Servant leadership covers a wide variety of components. While it has been widely known from a biblical perspective, Robert Greenleaf popularized it in the 1970’s as a modern leadership technique, defining servant leaders as those who are willing to be humble and put their people first by focusing on helping them develop and perform to the best of their ability. We created some criteria to cultivate deeper levels of servant leadership.
The best leaders are clear. They continually light the way, and in the process, let each person know that what they do makes a difference. The best test as a leader is – do those served grow as persons … become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become leaders? ~ Robert Greenleaf
There are some really wonderful examples of servant leadership that prove that putting your employees above your own needs is not only a good idea but has proven professional and financial benefits. Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and author of Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others was a finalist in the 2017 “Top 10 Servant Leadership List” from Inc.com. Popeyes’ stock quadrupled under her tenure and was sold to Burger King for $1.8 billion dollars. As she tells Business Insider, “The biggest distinction of a leader who serves others versus themselves is the ability to listen. When you listen, you hear people’s objections, anxieties, and fears — and you also hear the solutions.” She added, “Most people discount this as nice-guy leadership that’s about hugs and campfires. Very few people have considered it might be the most effective. The greatest benefit is superior performance.” She offers a clear example of how this superior performance impacts the overall health of any organization.
There are some key components of effective servant leadership. The five that we will focus on are: leading by example, motivating others, encouraging collaboration, offering professional development and caring for your people.
Lead by Example
Some leadership lists call this leading with moral authority, which is an element of leading by example. Acting consistently with integrity is a critical element of setting the example and demonstrating the standards to which you hold yourself and others accountable. Doing what is right, not what is self-serving, is one of the greatest acts of servant leadership. John Maxwell puts it well: “You build trust with others each time you choose integrity over image, truth over convenience or honor over personal gain.”
A servant leader is humble enough to ask for honest feedback, knowing they don’t have all the answers. Of equal importance to asking questions is listening objectively and openly to the answers. When people feel they have psychological safety, they are more willing to take risks, feel more committed to the organization, and are more apt to perform their best.
Of course, telling people they are doing a good job is an effective motivation tool. However, true motivation goes deeper. People are more empowered when praise is offered within the context of the overall expectations of their performance. Conversely, letting someone know when their performance has to be improved can also be motivating when done correctly. An effective servant leader is willing to have tough yet supportive conversations — letting the person know where they stand, what they are doing well, and what needs to improve. When delivered with a vote of confidence, people leave with a clear direction and the knowledge that their work is appreciated.
Understanding how their work impacts and benefits the organization is another motivational technique. All people, not just millennials, want to be part of something bigger. As Patrick Lencioni entertainingly relates in his book, “The Truth About Employee Engagement, “Everyone needs to know that their job matters to someone—anyone. Without seeing a connection between their work and the satisfaction of other people, an employee will not find lasting fulfilment.” So, helping your people clearly understand how their work contributes to the overall mission helps them feel more committed and valuable, thus more motivated.
Certain leadership styles encourage competition, pitting people and teams against each other. Author and speaker Alfie Kohn said, “The simplest way to understand why competition generally does not promote excellence is to realize that trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different things. The competition also precludes the more efficient use of resources that cooperation allows.” Multiple studies have shown that collaboration accomplishes more for a variety of reasons – higher quality brainstorming, more frequent process improvements, and greater transfer of training and skills.
To encourage effective collaboration, the servant leader develops cooperative goals that the team agrees upon, sets up systems for integrative solution finding and builds an atmosphere of trust where people understand that they are in it as a team. This entails working as a team to create those shared goals or, at the very least, getting buy-in for the goals already created. Then, making sure that all forms of communication, from meetings to emails to conversations, encourage people to work together across departments. As differences of opinion or any other divisive factors arise, they encourage participants to come up with holistic options. This will not happen without creating confidence in having their ideas and opinions heard without judgement or reprisal. Kouzes and Posner offer very practical advice for this in their classic “The Leadership Challenge.”
Provide Professional Development
All too often, we see situations where leaders and managers guard their positions, looking at people who might be more talented or capable as threats. Rather than encouraging their staff to grow and develop, they disregard or even diminish their contributions to make themselves look better. Or, so they think. What ends up happening is that this stifles progress and builds resentment. Quality people often end up leaving these work environments to the detriment of the organization and their co-workers.
