As a philosophy, servant leadership has the tendency to sound warm and fuzzy – and to some degree it is. Yet, as a style that is both highly disciplined and very deliberate, it should never be misunderstood as a secondary style of leadership. When it comes to developing the qualities that servant leaders embrace and espouse, it’s part innate and part learned. And, as opposed to something that can be switched on and off, it truly is a way of being.
In my time leading an insights consultancy focused on helping brands build more reciprocal relationships with their customers—and even before that through role models, such as my father—I have been on a constant quest to hone these qualities through a blending of humility, confidence, and emotional intelligence. To be sure, as an effective business leader, it is integral to serve those who trust you to lead them, just as thriving brands earn the trust of their customers.
But First, What is Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership is a philosophy that is near-fully juxtaposed from the notion of traditional leadership. The two are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to mindset and behaviors. In the case of a servant leader, title does not equate to being perceived, and received, as a leader. A true leader will lead regardless of position and sees hierarchy as a mere formality. Servant leaders are instead driven by the actions that earn respect and reverence, not title. In other words, servant leadership isn’t transactional in nature, but rather being there when they’re needed most. Above all, they are not only guided by a primary mission of serving the needs of others, but in helping them become the best they can be. In its highest form, servant leadership is about leading with purpose to create a positive impact on the world.
Why It’s Important Now
Companies thrive from this type of leadership because the workforce is more disengaged than ever. In fact, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, 53 percent of the U.S. workforce is not engaged. Yet, an employee’s engagement level and overall enthusiasm directly impacts how they go on to serve customers. To be effective at creating positive and rewarding customer experiences, team members must first have gratifying employee experiences. When the C-Suite sets the tone for servant leadership, actively motivating employees and inspiring them to be their best, other leaders adopt this approach and it cascades to the frontline where the effects have untold impact on brand affinity.
Learning Servant Leadership Behaviors
While some people are naturally gifted as servant leaders, it is not innate for everyone. Fortunately, it’s a set of skills that is learnable. Here are four ways to build servant leadership into an organization—and into your culture:
1.Create a Safe Environment
For effective servant leadership, fostering an environment for people to stretch and stumble requires a healthy balance of accountability and encouragement around employee performance. Accompany expectations with a “parachute” should the envisioned scenario become unreachable. Offering this psychological safety is key to employees feeling assured that they won’t be let go should the stretch opportunity not immediately pan out. In this case, it is critical to discuss the outcome as a learning and growth opportunity, not as a failure. Concurrently, a servant leader illuminates the path to achieving goals while holding people accountable and helping them gain small wins along the way.
2. See Other’s Potential
Servant leaders have an inherent ability to see the potential in others and know how to nurture their unique talent. This often plays out in not only recognizing people’s strengths but presenting opportunities to pair them with others who can heighten and enhance those strengths. Servant leadership, as a principle, means focusing on strengths much more than correcting weaknesses.
Perhaps an employee is a great conceptual thinker, but has trouble finding the right concrete solutions. A servant leader would empathize and connect this person with an executor, someone who knows how to put plans into action. It’s about accentuating employees’ talents by putting them in the right roles at the right time and allowing them to achieve the next best version of themselves.
3. Cultivate “Win-Win” Outcomes
Servant leaders work with people and toward achieving results that are mutually beneficial for the individual and the organization. They actively listen during employee interactions and see things from multiple vantage points. Servant leaders genuinely appreciate others’ viewpoints, and function as an enabler to solve problems collaboratively, where all walk away feeling satisfied. At the of the day, it’s not about compromise as much as it’s about creating opportunity for both parties. As an example, servant leaders have the foresight to conduct meetings as a forum and consider all viewpoints in a room while still strategically guiding the group to reach a shared outcome that all can support as a unified front. Furthermore, servant leaders end meetings on a note of motivation and diplomacy, thwarting all feelings of a zero-sum game.
4. Be Present
The best gift a leader can offer is being present. In the digital age with instant gratification and short attention spans, active listening is rare. Yet, people crave to be heard. Servant leaders who open both their heart and minds—not just their ears—provide others their undivided attention, thereby earning both respect and loyalty. Time is a precious and finite resource, and the servant leader’s ability to be in the moment, attentive and non-judgmental is a true investment in others’ success.
It’s best not to mistake the servant leader mindset as being passive. It’s a kind but courageous approach, one that necessitates confidence and trust. Servant leaders are rarely seen as pushovers—but rather as the steady and generous go-to’s who are fair in their assessments. They get more impactful results from their teams because they are in tune with employees as humans with motivations and ambitions both in and outside of the workplace. And although they are people-centric in their approach, they always have the corporate mission in mind – they simply go at the organization’s success by way of ensuring a thriving workforce. In fact, organizations with servant leaders at the helm create more resilient companies which flourish during good times and bad because they are guided by purpose first and profit as a result rather than a primary measure of success.
Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-Fil-A built a company and community of followers, believers and brand enthusiasts. He’s a resounding example of how organizations prosper and endure under the steady hand of leaders who know that to serve is a far more honorable vocation than to lead.