Defining Servant Leadership

I’ve heard the term servant leadership thrown around for years; I’m guessing you have too… That said, the entire time I’ve been operating under my own idea of what it meant. Truth be told, I certainly didn’t come up with the picture in my head of what servant leadership looks like all by myself. Like anyone else, I’ve pieced that picture together over time based on different ideas I heard or read from various sources as well as from the examples I’ve seen modeled by some of the most influential leaders I’ve had a chance to be around and study.

With all that in mind, let’s take a step back and really dig into what the “experts” suggest servant leadership looks like. An Investopedia article I read recently defined it this way, “Servant leadership is a leadership style and philosophy whereby an individual interacts with others—either in a management or fellow employee capacity—to achieve authority rather than power.” As I worked through some additional articles, I found one in Forbes that suggested a fellow named Robert Greenleaf coined the term in an essay he published in 1970. While he may have caught the business community’s attention with those specific words in that essay, the first example of servant leadership I ever remember hearing about nearly 2,000 years prior. I’m not a biblical scholar but I can remember something along the lines of “the greatest among you shall be your servant…”

I remember having a conversation about the topic several years ago with a coworker. He had held various management roles over the 15 or so years leading up to that point and we just weren’t seeing eye to eye on what approach we should be taking with the team of folks we held mutual responsibility for. His view of servant leadership was coddling the employees who reported to him, and he wanted nothing to do with that. It wasn’t until we were both in a session with Dave Ramsey that we had a clear picture we could agree on.

Whether you’ve had a discussion with a peer that was just like the one he and I were engaged in, or even one that wasn’t quite as loud, I’m guessing you’ve developed your own definition for what servant leadership should look like - or if servant leadership is even something you’re willing to be bothered with. But rather than going on an assumption that we all have the same idea in our heads, wouldn't it be great to have a foundation for what servant leadership really is and how we can build it into what we do so we get the best possible results with the teams we lead? Moving forward here, and with an article or two that will follow soon, that’s just what I’ll be working to provide for you! We’ll take a look at some of the varying definitions and theories that are out there, as well as some characteristics of effective servant leaders, then we’ll wrap up by working through some different ways servant leadership might actually be perceived depending on someone’s primary communication style.

The Majority are Transactional Overseers?

Having established that not everyone defines servant leadership the same way, let’s build a little bit stronger foundation for all that this idea really involves before we start studying some characteristics we can work to incorporate into our own leadership styles or examples we learn from directly. I’ve been a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) for years and recently found an article on their website called The Art of Servant Leadership. Here’s what jumped off the page at me when I read it for the first time:

Experts often describe the majority of traditional business leaders as managers who mainly function as overseers of a transaction: employees maintain desired performance levels, and in exchange they receive salary and benefits. Generally, these managers are positional leaders—they derive authority simply from the fact that they are the boss.

The servant leader moves beyond the transactional aspects of management, and instead actively seeks to develop and align an employee's sense of purpose with the company mission.

As we hone in on a foundational definition for servant leadership that helps us clearly picture the behaviors necessary to become known as one, let’s look at two specific things from that statement…

The first one is something you’ve likely seen me reference at least a few times already; calling someone a leader simply because their title includes the word “manager” is almost as fitting as calling someone a car just because they’re standing in a garage. If the majority those experts are describing are only managers who mainly function as overseers of a transaction, are they really leading anything at all?

The second thing that grabbed me was something I couldn’t agree with more! “(The servant leader) instead actively seeks to develop and align an employee’s sense of purpose with the company mission.” Cindy and I drive that point home in a lesson we developed called Building Buy-In Around a Clear Mission & Vision. But looking at the SHRM quote just at face value could easily cause someone to miss the whole point of servant leadership. There’s plenty of people in leadership roles who would indeed work to get their employees aligned with the mission, but many of them do that in a manipulative way that’s only good for the organization. When we work to earn genuine buy-in from the team around us, especially if we’re doing that from a servant leadership perspective, we need to be incredibly intentional about doing this in a way that truly benefits everyone involved!

The SHRM article goes on to say “The fruits of these labors are bountiful, servant leadership advocates say. Empowered staff will perform at a high, innovative level. Employees feel more engaged and purpose-driven, which in turn increases the organization's retention and lowers turnover costs. Well-trained and trusted staffers continue to develop as future leaders, thus helping to ensure the long-term viability of the organization.” I believe this is absolutely correct IF we approach it with the goal of providing value to everyone we deal with in the process. Anything less than that will eventually bite our backsides in one way or another.

Champions of Servant Leadership

As I dug a bit deeper into the SHRM article I just referenced, I liked how they tied servant leadership back to early Eastern culture citing Laozi, a 5th century Chinese philosopher as suggesting that “when the best leaders finished their work, their people would say ‘we did it ourselves.’” That certainly goes right along with the idea that a genuine servant leader empowers their team to grow, develop, and achieve results without taking all the credit for themselves! One of the best examples I can think of occurred just a few hundred years later, a little bit farther West near the Red Sea, when droves of people came to hear an incredibly influential teacher and he was determined to feed them all before they started their long journeys home.

