Servant Leadership: 9 Ways to Be a Better Servant Leader
Author: Sarah Cordiner
After a long week at work and a late night serving curry and clearing tables at a BBQ we had hosted for our students, it was
“Your taxi is here!” I happily chirped as I loaded their suitcases into the back of the car. They thanked me graciously and we talked for the next 3+ hours as we bumped and jiggled along one of the most beautiful typically-deep-red Australian outback tracks to a remote Aboriginal community.
As we rocked up to their destination, one asked “so what did you do to deserve having to be the driver for trip like this? What’s your role?”.
“Oh I didn’t have to” I answered; “I’m the Head”.
After overcoming the initial mortification at having not recognised me in my casual ‘Saturday rig’, my guests became incredulous. “But you’re the most senior role here; why didn’t you send a driver?”
“Well because I can drive, and it’s an honour to be able to serve you”.
Great leadership is about service.
In this article I will share with you some ideas of what servant leadership is, some servant leadership theory and servant leadership examples.
Traditionally, the stereotypical concept of a leader has been of an authoritarian figure. One who stands ‘up front’ and ‘on top’ (autocratic leadership), calling the shots, giving the orders and telling people where to go, what to do and how to do it.
In this traditional leadership style, ‘The Boss’ is someone who gives the whole team one thing in common – being that somebody that they can all hate.
The autocratic method of leadership ensures that leaders get hated for the decisions they make, the tasks they delegate and hated just simply because they are the boss.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
It is actually very hard to hate a person. It is their behaviour, how they make us feel or what they represent that we actually hate.
But as a leader, that puts us in a constantly conflicting position – because we have to provide direction, we have to assure organisational outcomes, monitor performance, keep accountability and deliver information that people may not want to hear – all of which involve the potential pitfall of making people feel like they are being told what to do, managed, controlled and monitored. Not exactly the ingredients for getting onto people’s Christmas card lists.
As a result, many leaders find themselves facing a crisis, in a position of either doing our job (and making our people hate us) OR, keeping everyone happy and failing our organisation by avoiding being seen as ‘bossy’. It this what leadership comes down to?!
There is another way.
A way that allows us to actualise the mission of our organisations, to meet and even exceed our objectives. A way that allows us to do this in a way that empowers our people AND that engenders the greatest level of mutual understanding and collegiality between us and our team.
It’s called ‘Servant Leadership’.
“servant leaders have a particular view of themselves as stewards who are entrusted to develop and empower followers to reach their fullest potential” (Sendjaya)
What is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership, coined by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970’s, is a philosophy that centralises the staff and community that the organisation serves as the leader’s primary priority. It’s about enhancing the intrinsic motivation of our people, leading ethically, with wider social responsibility in mind. It is a people-centred, moralistic, equitable form of leadership.
It is all about sharing the ‘power’ that your role has within the organisation and focuses on the leader’s role as being one to serve the people, instead of the people’s role to serve the leader.
“It is the leader’s role to serve the people, instead of the people’s role to serve the leader”
But before Greenleaf’s writing on the topic, concepts of servant leadership have come up throughout history, especially in religious texts. In the Bible, Jesus Christ himself washed the feet of his disciples (his ‘followers’) to show them that he considered himself as equal to those that he led, that he cared for them and put their needs before his own.
1. Giving is receiving
This has always been a guiding principle for me and was one of the keys to my rapid business success prior to taking on an Executive role at a university.
I taught business owners that in order to lead in their industries, it was critical that they generously gave away their best-kept secrets without measure – that the more they gave freely, the more they would get back.
The more they served their industry and their market, the more business they would get.
The more they gave people something to thank them for, the more successful they would become.
I encouraged aspiring professional speakers to speak for free if they wanted to get paid for it one day, and to keep doing it for free even when they were getting paid for it.
I encouraged educators to provide free workshops and give away free mini-courses.
I encouraged authors to write for free and give away their books – as all encapsulated a service to their industry and its people, rather than a marketer who wanted to take from it.
Just like a bank account – the more you deposit, the more you accumulate. People who could never afford you will get to experience you for themselves, they will recommend you and save up for your next offering because the first taste was so good.
Many found this a hard concept to grasp. They would ask me things like ‘but Sarah, if I give all of my information, knowledge, IP and secrets away, surely I’ll lose my business?’.
I would reply ‘But if they don’t know that you have it then you won’t get their business anyway. If people get to see for themselves that you acquire the information, skills and knowledge that they need, then they won’t need you to convince them to trust that you have it – there the battle is over’.
