So I’m sitting at my desk when the boss walks up, and he says to me “Is there anything I can do to help, is there anything you need from me?” So I look around the room – surely he must be talking to somebody else. I look back at the boss – he’s still there and still looking at me, and I say “Are you talking to me – are you talking to me?” in my best Robert De Niro voice.
“Yes, I am talking to you. Is there anything you need from me to help you with the work you’re doing?”, he smiles politely and awkwardly at my very poor impersonation.
I smile even more awkwardly, look around the room one more time and back to find he’s still there, so I go for my desk draw and pull out a list, then speak very quickly.
“Right, I want… I need…I’d like…”
Your probably hearing this term servant leader more and more often now. Is it another buzz term? Is this another fly by night corporate catchcry? I think not – read on.
What is a Servant Leader?
“Servant leadership is both a leadership philosophy and set of leadership practices. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servant_leadership
The coach as a servant
When I ask myself, what is a practical example of servant leadership, personally I think about a coach of a sporting team. There is no doubt that coaches are leaders, but what is most fundamentally important to a good coach, what really demonstrates success for a coach, is the growth and development and ultimately the success of the people who they coach, both as individuals and as a collective. Sporting teams always have a very clear understanding of where they are going and why, and the contributions that each individual must make to the overall game in order to deliver success. Everyone on a successful sporting team is interested in whether the forward throws a goal, a mid-fielder sets up an opportunity for a forward and a defender overcomes the opposition. Of all people, the coach should be most interested in the performance of individuals toward the collective goal, as it is the collective goal for which he has ultimate responsibility and accountability.
The Manager as a coach
In a business sense, every individual in a team has a set of KPIs and goals. These KPIs and goals then roll up into team KPIs and goals for which the manager is ultimately responsible. It just makes common sense that a manager would be fascinated by an individual’s performance, and that they would do everything in their power to ensure that an individual achieved their KPIs and goals. We might even suggest that in a perfect world, a manager would not have any individual KPIs or goals, and would have only the team KPIs and goals to be accountable for.
How to become a Servant Leader
It may come as a surprise, because we are all grappling with rapid changes in approach to leadership and management – from old school to the new, the new being a more enlightened attitude, this servant leadership is nothing new. Servant leaders have been floating around the traps for a long time, well what I call a long time. The concept is thousands of years old. Have a think about it, and I am sure you can identify even a few very high profile leaders of business, culture or religion that were servant leaders. What’s really interesting, and it’s not to suggest that people can’t learn to become a servant leader, but the style is more a birth than a personal evolution.
“The servant-leader is servant first… 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 leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.” Greenleaf
How would I recognise a servant leader?
Well it’s not the guy or gal in the tuxedo, bow tie and carrying a tray of drinks and hors d’oeuvres. So don’t imagine you’re about to come up in the world with your boss as a butler.
- A servant leader genuinely celebrates diversity in the workplace and this is reflected in their respect for and value of the opinions and beliefs of others.
- A servant leader is recognisably motivated and engaged by the growth and development of those who work for him or her.
- A servant leader has emotional intelligence and is therefore able to connect on a personal level with those with whom they work and to demonstrate respect and empathy.
- The servant leader thinks firstly about the team and the desired outcomes and secondly about themselves. Consequently, they take a longer term view as they are not as driven by immediate personal gratification.
“Lao-Tzu wrote about servant leadership in the fifth-century BC: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware…. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!” ‘ ” Forbes
Why is Servant Leadership such an important opportunity
“Grant describes research in his recent book, Give and Take, that suggests that servant leaders are not only more highly regarded than others by their employees and not only feel better about themselves at the end of the day but are more productive as well. His thesis is that servant leaders are the beneficiaries of important contacts, information, and insights that make them more effective and productive in what they do even though they spend a great deal of their time sharing what they learn and helping others through such things as career counseling, suggesting contacts, and recommending new ways of doing things.” Forbes 2
Let’s get one thing very clear from the outset. Servant leadership isn’t weak leadership. In fact it takes a great deal more strength for a leader to ask what they can do for you and face the consequences than to simply direct you and contain/avoid the challenges your response may have initiated. After all, it’s often from challenges, that change occurs/happens/results. Change is where servant leaders shine. Of course it takes great leadership to create and drive strategy, but even greater leaders to own the strategy and drive transformational change through engagement.
Ok, right now I am guessing you are seeing this role elevated to those right up there in the ivory tower and perhaps you’re having trouble relating it to your own role. Well my posts are all about real and practical ideas for the mere mortal, so come on back down to earth with me.
What can you do starting tomorrow
- Focus on your listening skills because your focus needs to be on others rather than yourself. If you’re not listening to others, strong chance you are listening mostly to yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to delegate. As long as you’re not delegating your rubbish, then you’re creating opportunities for growth in those who report to you.
- Check yourself for any signs of hypocrisy. Yes – hypocrisy. Do you walk the talk, do you practice what you preach and believe in it? If it’s good enough for them, is it good enough for you?
- Understand and adapt a coaching style in your management and leadership.
- Meet with and mix with not only your leadership teams, but those who report to your leadership teams and so on. Cascade your connections.
- If nothing else, ask one simple question – what can I do to help you achieve your goals?
Of course there are a lot more things you can do. There are also many instances where you need to lead, react and direct and as a great leader or manager you will know when that is – so trust yourself, trust your intuition.
Try servant leadership. You will build a team of loyal followers and after all, that is your job isn’t it?
Have you had a servant leader who helped you get ahead? Tell me about them! What did they do that you would like to do? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.
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Many thanks to my nephew James Westmore for his wonderful artwork and to Rosie Broadfoot for her continued enthusiasm for editing my posts.