If you're not familiar with the leadership movement known as servant leadership, you might want to grab a cup of java and pull up a chair. This may just transform how you lead your tribe moving forward.
What we are finding is that organizations around the world are changing their attitudes toward leadership. Yes, it's been written and talked about for decades, with great authors defining it in different ways, calling it different things.
In the end, most of these "thought leaders" have been talking about the same things--that leadership (and life, really) is about human relationships.
Consequently, servant leadership has emerged over the last 30 years on a grand scale in some of the most admired and successful companies on the planet, including many named to Fortune magazine's annual listing of "The 100 Best Companies to Work For." Companies like Zappos, The Container Store, and Southwest Airlines have successfully integrated servant leadership into their corporate cultures.
To immortalize the movement, world-renowned management thinker Danah Zohar, in her groundbreaking book Rewiring the Corporate Brain, called servant leadership "the essence of quantum thinking and quantum leadership."
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
Before I give you the 10 practices of a servant-leader (or, if you can't wait, scroll down to "The Gold Mine" for the good stuff), I need to frame this article in its proper context and give credit to the right people.
Robert K. Greenleaf is the first person who needs distinct accolades as the founder of the modern servant leadership movement. Without his work and research, I wouldn't have a basis for my work or speaking engagements.
As his bio states, Greenleaf's work continues to have a lasting impact on fields as diverse as systems thinking, management, leadership, organizational development, religion, assessment and evaluation, and scores of other disciplines.
Legendary management consultant Peter Drucker, Greenleaf's good friend and collaborator for over a decade, called him "the wisest man I ever met."
But there's another person worth noting in this conversation.
Meet Larry Spears
Allow me to introduce you to Larry Spears. He is deserving of his own bust on the Mt. Rushmore of servant leadership for advancing the movement after Greenleaf passed in 1990.
Spears, a prolific author and editor, has been called today's foremost authority on servant leadership. Through his writings, millions have been introduced to servant leadership. It didn't hurt having Stone Phillips interview him on NBC's Dateline in front of 10 million viewers back in 2004.
After Greenleaf's death, Spears spent years combing over a truckload of Greenleaf's personal papers and discovered previously unknown and unpublished essays written by Greenleaf over a 50-year period.
This...was...a gold mine.
Chief human resource officers take note. In his analysis, Spears was able to identify the 10 characteristics of the servant leader that are of critical importance to transforming an organization.
While by no means exhaustive, Spears says "they do serve to communicate the power and promise that this concept offers to those who are open to its invitation and challenge."
The Gold Mine
As I go over these, I want you to consider where you may be, in your own journey as a leader, in relation to these characteristics. Call this you new measure for leadership success.
Listening lands first on this list because it is a crucial yet frequently absent trait in leaders who are self-oriented. Greenleaf wrote that, "A true, natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first." He further added, "True listening builds strength in other people." So, practically speaking, this is a leader who automatically responds through active listening--to understand the other side. She will listen before she speaks, as she speaks, and after she speaks. In decision making, she listens completely before deciding. This takes practice.
The second characteristic is empathy, which has been proven in this study to drive performance. Empathy is really an extension of listening, if you think about it. Servant leaders attempt to understand and empathize with others--to put themselves in others' shoes. This means listening without judgment. As empathetic leaders, workers are considered not only as employees, but as people who need respect and appreciation for their personal and professional development. This generates a competitive advantage.
What Spears meant by "healing" is that leaders recognize the opportunity to help make whole those with whom they come in contact. A servant leader tries to help people solve their problems and conflicts in relationships, because he or she wants to develop the skills of each individual. This leads to the formation of a business culture in which the working environment is characterized by dynamic, fun engagement and no fear from failure.
Servant leaders have a strong sense of what is going on around them. They are always looking for cues, they know what's going on, and will rarely be fooled. They're very self-aware.
Servant leaders don't take advantage of their power and status by coercing compliance. Instead, they try to use influence to convince others. They are effective at building consensus within groups through influence and persuasion.
This is the ability to look at a problem by thinking beyond the day-to-day realities. Greenleaf said that servant leaders can conceive solutions to problems that do not currently exist. They see beyond the limits of the business and focus on long-term goals. They work their big, hairy, audacious goals, but they do it S.M.A.R.T.
Foresight is the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation. It means understanding the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequences of a decision for the future.
This a commitment to not just serving the needs of others but also of the organization and its mission as a whole. It's holding your company in trust for the greater good of society.
9. Commitment to the Growth of People
Pretty self-explanatory. This is a demonstrated appreciation and open encouragement of others and their growth. In practice, this can include things like having a budget for personal and professional development, taking a personal interest in ideas and suggestions from everyone, encouraging worker involvement in decision making, and even helping out a laid-off employee find work.
10. Building Community
Servant leaders are what I call compassionate collaborators. They show appreciation and praise employees often for their contributions. They want to get to know what makes their employees tick, what drives them, what gets them up in the morning, so that they can support them in those endeavors. As I've written before, building community can only happen through connecting and making relationships work.
Three Sections of the Full Spectrum
If you break down the characteristics into sections of the full spectrum of a servant leader, you'll see that the servant side of a servant leader encompasses the listening, the empathy, and the healing.
The leader side encompasses awareness, being able to persuade, conceptualization, and foresight. Every leader has to have those traits and be able to use them effectively.
And in the middle is where the two sides overlap into the servant leader: stewardship, commitment to growing people, and the building of community.
Put them all together, you have the best and most whole version of a leader, bar none.
A Few Questions in Closing
Now reflect, if you will, how you may have modeled some of these approaches in the last 24 hours. My questions in closing:
- How have you been a servant leader, reading the examples given?
- What if we could think and act this way moving forward in our work? What would that do for your team, business, organization?
- How would this change your roles as managers, executives, founders, board chairs, or even at home, as spouses, fathers, and mothers?