We call it ‘leadership’ because (traditionally), it is about setting the direction and leading from the front; but what about those who put others first and in essence, lead from behind (i.e. the servant leaders)? Are leaders who put others ahead of themselves really leading at all? The practice of ‘servant leadership’ incorporates many elements, and is a timeless concept in and of itself, however it is so powerful when practiced effectively…

Having worked closely with leaders now for many years, it is the notion of servant leadership that has captured my attention the most out of all the leadership models/philosophies (of which there are countless numbers!). However, for many who are practicing-leaders (as opposed to being leadership experts/consultants) the notion elicits any number of responses; this begs the question of what the term ‘servant leadership’ suggests for you? Does it conjure thoughts of ‘unrealistic’, ‘doormat’, ‘fantasyland’, ‘non-productive’, ‘push-over’, ‘non-leader’, or simply ‘ineffective’. Or does it bring thoughts to the fore such as ‘refreshing’ ‘natural’, ‘transformational’, ‘a breath of fresh air’, ‘empowering’, or ‘trust-building’? Regardless of your stance on this notion, it is something that is incredibly powerful when practiced effectively.

So, let’s take a closer look at what we mean by the term ‘servant leadership’. Below is a modified excerpt from the Centre for Servant Leadership, an organisation directed by the seminal researcher in this field, Robert Greenleaf:

“The servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first, with conscious choice then being one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, that is, one who seeks to direct from a position of power and authority. These are two extreme types, and between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The difference 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 (but somewhat 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 servant leaders?

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of those they lead. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Although they may not use the term ‘servant leadership’, there are many popular thought-leaders in business who ascribe to and apply this notion in their work; writers such as Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, M. Scott Peck, Margaret Wheatley, Ann McGee-Cooper & Duane Trammell, Larry Spears, and Kent Keith, Simon Sinek, are to name but a few.

So where does this leave us in terms of practicality? Why is putting others first so important? Think about emotional intelligence for a moment… key components of all models of emotional intelligence include demonstrating empathy and using your understanding of others to consider a situation from someone else’s perspective. This helps two parties move forward. When we place an equal level of importance on another’s needs as we do our own, we break down barriers and create the opportunity to create win/win solutions. Surely this is something everyone seeks regardless of leadership style. However are there times when you can’t seem to break the loggerhead or stalemate, when you can’t seem to move forward? Pardon my frankness, but it could very well be that you’re only considering your own agenda, only seeking to get your own needs met, and you know what? The other party is doing exactly the same as you are! You may therefore find it beneficial to adopt a ‘servant leadership’ frame of mind, and in the famous words of Stephen Covey, ‘seek first to understand, then be understood’. This does not mean that your needs are cast aside, quite the contrary in fact. When you seek to put others ahead of yourself, it doesn’t mean that your needs are any less important, it simply means that you’re trying to incorporate the other party’s perspective into the situation so together you can find a way of moving forward. This holds just as true in business as it does in life.

Further to the notion of servant leadership aligning with models of emotional intelligence, it also helps build high performance teams/culture. In the words of thought-leader, Simon Sinek, servant leadership creates a ‘circle of safety’ for people to learn, grow, and develop into high performance. We know that the greatest learning comes through making mistakes and reflecting on them so you can ultimately learn from them. Allowing people space to be creative, take risks, and make (safe) mistakes, creates a deep sense of loyalty and trust which is fundamental to creating a culture of high performance. People need to know that as a leader, you’ve ‘got their back’, and will shield them from what is necessary so they can focus on developing their performance. You moving forward as a leader is a direct result of how you help others achieve their goals.

So, are you taking the time to listen to your team to ensure their needs are met to facilitate the growth of their performance? The more support you can offer, the more people will feel free to grow and develop the skills they need to perform at their peak. But how do you create a culture that people want to be a part of? Listening to what they need (and doing what you can to meet those needs) is a great start…

When you do the right things, in the right way, for the right reason you lead with integrity, and if you help your team achieve their goals, you will in turn achieve your goals. When your team is performing, you are performing. As a leader you need to remember who you serve, and why you serve them; when you do this, your team will likely reciprocate, and will in turn serve you back. When you’re all working toward a greater goal, the whole team will rally together to achieve it, as everyone wants to be part of something bigger than they are. This is a basic human need, and servant leadership meets this.

I hope this piece has helped you see that servant leadership is more a philosophy than a leadership model – it’s not a skill to learn per se, it’s a frame of reference. If you would like to learn more, a great place to start is with the book ‘Leaders Eat Last’ by Simon Sinek. When we all start to consider others as well as ourselves, I think we will achieve greatness within our spheres of influence – and who knows what ripple effects that might create…  

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