Think of a person you worked with who was always interested in not just your work, but you.
Remember someone who would offer to help you when you needed it, even though you never asked.
Consider a person much further up the organizational chart who made it a point to stop by, chat and check in on you, even though you didn’t report directly to her or him.
It is possible, if not likely, that person was a servant leader.
In 1970, Robert Greenleaf published an essay entitled, “The Servant as Leader.” At a time when leadership was often an aspiration of those who wanted recognition and power, Greenleaf’s ideas were revolutionary. He said, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
These ideas resonated deeply with many leaders, and over time they have become less revolutionary and more accepted as the way true leaders—great leaders—should be.
Servant leaders are strong through service, and not servile. Servile means “having or showing an excessive need to serve or please others.” Someone who is servile is usually driven by unhealthy needs, and their need to serve or please is more about them than their genuine regard for others.
Depending on your age, you might remember factory closings in the 70’s and 80’s. I grew up on a farm north of Youngstown, Ohio, and still recall news clips of steel mill closings. At the time primarily men were factory workers, and they looked forlorn and defeated as they left their plant for the last time.
Did they feel like they had worked for servant leaders? Or were they more in tune with Bob Seger’s song, “Feel Like a Number”?
“…I work my back till it’s racked with pain
The boss can’t even recall my name
I show up late and I’m docked, it never fails
I feel like just another, spoke in a great big wheel
Like a tiny blade of grass in a great big field…”
Think about work today. Whether the labor is manual or intellectual, have organizations really changed? Or do they espouse higher values as primarily a means of higher profits?
Do young employees buy into “we want to do good and change the world” as sincere or do they see it as phony cause marketing, more about being profitable than truly doing good.
Over 80% of young employees find doing important work more inspirational than simply being recognized for the work that they do. Obviously many employees do want to make the world a better place.
How do you help your employees make meaning while they make money?
Servant leadership is more relevant and applicable than ever.
After 40 years as both a practitioner and a leadership strategist, I believe that servant leadership is actually true leadership, the best and highest calling of leaders. I believe there are significant payoffs, but not just because you “do it” but because you “believe it.”
I became familiar with Greenleaf’s work more than 40 years ago, and have been influenced by his philosophy. What follows are how I interpret servant leaders are effective today in 2021 and beyond. Think of the following ideas as primary but not exhaustive, and feel free to share your insights about servant leadership.
1. Be a sermon seen. The greatest power of a servant leader is the example given to others.
My friend Charlie “Tremendous” Jones had a huge influence on my life (and I wrote about him in Servant Leadership by Ken Blanchard et al). He was smart and energetic but his heart was huge and he was all about others. His faith compelled him to live and give large. His style was unique but if you spent time with him you never doubted his sincerity.
Charlie was a sermon seen.
Edgar Guest was born in England but moved to the United States where he became known as “The People’s Poet.” He penned some 11,000 poems which were syndicated in about 300 newspapers and collected in more than 20 books. One of his best-loved poems is a classic familiar to many called “Sermons We See.” In it, he says, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day; I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.”
Servant leadership is about being a sermon seen; about living out an inner philosophy. The best servant leaders don’t just tell us how to lead, they show us.
2. Don’t think less of yourself but think of others more often. This is a paraphrase of a variously attributed idea, but a staple of both service and humility. Take a genuine interest in others. Your naval is not the center of the universe. During Covid, my research showed that where leaders did least well was keeping up morale. Faced with their own unique challenges, leaders easily got self-absorbed. Servant leaders usually live by the mantra “others first,” an idea very contrary to cultural norms today.
How is it that some of the busiest leaders seem to have the most time for people who aren’t in a position to advance their agenda? True leadership takes an active interest in others without a need for reciprocal benefit.
3. Prioritize relationship over transaction. A focus on results is important, but achieving them at the expense of relationship is a serious problem. How you achieve results with those you lead is as important as the results you achieve. People want to feel like contributors, not cogs. Many leaders become overly transactional, not because they are uncaring but because they are unaware.
