Decades ago, Robert Greenleaf articulated one of the most important leadership frameworks in history: “servant leadership.”
Greenleaf described the essence of this counterintuitive approach here:
“The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. 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.” -Robert Greenleaf
According to this framework, the only people who can determine if you’re a leader are those who freely and knowingly choose to follow you. So, paradoxically, the power to determine if you’re a leader, not just a “boss,” comes from willing followers. Begrudging compliance from those who fear punishment, or who seek rewards, is the opposite of what true servant leaders aim for.
Will people willingly follow you? Yes, if they believe you will serve them (and if you demonstrate character and competence).
So, how can you become a better servant leader?
10 Key Practices of a Servant Leader
First, let’s articulate what servant leadership means, with the help of Larry Spears in his book, Focus on Leadership: Servant-Leadership for the Twenty-First Century (co-edited with Michele Lawrence and Ken Blanchard). Here are the ten key practices of servant leaders:
- Listening: acknowledging the viewpoint of followers and validating these perspectives.
- Empathy: standing in the shoes of others and seeing things from their point of view.
- Healing: in helping followers become whole, servant leaders are themselves healed.
- Awareness: understanding oneself and the impact one has on others.
- Persuasion: creating change through gentle, nonjudgmental argument.
- Conceptualization: being a visionary for an organization.
- Foresight: predicting what is coming based on the present and the past.
- Stewardship: carefully managing the people and organization—and holding the organization in trust for the greater good of society.
- Commitment to the Growth of People: treating followers as unique and worthy, with intrinsic value beyond what they contribute to the organization.
- Building Community: helping followers identify with something greater than themselves.
With those key practices in mind, here we expand on these practices and flesh out how to become a better servant leader, drawing on other leadership theories and frameworks, including our own “triple crown leadership” model.
Leadership Derailers Assessment
Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.
Lead Yourself First
Control your ego. While your ego seeks to protect you from threats, it also drives you to serve yourself selfishly, accumulate power, and try to control people. Such ego-driven behavior is self-defeating. Take control of your ego. How? Commit to serving others and recognize that it’s not all about you.
“The goal of many leaders is to get people to think more highly of the leader. The goal of a great leader is to help people to think more highly of themselves.” -J. Carla Northcutt
Set your moral compass. Build your ethical foundation by defining worthy and memorable personal values to guide your behavior. Then, commit to live by those values and make amends when you fall short.
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
Define your purpose. Reflect upon why you exist and what gives you a sense of meaning and significance. Seek to live intentionally by taking purposeful action in the world.
Be humble. Demonstrate your humility through your behavior and approach. Humility can’t be claimed, only revealed by your actions.
Learn continuously. Learn from your colleagues by spending time with them and listening to their stories, ideas, and aspirations. Be curious. Read. Listen to podcasts. Take course. Attend events that stretch your mind.
Care about people. Genuinely care for others, even with all their imperfections. We all have flaws. Be a giver, not a taker. Be thoughtful and compassionate with others, while constructively holding them accountable.
“The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.” -Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last
Know yourself. We can easily fall prey to self-deception. Enhance your self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Be empathetic with others. Pay close attention to the impact you have on others. Solicit honest and regular feedback from trusted advisors. Use 360-degree reviews, mentors, coaches, and small groups.
Find sanctuary. Periodically withdraw to your safe and quiet places and engage in peaceful, reflective practices to renew yourself.
Listen first. Speaking first can shut down the thoughts and ideas of others. Practice listening more than speaking.
Ask questions. Encourage others to share their concerns, thoughts, and ideas. Ask open-ended questions, genuinely seeking input and remaining open to new ideas.
Persuade. Telling people what to do shuts them down. It’s best to create agreement, change, and progress through patient, respectful dialogue. Constructively challenge ideas, not the person voicing them.
Be vulnerable. People know that nobody has all the answers. Acknowledge your limitations. When you’re wrong, admit it. Ask people for their help and guidance. People will amaze you with their support.
Acknowledge reality. Leaders openly tell the truth about the circumstances faced, no matter how dire, while expressing a rock-solid belief in people’s capacity to overcome challenges, and while also describing a way forward.
Proven Servant Leadership Practices
Set Stirring Aspirations:
- Elicit a Shared Purpose. Collaboratively develop a short, memorable, and inspiring organizational purpose about “why” your organization exists. People hunger to feel meaning in their work.
- Elicit Shared Values: Collaboratively develop a memorable set of sacrosanct beliefs to guide people’s behavior. Shared values define “how” people should perform. (Tip: One value should be some form of ethical behavior.)
