Servant leader. That sounds pretty much like a contradiction in terms, but it is a profoundly important idea. Indeed, I’d argue that it’s the single most valuable approach to leadership. And it’s an approach that no leader can afford to ignore.
To understand why, we need to ask a crucial question…
What is the Job of a Leader?
- Is it to lead?
- To be out front?
- To have people follow you?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Perhaps the job of a leader is to help their followers succeed. After all, managers don’t win games: teams do. And generals don’t win wars: armies do. This is the philosophy behind servant leadership. Your job as a leader is to serve the people who follow you. To give them what they need — whether it’s motivation, project management tools or even donuts for breakfast — in order to achieve their goals.
The Stages of a Team and the Roles of a Leader
The servant leadership model is, of course, not the only model of leadership. It is one among many. So, it’s instructive to look at a number of situations and examine what your team will need in each. That way, we can identify what servant leadership is, and when it’s right for your team.
And, arguably, if you are consistently employing a leadership style that meets your team’s need, then you are constantly serving them.
New Team: New Leader
A good place to start is where new teams begin: at the beginning. A new team comes together, and they have a new team leader — you.
Your job is to get them working together as quickly and as efficiently as you can. This means being very clear with each person, what their task is and how they need to go about it. What your team needs most at this stage is clarity, confidence and the feeling that they can be useful.
So, the way that you are delivering servant leadership at this early stage is by providing a safe space for people to start to contribute. This also gives your team members a chance to get the measure of one another and to start building some working relationships.
Dealing with Conflict and Challenge: An Assertive Leader
But, as people start to work together, and they get a sense of the job at hand, personalities will begin to emerge. The more assertive individuals will jockey for position and may even start to challenge your leadership.
The less confident people, however, will find this uncomfortable. So, to serve them, you need to pick up on unwanted social dynamics, and deal with them promptly. This is also important, because some will try to test and challenge your leadership. You need to demonstrate that you are confident in your role as leader.
The other way you can serve the whole team is to keep them focused on the work that they need to do. A sense of common purpose and a growing feeling of achievement will help people feel good about themselves and their role in the team.
Creating Processes and Practices: A Pragmatic Leader
As the social tensions finish playing out, you’ll start to notice the team becoming more effective. You’ll also see people becoming far more confident in their individual roles. At this point, you won’t serve them well by interfering too much, and they don’t need you to offer much by way of instruction.
So, what does the servant leader do at this stage? You find and implement the practices and processes that will support your team in doing their work even more efficiently. Often this can include helping people connect with colleagues who can advise them in their work.
Therefore, a big part of servant leadership at this stage is creating and strengthening the cross-links among team members, which will help optimize team performance. You become like a host at a party, serving your guests and making introductions, so everyone feels welcome.
Serving a Self-confident Team: A Servant Leader
Once people have all the contacts they need and have found ways of working that are effective and efficient, there is little for you to do. You may be tempted to try to lead, but truly, you don’t need to.
Instead, leave them to it. What an observer will see is individual acts of leadership from different team members at different stages of their work. People will step forward when they need to, and step back when the tasks shift. This is the kind of team wide self-confidence that leaders should dream of.
So, what is your role? I’d say that it is true servant leadership. You offer nothing but a light touch. I’ll characterize your two roles as “rations” and “umbrella.”
Your first role is to ensure your team get the rations that are due to them. You also need to ensure they have the right resources, a productive work environment, and all the assets and information they need. You’re like a faithful servant, running around after them, providing them with what they need.
Essentially, then, your first job is to maintain the overall environment in which they can flourish.
But there’s another role. You’ve seen the movies where the faithful butler carries an umbrella to prevent their boss from getting wet. Well, that’s your job too. In organizations, it’s constantly raining all sorts of unwanted distractions and administrative duties that can keep us from being productive. As a servant leader, you take on the administration and the politicking, so your team doesn’t have to. You free them up to focus on their jobs.
In a way, therefore, you’re working for them. You do the tedious administration jobs, then let them get on and deliver.
Where Does Servant Leadership Come from?
You can find the antecedents of our modern concept of servant leadership in ancient texts, from Sanskrit to Taoist and Confucian, to the Bible. And, in more modern times, numerous leaders from history show elements of servant leadership, men and women like:
- Ernest Shackleton
- Harriet Tubman
- Abraham Lincoln
- Jane Goodall
- Mohandas Gandhi
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The Modern Articulation of Servant Leadership: Robert Greenleaf
Robert Greenleaf led management development at AT&T for many years. It was there that he first conceived his ideas of Servant Leadership. He coined the phrase Servant Leadership in a 1970 essay, called ‘The Servant as Leader.”
In that essay, Greenleaf distinguished between: “the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” And: “…one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
After retiring from AT&T in 1964, Greenleaf founded what is currently called the Robert K Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
The Traits of a Servant Leader
Lots of writers, from Greenleaf onwards, have articulated their own assessment of the traits of an effective servant leader. They are, in effect trying to define the term, by reference to its behaviors.
For me, this needs to be a practical checklist of how to manage with servant leadership. So, I offer my own selection of 12 ways to be a servant leader.
I don’t claim that it is complete. And, neither do I claim that just by doing them, you will become a servant leader. Rather, these are a guide. If you follow this checklist with an attitude of service first, then you will be heading in the right direction.
- Self-awareness is a current buzzword in the world of leadership thinking. But there can be no doubt of its value. It links to the ideas of authenticity and mindfulness and therefore, an ability to be aware of the situation around you. This allows you to make wise judgments.
- Humility is a vital aspect of a service mindset. But to truly serve, you also need an empathy for the people you lead.
- Absolute integrity is not negotiable. The servant leadership metaphor encompasses the idea of stewardship. Therefore, your leadership must be moral and ethical.
- I’d also include results-orientation. But beware – this is not an ends-justify-the-means moral blank check. In service, what matters is the goal. We devise a process that puts that first, not ourselves.
- Foresight is your ability to foresee the needs of your followers, and the implications of your choices.
- I hope it goes without saying that a good leader is an excellent communicator. But as a servant leader, you must put your focus on listening in order to understand the perspectives and needs of the people you serve.
- As a leader, you may or may not have authority. But, as a servant leader, you will never leap to use it. Instead, you’ll rely on your ability to be influential and deploy the craft of high-integrity persuasion.
- A servant leader must have intellectual authority – the ability to understand and assess the needs of the moment.
Behaviors Towards Your Team
- While you will serve each person within your team, your primary duty of service is to the team itself. So, a servant leader must be collaborative in the way you operate. Part of your role is to build a community and a team spirit.
- Vital to this is your willingness to show trust to your team, and empower them to do the work, while you serve them rather than guide them.
- A servant leader also needs to commit to developing the people on the team. You should be constantly alert for opportunities to help them grow their skills, confidence and professionalism. And your style would be a coaching approach, rather than one of telling.
- Finally, my last suggestion is to play a role in managing conflict to ensure the work environment stays productive and respectful. And, where you cannot achieve that, to assist with healing the harm from damaged relationships.
So, those are 12 ways to manage with servant leadership. Whether you like the term or value the concept, I hope you will consider adopting some of these approaches into your own leadership style.
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