For me, I could (and still do) always see two types of people when it comes to service and leadership:
1. I will serve the people when I am their leader (I serve because I lead)
2. I will become a true leader as a result of my service to my field (I lead because I serve)
The first type of person is considered as having a goal-oriented motivator of service – there is a motivation behind their wanting to serve.
They come from what I would call a ‘leadership ambition’ standpoint – that they desire to lead and service is a by-product of leading or a means to get there. And therefore the only reason they serve is to gain the result of leadership.
These people often too believe that they will only have anything of real value to give ‘if’ they become the official ‘leader’. As long as they do go on to serve, this is not an inherently ‘wrong’ mindset, but it will be harder and slower to get there and they will run out of motivation to continue serving once they get ‘there’.
It also misses the point entirely that you don’t have to be a leader to serve others; AND that serving others is in fact what makes you into a leader – and keeps you as one.
The second type mentioned above is the person who I always see succeed – what I would call ‘the leader by nature’. They are not driven to serve by a desire to lead, but instead, naturally, are followed by others due to the service they provide so selflessly.
Inside the workplace, the same concepts apply – leaders are afraid that sharing with their team powerful information like budgets, income, annual objectives, implementation plans, strategic plans, staffing models, operational plans etc – that they will have no power, control or authority left.
But the absolute opposite happens.
The more that people feel like they know ‘what’s going on’ and that you care, the more they feel part of the organisation and therefore affiliated to the mission you are serving.
Share your power, knowledge and information as much as possible – not for the purposes of showing people how clever you are, or how much power you have – but instead to genuinely empower them with it.
Sometimes the true leaders in an organisation – that is the one who the majority trust unquestionably, feel like they have their back, listen to, seek advice from, consider to be the influencer and admire; are not always the ones with a formal leadership job title. They are the ones who intentionally, or naturally, serve others most.
2. Raise better people
But servant leadership goes deeper than that.
It’s not just about serving our people so that they can better serve our customers.
It’s about serving them so that they can become better people – and better servants in the world itself.
Our role as a servant leader is to serve a future of opportunity to our staff – not just within the organisation but for their lives.
Do we provide them with opportunities to do their life’s best work?
Do we give them opportunities to grow as people, to learn and develop?
The freedom to make mistakes without fear but with enthusiasm and support?
Do they flourish in our workplace in that as the time they serve passes, they become more skilled, wiser, autonomous and better servers themselves?
Joe Iarocci, author of ‘Servant Leadership in the Workplace’ suggests that servant leaders have 3 key priorities, where people development comes first:
- The personal and professional development of your people
- The development of a workplace culture of trust
- An organisation that measures and achieves its results
Here are 7 other examples of servant leadership in action:
3. Commit to good stewardship
Good stewardship in its simplest definition, is taking care of, or looking after something. However it also has a more theological definition that denotes that we are responsible for the world and must take care of it for our future survival.
Being a good steward means ensuring the future vitality and wellbeing of our people, our organisation, our wider community and the planet.
It also means strategising the assurance of the sustainability and operations of our organisation, financially and in regards to all of our other resources.
Our leadership roles are only temporary, but we must see our service as part of a life-long legacy.
We live in an ever-changing world and it is our duty as servant leaders to be good stewards by constantly adapting and changing for the good of the future vitality of the organisation we work for and the community in which it operates.
4. Our success is others’
Servant leaders measure their success not by their own achievements and accomplishments, but instead by those they are serving.
In the education sector, this is an easy concept to understand as the translation is fairly literal – if our students are passing their exams, we are doing a great job.
However, this can be harder to conceptualise in other industry workplaces.
Use your organisation’s’ overarching strategic plan to create a detailed implementation plan that guides your team towards clear, specific and easily achievable tasks that they can move towards weekly – giving them frequent opportunity for a sense of accomplishment.
Find ways to show them how achieving these micro wins is leading them to achieving results that goes far beyond the duties on their job description – that they fulfil a much bigger mission, and have positive impacts far beyond the goals of the organisation.
Scour the internet for awards that you can nominate your team for – and give yourself a goal to recognise all of your top achievers with some kind of internal award or external award nomination.
I also encourage my staff to anonymously send me feedback (via an online form) to praise their colleagues, so that I can celebrate them on behalf of the organisation.
As servant leaders, there is no success that isn’t that of our teams.
5. Awareness and foresight
It is critical as a servant leader that we have strong self-awareness to ensure that we recognise how our own behaviours, words and ‘energy’ affect those around us, and the humility to correct ourselves as we go along.
