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The Purpose of Servant Leadership

Leadership comes in many colors. In today’s world we see leaders who demand respect by putting others down and elevating themselves. We see leaders who know something is right or wrong, but in order to keep the peace or achieve an agenda, they don’t speak up. We see leaders who drive their people for results at all costs. And, occasionally we see a strong leader who emerges as a true servant leader. In my experience it is far too infrequent to see this type of leader in the workplace.

A true servant leader is one who puts the needs of others in front of themselves and thereby gains incredible levels of loyalty, engagement, and achievement from the members of their team or organization.

Years ago, I worked with a senior executive who led a startup technology organization. It was quite notable how he put the personal needs of his employees above their work outcomes. His engagement, level of listening, empathy, and transparency were unique in a corporate setting. He was humble and he quietly demonstrated that no job was beneath him. When the company was struggling financially, like any start-up, he wasn’t too good to come in and clean the toilets on the weekend, and he didn’t ask his staff to participate. He was never afraid to roll up his sleeves and go to work. A servant leader isn’t above the grunt work.

When his team had a challenging software problem, he worked alongside them all night – until one brilliant coder finally solved the problem at 3:00 am. When they found the error – he didn’t demean or punish the person who made the mistake – he took them all to breakfast and celebrated the learning moment that they would all remember.

The main thing that I noticed with this leader was that his people would walk across hot coals for him. He didn’t have to ask them to stay until 3:00 am to fix the software bug, the values that he modeled for them had already penetrated the organization. Servant leadership was tightly woven into their culture in the everyday ways in which each member served the other to the good of the organization. Each member was highly productive and drove incredible results in many ways because they never had to be asked to go the second mile, they simply wanted to.

What do Servant Leaders do that makes them different?

Servant leaders will be reflective and self-aware. They will invite input from others and spend quality time in reflection to prepare for their work and life. They do not seek power, control, and performance, but an outcome that shows growth in those around them. They create a vision for the outcomes they seek. They have integrity that forms the core of their values and drives their behavior.

As leaders, they value humility and confidence, and are not driven by ego. They are empathetic listeners who build strong relational connection by being present with people. They are vulnerable, willing to admit their mistakes, and take personal ownership for their actions. Their confidence is not arrogant or proud, but humble. It exudes strength and builds trust and connection that will influence, motivate, and empower their staff.

Servant leaders are courageous. They are strong enough and willing to stand up for what is good and right and to defend the same in others. They have strong conflict management skills and deal with interpersonal conflicts proactively with grace and wisdom. They don’t shy away from tough conversations. They discuss hard issues in a gentle and humble way.

A servant leader helps others find their place, their role, and their fit in executing the vision. The servant leader is very clear on what the goal is and setting expectations of success.

One of the most successful skills of a servant leader is the ability to match individuals’ strengths to the specific needs of the team and the vision. When people are able to use their own strengths, they are often highly motivated to do even more than expected and creativity blossoms.

How can you create a culture of servant leadership in your organization?

  1. Actively listen. Make sure individuals believe they have been heard and their perspective is valued.
  2. Show you care. Demonstrate empathy. When my former client stayed until 3:00 am, his team saw that he cared about them.
  3. Operate out of integrity. Honor commitments that you make to each other, to customers, and others.
  4. Let others see you serve. Make it acceptable, and expected, to serve others both within your organization and your community.
  5. Invest in your people. Time is our only truly limited resource and is the most important thing to invest in your people. Show interest in them as individuals and in their development. The process of being directly engaged in their development will produce powerful results.

Leaders can succeed without being a servant leader – we see it everywhere. The question is, at what cost?

Servant leader consistently achieve high impact results and their teams are happier and more engaged. Think of the impression on the customer and the bottom line to have employees that are engaged and doing their best work in service to each other and the company.

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