the other dimensions of leadership—character and competence,” he says. Competence means that the leader has a track record of high ability and achieving results, with skills that are relevant. Character means that results and accomplishments are achieved with integrity and ethics.
Trust is a prerequisite for servant leaders because the leaders must trust that the employees are worth serving, and that they – and the organization – will benefit from their service. Practicing servant leadership generates trust in employees, who may be inspired by their manager’s competence and character and convinced by their manager’s serve-first practice that he or she has their best interests at heart. “Trust is one of the means to achieve servant leadership, and it is also an end that is achieved by servant leadership,” Covey says.
This won’t work for every organization and it takes the right leader – and the right workplace culture – for it to be successful. But it can be transformational when done well.
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