Why Servant Leadership Really Works

on May 16, 2018

Most aspiring leaders want to have an impact, possibly be recognized as an expert or guru, and maybe even be toasted at a company or industry event for making a difference in their team or organization.

The seasoned leader has gone through the “legacy experience” more than once. They write a letter to their future self about the impact they have had on their business and the people in it. As their letters are often read out loud to peer leaders for feedback, words like vision, respect, market disruption, transformation, caring, and results are all often part of the story. Few leader legacy stories say they want to be a servant. After all, servants often have the lowest jobs, not the most important ones. Yet, servant leadership may be the most direct path to a legacy of extraordinary leadership.

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is rather straightforward. A servant leader feels responsible for helping people learn and grow, feel purposeful, motivated, energized, and contribute at their highest level. It’s not about you; it is about your people.

Servant leadership is about inspiring people to do noble work that calls forth the very best they have to offer. Your engagement is likely to involve asking employees how you can help them do their job better, rather than telling them how to do a better job. You put the needs of your people above your own. However, if you see your people as a means to gain glory, wealth, and fame for your organization or your leadership, you’re probably not a servant leader.

To put it bluntly, servant leaders have the humility, insight, and courage to acknowledge that they can learn from people at all levels of an organization. They see their responsibility as a leader to increase the confidence, capability, ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of their people. The goal is to bring the best out of others and help them work at a higher level.

6 Reasons Why Servant Leadership is Best

1. Servant leaders encourage people to think for themselves and try their own ideas

Often the best way for leaders to serve employees is to create a low-risk space for them to experiment with their ideas. For example, a servant leader encourages people to use time management, accelerate development, and remove hassle for customers. Then a servant leader celebrates when employees try innovative approaches to make improvements. These small, fast, and cheap experiments minimize risk and encourage people to access their knowledge and skills for other areas of their life. The key is to learn from the success or failure of each experiment.

2. When people feel valued, they value what they do

When people know you care about them, they will trust you because they know you have their best interest at heart. Your investment in them is returned when they become invested in the quality of work they do.

3. Servant leaders always hire up

The typical leader can fall into the trap of hiring people below their level because they may feel their leadership could be threatened by someone “better.” The servant leader seeks to maximize talent to find better answers and optimize the performance of the team.

4. Nothing builds trust faster than a servant attitude because it is not possible to judge as a servant

When you are not judging your people, they quickly realize you want what is best for them rather than to secretly compare, rank, and judge their performance. The truth is you will never know how good someone is until they stop improving. When all your effort is to assist in improving the performance of your people, you will find a strong bond of trust is built from having their best interests at heart. In contrast, nothing fosters distrust more than an uncaring, self-absorbed leader who views their people as nothing more than a tool to get something done.

5. Servant leaders explain “why” instead of scripting the “how”

Servant leaders are teachers, not micro managers. They teach by carefully and comprehensively explaining the “why” behind changes, strategies, projects, and priorities. They carefully avoid weighing in on the “how.” They understand that the people closest to the work have the insights, creativity, and judgment to best solve the most critical problems and find opportunities. People are most engaged when they get a chance to solve the most pressing problems of the organization. Alternatively, an authoritative leader often skips the “why” and simply tells people the “what” and scripts the “how” for them.

6. The question of servant leaders is, “How can I help?”

The “tell and sell” approach to leadership is not only outdated, but, more importantly, it is counterproductive. Leaders make it almost impossible to achieve desired outcomes when they focus primarily on control and end goals or targets, not the people. The servant leader sets the direction on customer experience, safety, operating excellence, and organic growth. Then a servant leader asks, “How can I help you achieve what we care about?” This question highlights the best in others, which will create far better results than if the leader dictated directions from their removed perspective. Servant leaders believe this approach reveals the untapped creative and performance capabilities of people, especially your people.

I am a longtime believer of servant leadership and try to practice this philosophy daily. Have you had successes or overcome challenges that have made you a better servant leader? I’d love to hear them!

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