I once met a manager who made it a practice at the end of the day to personally tell each team member they’d made a difference.
4. Encourage others regularly. To do that, you need to pay attention to what team members are experiencing, their challenges and their dreams. A virtuous cycle can be created by becoming an encourager: not only will those you encourage often encourage others, but they will likely encourage you in your work as well.
Ironic, isn’t it, how much we appreciate encouragement when we receive it but so often neglect to provide it for others?
5. Create a service chain. When team members start to understand the servant leader mindset, this can extend to colleagues, vendors and customers. Ask for, encourage and reward that kind of behavior.
The last time you had a negative experience with a service rep, the odds are high they have an ongoing negative experience with their manager. True leaders set the tone for a virtuous or vicious service cycle.
6. Treat those you lead as you’d like them to treat others. Asking your team to be courteous to customers and each other while being a jerk to them is incongruent and hypocritical. People will listen to what you say but put more weight on what you do. That’s why being a servant leader is first and foremost about being the kind of example you want your team to emulate.
7. Ask, “How can I help?” To serve is to help and assist. That doesn’t mean doing the work an employee is paid to do, but making sure he or she has the resources and support necessary to succeed. Sometimes all that is needed is a good idea or clear feedback.
A primary job of the servant leader—a true leader—is to help others succeed. Many leaders think only in terms of what they can get team members to give, and not how they can help them grow and succeed.
8. Be honest about “here’s what I need.” When you request help, you shouldn’t feel bad about needing or asking for it. Servant leadership isn’t a draining one way flow of effort and energy, but a reciprocal support to achieve your organizational mission and greater good.
No leader is smart enough or strong enough to do it on her own. If your results are primarily a result of what you personally do rather than what you are able to achieve by hiring and collaborating with the right people, you probably aren’t really leading.
9. Act out of opportunity and enjoyment, not obligation and drudgery. Nobody is forced, required by law or impelled by outside forces to be a servant leader. Ultimately is it is a choice. If you can’t make it and enjoy it, that doesn’t make you a bad person. Einstein said love is a better master than duty and that is especially true in servant leadership.
10. Be a megaphone of the good you find. Don’t just see the good around you, share it: point it out, talk about it, teach it. Speakers and trainers are asked, “Where do you get your material?” The answer: it is all around you if you pay attention. Catch people doing good things and give them credit. Notice the good things that happen and find out why. Then share your findings.
11. Make appreciation an art form. You can’t genuinely over appreciate people. If you fake appreciation to get something in return, that’s manipulation, not appreciation. When you start noticing the good work others do, you’ll start seeing them do more good work. Nobody wants to be ignored for the good job they do and over time, if they are, they’ll likely cease to do good work.
Tom Peters, well-known management guru, loves to tell the story of a manager who wrote short notes to employees with the acronym DMD—“damn well done.” At his retirement party, a colleague showed him a wrinkled note from nearly 40 years ago that he’d saved with the legendary “DMD” inscribed.
12. Count your blessings while you bless others. The antidote to negativity, I believe, isn’t positivity but gratitude. Being positive is helpful but you can’t be positive for very long if you aren’t truly grateful. In communities of faith, the saying is “blessed to be a blessing.” Gratitude not only provides you fuel for your work, but makes you want to pass help on, and you can find ways to be a blessing to others regularly.
I’ve worked with several I consider servant leaders over many years. One thing they had in common was that they never said they were servant leaders. They simply lead in a way that communicated their deepest values and convictions. Being a servant leader is about aligning your head and your heart, your vision and your values, your words and your actions.
It makes you, as my friend Peter and I discuss, one of the F.E.W.: those with Feet Empowered Words who don’t just talk a good game but play that game daily. Walk your talk. That’s what makes you a servant leader.
Mark Sanborn is an award winning speaker and Leadership Expert in Residence at High Point University, the Premier Life Skills University. For more information about his work, visit www.marksanborn.com.