For the uninitiated, servant leadership may sound like a confusing, contradictory concept. How does one be a servant and a leader at the same time? Aren’t they direct opposites? Our understanding of the two terms describes servants as fundamentally submissive and leaders as assertive. Being the latter calls for taking charge of a team, while the former simply follows. Well, in the words of Robert K. Greenleaf, “the servant-leader is servant first”. Greenleaf, who coined and brought the concept into the mainstream sphere, wrote those immortal words in a 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader”.
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He continues, “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 difference [between the servant-first and leader-first] manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
The First Step: Humility
To Greenleaf, the widespread authoritarian style of leadership was failing, and servant leadership, which completely demolishes and opposes the principles of the autocratic way, was the antidote. To master this style of leadership, it’s crucial to first tear apart one’s ego. It allows you to separate yourself from any preoccupation you may have with power, the currency that drives dictatorial command. Instead of ruling from an ivory tower, the key is connecting to the people who happen to be your subordinates – something like Undercover Boss without the clandestine facade.
A servant-leader leads by example and is never too proud to handle a “lower” job. Here’s a classic case in point that exemplifies what it means to be humble: A store manager walks past an untidy shelf. He/she cleans it up on the spot without waiting for a store assistant to do it. If you see a problem that can be resolved immediately, take it upon yourself to do it, even if it’s not quite your responsibility.
Putting yourself on the same level as your employees creates relationships that are built on empathy, kindness and deeper levels of insight. You will start leading with your heart, as well as your head, which triggers a natural desire to serve others. Now this does not mean being a pushover. As the leader, you set expectations for your employees. You set the tone for the future of the company, its goals and direction. Your job is to help them achieve those goals, not accomplish them yourself while they faff around in the office. In other words, what do they need to do a better job?
One way to serve your staff is to mentor them. Develop their skills beyond their specific fields, and put them on a path to becoming servant-leaders themselves. Your employees are your company. If they do not grow, your firm doesn’t either. Opportunities for leadership are paramount to facilitate the development of your employees. This is where delegation enters the picture. Here, you need to be aware of your weaknesses as well, knowing someone in your team might be able to do a better job than you in a specific task. If you feel you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders (professionally), you may be struggling with delegation and letting go of control and power.
Be Observant and Interested
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Pay attention and listen to your employees – not just on the professional front, but on the personal one too. When staff members feel genuinely valued in the company, it’ll boost their morale and engagement, motivating them to give their 100 per cent at work. Richard Branson, the genius behind the Virgin empire, makes a habit of carrying a notebook wherever he goes. This way, when he gets to talk to an employee, he’ll be ready to note down any feedback. By getting to know his staff, he has also prevented key employees from quitting and given them the freedom to pursue unrelated, personal ambitions that can still benefit the Virgin brand.
Of course, to have fruitful conversations with employees, you need the foundation of an open and honest relationship first. Also, try for one-on-one chats as often as possible, limited to a fixed duration of maybe half an hour. Such exchanges are more focused, productive, and make the other person feel truly treasured.
After quitting his job at AT&T, Greenleaf founded the Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership in Indianapolis in 1964, which has since expanded its headquarters to include 10 locations around the world, one of them in Singapore. Find out more about sharpening your servant leadership skills, and the local office here.