I believe wholeheartedly in the value of servant leadership.
When you first hear of “servant leadership” you might think that it involves a leader literally taking on the role of a servant. Taken to an extreme, that definition would look like this:
As you get off the elevator, the leader meets you, takes your bag and coat, and welcomes you to the office. The leader gets you coffee mid-morning and drops by in the afternoon to see if you need anything. When you need some help with your day-to-day work, there your leader is, waiting to help you.
In reality, servant leadership is a blend and balance between leader and servant. You don’t lose leadership qualities when becoming a servant leader.
Lao-Tzu wrote about servant leadership in the fifth century BC: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. … When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’”
Servant leadership is often described using an inverted pyramid, in which top management “reports” upward to lower levels of management. Associates who are closest to clients or production processes are placed at the top and managers at the bottom. The employee is empowered with greater decision-making authority and freedom of action than in a more traditional top-down organization. The manager becomes a facilitator, spearheading a team effort. In theory, overall organizational performance becomes faster, more adaptable, and more effective.
The recent era of servant leadership began with a paper, The Servant as Leader, written by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. In it, he said: “The servant leader is servant first. … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first [versus one who is leader first]. Then a conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”
A group of organizational psychologists, led by Adam Grant, attempted to measure the impact of servant leadership on leaders. Grant described his research in his book Give and Take, where he suggested that servant leaders are more respected by their associates, have a better sense of self-worth, and at the end of the day are more productive. Grant’s thesis is that servant leaders are highly networked, are well-informed, and have insights that make them more effective and productive in what they do. This outcome is incredible given that servant leaders spend a great deal of their time sharing what they learn and helping others by providing career counselling, suggesting contacts, and recommending new ways of doing things.
When it comes to choices about whom to help, giving may be less costly and more productive if servant leaders ask people who have benefited from their help to pay it forward (becoming givers themselves). Building a network of givers enables servant leaders to fulfill requests without accepting the entire burden themselves. Asking recipients to pay it forward also serves as a mechanism for sincerity screening, letting servant leaders see who’s willing to help and who isn’t. They can then dedicate their time and energy to other givers, where the return on investment is greatest.
The ultimate sign of success in using servant leadership is whether the team is growing, and I don’t just mean producing increasingly strong financial results. I make sure these questions are answered:
- Is the team improving their skills?
- Is the team better this year than last year?
- Are we influencing more team members to take action?
At the core of servant leadership is a belief in the inherent value of each person and their feelings, interests, views, and opinions. As a servant leader, I try to cultivate trust-based relationships with the team while developing an understanding of each team member’s needs. Once the team’s needs are met, the team becomes engaged, energized, innovative, and extremely productive. Team members become more willing give of themselves in ways that lead to breakthrough ideas and high customer satisfaction. We want our teams to try new things, learn from mistakes, and tackle stretch assignments with enthusiasm, not fear. Servant leadership serves these goals, and that’s why I believe in it so strongly.