Servant leadership demands that we have the emotional intelligence to notice how our people are really feeling behind both good and bad physical behaviours, so that we can help them.
We must show awareness and remain attuned to the subtle underlying cultural heartbeat, sensing people’s feelings, moods, body language and verbal language used, to pick up on emerging trends and adjust the course as necessary to keep everything and everyone on track.
We can often critique the ‘jungle drums’ in an organisation (you know, that invisible vine of gossip that spreads ‘Chinese whispers’ through every department and that you are constantly trying to correct?!)
But it can also be a fantastic source of information – not literally (as the facts are usually wrong), but what people are whispering about can give us insightful clues to ways in which we can help and serve our people and the organisation.
It is also critical that we use all of this information as well as anecdotal, intuitive and measurable from our locality, our industry and the wider global trends, to have the foresight to serve further – to ensure that we can take action for the sustainability of the organisation, to ensure the continued growth and skills acquisition of our workforce to maintaining currency and demand in their roles and to know where and how we could be serving further for the good of all for the future.
6. Be relatable and show empathy
Greenleaf believes that one of the first steps to becoming a servant leader requires us to be somebody that our staff can relate to.
However this is challenging when or if our staff see us as above them, more powerful than them or simply unapproachable.
Having empathy means understanding and sharing the feelings of another.
We should not condemn people in pain, anger, frustration or who act hastily or make mistakes. Instead, it is our role to understand the humanness of these responses, help our staff to overcome them, provide and implement the solutions to stop it from happening again and then provide them opportunity to heal.
It is also our duty as leaders to foster relatability through empathy. This is, to help them understand that not only do they have feelings, emotional reactions and humanness that must be acknowledged, respected and cared for, but so do we too.
It is incredibly easy for our staff to see us as some kind of inanimate machine that operates solely on coffee-fuel and policies.
We are all human beings who need love, compassion and understanding.
7. Don’t be a martyr
Many leaders sacrifice their own wants and needs for the good of others daily – those who have children are also a classic example.
Leaders often do it behind the scenes, taking the bullet from their own senior management on behalf of their team, or taking the bullets from their team on behalf of their senior management; working many unpaid hours attending events, pulling overtime and working through lunch breaks to ensure wages get paid and contracts get awarded to keep staff employed. A little self-sacrifice is required to get anything in life – it’s all part of the balance and is part of being a servant leader.
However, there is a big difference between self sacrifice and martyrdom. Serve because you enjoy it, because it’s your calling and because it is the right thing to do. Don’t serve out of the neediness for attention and sympathetic acknowledgements of ‘how hard you work’ – that’s not servant leadership, it’s being a martyr.
8. Inspiration, spiritual and transformational beings
Being a servant leader is easier for those who can relate to spiritual and creative conceptualisation.
It requires a futuristic, optimistic, inspirational outlook that believes in the good of the giving of service and gets joy purely from that alone – but also believes that it ultimately leads to transformational outcomes – for the future of those that they serve and the ripple effect of ‘service that will come from those people later on too.
Servant leaders are innately philanthropic, have a ‘global’ cognitive processing system (that is, they see the much bigger picture) and do not require the acquisition of immediate results in order to ‘know’ that what they are doing is of value.
Servant leadership is about seeing what doesn’t yet exist and contributing all that we have, are and can do in order to support it’s actualisation. It’s about conceptualising a greater future, translating it into practice and inspiring and persuading others to join us in the service of that mission.
9. Build a community
The servant leader believes in the greatness of each individual as much as the greater power and impact of their collective greatness – and that means building communities.
As Maslow tells us, a sense of ‘belonging’ is a critical component of our basic human needs. Therefore, as a servant leader creating a sense of community, regular ‘communion’, coming together, collegial trust, familiarity and communal safety, is another major responsibility of ours.
People can attain a sense of community by first being given the opportunity to build rapport and know each other outside of their immediate duty-related requirements – such as staff get togethers and activities.
But this sense of community, belonging and grows when there is a shared meaning, purpose or mission behind getting together. It can be a s small as raising money for a charity they all agree with supporting, to contributing social change in your community or the goals that your organisation is working towards at a mission level.
Find ways that you can help your team come together to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to find the commonalities between their most seemingly opposite colleagues and to find shared passions and values that they each stand for.
The power of one is multiplied when there is togetherness – as a servant leadership, we are the thread to bring and hold them together.
Never stop serving, and you’ll never stop leading.
Author: Sarah Cordiner