This is one of our favorite quotes from John Quincy Adams: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Offering to help your people achieve not just their tasks but their dreams elevates your leadership, your people and your organization. When people feel that they are valuable and are encouraged to grow, they are more likely to work harder, be more loyal, and go the extra step to get the job done.
Care for Your People
A lot of us have worked for leaders who put statistics above people. They forget that it’s the people who drive the statistics. Yes, looking at numbers, data, trends, etc., is important and is a critical part of goal setting and planning. However, prioritizing relationships with the people doing the work is often the determining factor in how quickly those goals are hit and how effective the plans turn out to be.
I saw this clearly in my own company. As our business declined, several people on the executive team started to clamp down on the rules and regulations. For example, it was decided that people had only 30 minutes for lunch, despite my pleas to be more liberal. The resentment that this caused led to behind-the-scenes complaining, lower quality of work and an overall negative atmosphere. Instead of rallying the troops to come up with solutions for the revenue decline, people clammed up and shut down. It only made matters worse. If we had been more compassionate, who knows what ideas might have been suggested that would have been helpful?
Servant leadership is a very effective path to success. While I am no fan of Walmart, I do love this quote from Sam Walton: “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” Taking the time to get to know your people, finding out what motivates them, encouraging them to collaborate with each other and helping them, providing paths for their development and, above all, being humble and setting a good example are proven methods for success.
Tools for Becoming a Servant Leader
Give and accept consistent and clear feedback
People perform best when they understand what is expected of them. Giving supportive praise and correction as needed help them to feel appreciated and to improve as needed. While many employers wait until the often dreaded annual review, doing this on regular bases helps keep employees happier and more on track. Being willing to accept feedback not only helps your own personal development, it demonstrates that you care about how you are helping them.
Take the time to get to know your people
To quote John Maxwell, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Asking questions to learn about what is important to the team shows you care.
Look for opportunities to partake in and offer collaboration with teamwork
People working together can sometimes take longer than one person doing it alone but what you gain in creativity and community is often more worthwhile. It allows people the time and opportunity to improve their relationships, knowledge and productivity.
Motivate with praise and encouragement often
While it’s a great incentive to have financial rewards and bonuses for people to achieve, often a simple “job well done” compliment can be highly motivational. Celebrating the wins makes everyone more energetic, enthusiastic and empowered.
Put your people first
Taking your people’s concerns and needs into consideration consistently and obviously will increase employee engagement and loyalty. Treating people with kindness, calm and dignity, even when faced with corrective actions or layoffs, is not only a key element of Servant Leadership, but it also increases employee gratitude.
Benefits And Advantages of Servant Leadership
As with anything, there are pros and cons to adopting the model of servant leadership in an organization. Other leadership models require a more authoritative decision-making process. For example, where there are safety concerns or for speed in the decision-making process, these would not be the most ideal types of environments for the servant leader.
Organizations that have deliberately created a culture with systems and structures that support and embrace the servant leadership style have numerous positive effects. For instance, they experience significantly higher employee retention as well as higher quality prospective employees in their pipeline. Teams and individual productivity tend to be higher as does overall job satisfaction, which results in higher customer satisfaction ratings. The sum of this can be seen in a healthier bottom line.
It’s no secret that when an employee feels valued, heard, trusted and respected by their leaders, managers and colleagues, they are more likely to be consistent contributors to their company’s success. They are more loyal to the company and are vested in protecting and nurturing the culture as a whole.
Employees who are empowered to serve their customers as they see fit have a marked increase in customer retention as well. Servant leadership is an empathetic management style which focuses on serving those you are responsible for leading. Servant leader embraces the uniqueness of their employees and creates space for them to grow, thereby enabling them to work to their individual strengths. Through active listening, a servant leader engages staff in the decision-making process using a collaborative approach that is focused on holistic outcomes and not personal glory.
The benefits of servant leadership are vast and are not something that one can fake to make it either. This will only lead to diminished trust and positive outcomes. Servant leadership comes from a genuine place of caring and nurturing for oneself and others, and only then can the advantages be realized.