To Serve: A Better Approach To Leadership
February 16, 2016
Leadership is a word that seems to have lost some of its gravitas. It's become a term that is as easily tossed around as fish being flung around at the market. The term 'leadership' should be given much more respect. Leadership means "the action of leading a group of people or an organization." That's a significant responsibility to bestow on any individual. Sadly, it seems that people see leadership as the act of simply leading people to get things done, when in reality leadership should be viewed as the act of inspiring others to perform at their very best in order to produce results and happiness that no one could previously imagine. Leadership should be about helping people and organizations reach their dreams.
In the last decade or so there has been a new trend emerging in leadership. You could even call it a movement; Servant leadership. The guiding principle behind servant leadership suggests turning the traditional hierarchy upside down and instead of employees serving their superiors, leaders serve their people. I should explain that the idea of servant leadership isn't actually that new; in the 5th century BC Lao-Tzu wrote "The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware." In recent years, people have been writing about the concept since the 1970s. Maybe it has picked up more momentum now because the world is changing; the advancement of technology has given people a greater voice. People want to be included. They want to contribute. They want to be part of something with a higher purpose. Whatever the reason for the more significant uptake in recent years, it's a concept that needs to become even more widespread. The skills of servant leadership should be sought by all organizations.
Servant leaders believe that everyone on their team - no matter what their position or duties - has value and deserves courtesy, trust and respect. Many of us believe that people are the silver-bullets to finding success. We say things like "the best team wins." We believe in the need to seek out - and retain - the greatest talent. Yet, the way we chose to approach leadership is a contradiction to what we say. If leaders are to be judged by their actions rather than their words then surely a great number of leaders would be judged poorly right now.
You can spot a servant leader in the way they chose to behave. They display characteristics that aren't typical amongst all leaders...
They listen intently and observe closely. They really listen to those on their team. They actively encourage participation, the sharing of ideas, collaboration and feedback. They truly want to understand what people think, feel and believe about all aspects of their organization. They are close enough to the action that they can actually see what is happening.
They value diverse opinions. Everyone is welcome - no, encouraged - to contribute. Job titles, duties and functions are irrelevant to the servant leader, instead they desire to seek out multiple opinions. As many opinions as they can find. It is their belief that through the richness of diverse opinions that the future can be shaped more positively.
They act as mentors. They understand that helping people grow is a fundamental act of leadership. They support and guide the people contributing to their team. They are interested in helping others perform at their best by helping them learn essential skills that improve both their performance and themselves as people.
They are persistent. They understand that change takes time. It doesn't happen overnight. No matter how much they desire for it to happen. They acknowledge that everyone changes at their own unique speed. They realize that it may take more than one conversation to inspire change, and therefore are willing to invest whatever time it takes to educate those on their teams.
They encourage! The idea of encouragement is a trademark of servant leadership. Leaders roll up their sleeves and jump in with their team. They are right beside them in the thick of the action offering positive input and support. They believe in a "let's do this" and not a "you go do it" approach. Encouragement is a trait of positivity and servant leaders ooze a positive attitude.
They hold themselves - and others - accountable. If you make a commitment, you must keep it. Servant leaders push for excellence - they set high standards for the team to meet. They hold everyone accountable for their performance, including themselves.
They understand that 'commanding' is out. What is a servant leader not? A dictator! The idea of dictatorship is the polar opposite of being a servant. Dictators bark orders, issue instructions and deliver commands. They tell people what to do and how to do it. Servant leaders opt to persuade. They sell the idea and aim to bring others along with them. If they fail to persuade they never resort to "I'm going to play the boss card." They to seek to understand why others are reluctant and then they work with them to find a solution that truly works.
They focus on the long term. Servant leaders aren't thinking just about today. They are thinking about tomorrow... and next year. They are committed to creating something that will last. They make decisions based on what will be best for the organization and its people in the future. They are always thinking about what comes next; who will be the next leader and what the next opportunity might be.
Servant leaders think "you" and not "me." They are selfless. They aren't thinking, "How does this benefit me?" There is an air of humility that follows the servant leader around. They don't parade their job title around as a way to show who is in charge. They don't act like they are above everyone else. Instead they act in a way that demonstrates that they care for others.
Servant leadership brings benefits to you as the leader as well as the people on your team. In Adam Grant's book 'Give and Take' he suggests that servant leaders are not only more highly regarded than others by their employees and not only feel better about themselves but are more productive as well!
I hope it has become easier to see how servant leadership can create an organization with a magnetic culture. A culture of empathy, trust, performance and purpose. Adopting a servant leadership mentality leads to higher performing and happier people.
I'll leave you with this thought from Howard Schultz of Starbucks who describes the value of servant leadership as "putting others first and leading from the heart" - that's an endorsement that is hard to ignore!