- Elicit a Shared Vision. Collaboratively develop an exciting and inspiring image of your ideal future. It will motivate people to stretch beyond their current capacities. Vision is “where” all of you dream to be someday.
(See our article, “How To Create a Shared Purpose, Values, and Vision.”)
Create Achievable Strategies and Goals:
- Commit to a long-term, overarching ideal for the kind of organization you aspire to be. For example, “an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization.”
- Create long-term value for all stakeholders. Balance the need for short-term achievements to survive without sacrificing your more essential long-term objectives.
- Set appropriate goals and incentives. Ensure goals have reasonable stretch targets but are achievable. Ensure compensation incentives do not tempt unethical performance.
Serve People Who Will Serve Each Other:
- Seek “head and heart.” Recruit and promote people who are servant leaders and who have integrity, passion, and the requisite skills.
- Stay in touch with people. Isolated leaders lack the input they need to succeed. Connect with all your stakeholders often. You’ll learn valuable insights.
- Trust first. Leaders go first by trusting others on reasonable tasks and then extending more or less trust based on the results. Trust in each other is essential for success.
- Develop people. You can best serve people by helping them grow and develop as leaders and followers. The best way to learn leadership is through experience, so the best way to develop your people as leaders is to give them experience leading manageable projects with light coaching.
- Proactively build a winning culture. A great culture is a force multiplier. Keep culture on everyone’s agenda. Ask colleagues to help visualize and form your mutually desired culture. Give everyone two jobs: first, their regular job, and second, a job as a “steward for the culture, with an irrevocable license to lead by the shared values.”
- Use a fluid structure. Employ temporary, empowered teams (Tiger Teams) outside your formal organization structure to address opportunities often.
- Celebrate liberally. Recognize people and have fun with your associates. They’re your trusted colleagues. Life’s too short to be uptight.
- Seek servant-leader board members. Board members and senior advisors must also be committed to the principles of servant leadership, as well as the aspirations of the organization, while proactively helping the leadership team be successful.
Demonstrate Servant Leadership by Example:
- Flex between what we call “steel and velvet.” Get beyond your natural leadership style, flexing between the hard and soft edges of leadership, depending on the people and situation, but always anchored in the shared values. In “velvet” mode, leaders are on the soft edge, focusing on collaboration, relationships, and stewardship. They use persuasion, not position power. By using velvet, leaders empower colleagues to become fellow leaders and co-creators. “Steel” mode requires confidence, discipline, and toughness. It involves getting results, executing through the hierarchy, and committing to tough decisions and forceful actions. Use steel sparingly—especially to defend the organization’s commitment to becoming excellent, ethical, and enduring (the “triple crown leadership quest”).
- Lead and follow. Be comfortable following at times, depending on the situation and the people involved. You don’t have to always lead everything. Relinquish the leadership mantle to someone with special expertise or passion for a project. That leader doesn’t displace you. They lead on that project. In the process, they’re developing their leadership skills.
There are many ways to become a better servant leader. Here are three things to keep in mind as you apply yourself to that worthy end:
- Business, leadership, and life are all about relationships.
- It’s all about them, not you.
- Serve others, and you’ll live a life worth living.
How to know if you’re doing it well? For that, take Greenleaf’s big test:
“The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” -Robert Greenleaf
Tools for You
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
- Personal Values Exercise to help you determine and clarify what’s most important to you
- Alignment Scorecard to help you assess your organization’s level of alignment
More Articles from Our Series on Servant Leadership
- The Essential Qualities of Servant Leadership
- Unleashing Leaders in Your Organization
- Who Determines If You’re a Leader?
- Why Servant Leaders Outperform Bosses
- Do I Have to Be a Servant Before I Can Lead?
- Why Maximizing Shareholder Value Is Wrong
- How Robert Greenleaf Created Servant Leadership
- The Paradoxes of Servant Leadership
- Boards and Servant Leadership
When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.
Postscript: Quotations on Servant Leadership
- “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
- “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant.” -Max DePree, former CEO, Herman Miller Company, author, Leadership Is an Art
- “Servant leadership is a counterbalance to the glorification, deification, and lionization of leaders who have neglected or forgotten what they are there for. Greenleaf’s work is like a superego conscience prod to remind leaders of why they are there. It is so easy for organizations to get totally consumed with the bottom line, with financial stakeholders, and not with the workers, not with all the clawed cartography of people whose lives are affected by the organization.” -Warren Bennis
- “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led, is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.” -Robert Greenleaf
- “Your company exists not to make money. Your company exists to advance something, to do something more—and it should be for other human beings.” -Simon Sinek
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Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors. They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!