Both of those examples support what Pat Falotico, former IBM executive and current CEO of Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, said about having a servant leadership mindset, “If you have selfish motivations, then you are not going to be a good servant leader. It has to be less about you!”

So who comes to your mind as you consider what we’ve looked at to this point? Thankfully, I can think of literally dozens of great examples that Cindy and I have gotten to know personally. While I frequently share about the ones who have mentored me in one way or another over the last few decades, there’s an entire group of folks that we’ve been blessed to work with who truly live out the idea of servant leadership on a daily basis.

Several of the folks who have mentored me personally have been veterans from various branches of the United States military. From those relationships, I’ve learned just how much value our military veterans can bring to civilian companies and I developed some strong connections years ago with the Veterans Services group within the Virginia Employment Commision. This group’s motto is “Serving those who served.” I consider myself to be more than a little bit patriotic so let me be very transparent here, it’s rare for me to interact with the folks in this group without having my eyes sweat!

One of the primary qualifications to be employed in that group is military service, and many of them have actually retired from significant roles in their respective branches. Each of them that I’ve gotten to know personally could easily be making several times their present annual salary by working in the private sector rather than in these roles helping other veterans with significant barriers to employment find career opportunities.

Depending on their specific roles, some work directly with the veterans they’re now serving to help them develop their resumes, learn to interview successfully, or just overcome some of the barriers they’re struggling with that have prevented them from maintaining a steady job. Other members of this awesome team work with the employers in their areas to develop pathways for the individual veterans the group serves. In both cases though, they’re completely focused on serving the party they're directly interacting with.

As a quick side note, if you have any responsibility for recruiting in the organization you’re a part of and don’t have a connection with anyone in this Veterans Services group I’d be happy to do anything I can to fix that!

With regards to the service they provide, any ole service won’t do! To be truly effective servant leaders, they still need to be very intentional about how they provide those services to the individuals they’re working with as well as the businesses they connect those individuals to. Let’s close for now by taking a look at some specific characteristics and practices of great servant leaders, then we’ll begin working through how servant leadership can be perceived very differently depending on the lens of the person being served in my next article...

Exemplifying Servant Leadership

When I trained teams on behavior-based safety across North America, a point we always covered was that you can’t see someone’s attitude or their emotions but we can get a solid read on their attitude and their emotions by observing their behavior. Today as Cindy and I provide Strategic Leadership Coaching for individuals from various organizations that we’ve done training for, we work with them to ensure they’re achieving the best possible results from the immediate action steps they commit to applying based on what they learned in the sessions with us.

The first question I always ask them is what their team will be able to see them doing differently as they apply the steps they’ve outlined. In either case, the behaviors we choose provide the people around us with a clear picture of what we believe - our attitude and our emotions!

To this point, I’ve shared some background on the idea of servant leadership with hopes of providing a solid definition we can use as a foundation to work from moving forward. In the previous section, I shared about a group of folks that I believe are truly Champions of Servant Leadership. With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some key characteristics we can each work to include in the approach we take to leading our teams on a daily basis.

I found an article from Ottawa University that detailed what they called 5 Proven Characteristics of a Servant Leader. Before we look at how you or I can take action on a few of those though, consider this quote by the author regarding the need for servant leaders:

“There is a mountain of statistical evidence linked to the proven effectiveness of leaders who have mastered the aforementioned traits. Yet, at the same time, so many managers are experiencing unprecedented leadership failures. The essence of servant leaders has more to do with who you are and how you treat others. The position or title is secondary.”

The five characteristics that particular article outlines are listening, appreciation, humility, trust, and caring. At face value, none of those seem all that complicated. But how would the teams we’re responsible for leading be able to see each of those things modeled in our daily behavior?

For the sake of time, let’s just look at a few simple things we can take action on to exemplify servant leadership... 

I was blessed to have a couple of different bosses over the years who were amazing examples of humility. Each of them had high expectations for me but they were incredibly quick to shine the light on me any time our department received praise or recognition for our work. I’d like to think I always did as much as I could to impact our overall results but they had every bit as much to do with what we achieved and rarely took any credit. That always made me want to work even hard for them!

Another characteristic listed in the Ottawa University article is trust; not just the importance of earning the trust of the team around us, but the importance of actively showing that we trust each of our team members! It states that “servant leaders give trust to others. They willingly take this risk for the people they serve.” Saying we trust someone is one thing but sticking our neck out to allow them the space to succeed or fail on their own exemplifies that trust…

The article also mentioned appreciation. While I agree that it’s an extremely important characteristic we should each be exemplifying as a servant leader, they offer a bit of a one-size-fits-all approach. The more I’ve learned about individual behavioral and communication styles, the more I understand the importance of being very intentional about showing appreciation in a way that matters most to the individual I’m interacting with!

And those different behavioral styles bring me back to what serving the people around us really looks like. Moving forward, we’ll work through how different that can be based on the person we’re interacting with and how that can change depending on the circumstances they’re dealing with at the time. Just like appreciation needs to be different, we can’t serve everyone the same way and expect it to be received equally across the board!

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