Servant Leadership is an Art—Practice It!

”The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

Max De Pree, Herman Miller Inc.

I remember the moment I ‘crossed over’ to management. It wasn’t when I accepted the position, or the first department head meeting. It was the first team meeting I called. We all sat down, all eyes turned to me in expectation. The team craved leadership, as the position had been vacant for over a year. From that moment I made it my mission to be the best leader I could be. I became a student of leadership, coaching, mentoring and employee engagement. Servant Leadership resonated with me immediately, describing the kind of manager or boss I would want, and aspire to be. This style correlates directly with my core beliefs and values.

Servant leaders have a serve-first mindset focused on empowering those who work for them. They show humility instead of brandishing authority, and look to enhance the development of their staff.

The servant leader seeks to align an employee’s sense of purpose with the organization mission—empowering staff to perform at a high level. Employees feel engaged and purpose-driven. The benefits are lower turnover and improved productivity.

As the name implies, servant leadership starts with an unselfish mindset. It is less about you, more about the team. With the proper motivation a servant leader will behave in a humble, serving manner, and really that is where the rubber hits the road. We can say what we want, but ultimately we are judged on our behavior. For the servant leader, behavior isn’t just what gets done, but how it gets done.

Best Practices

First and foremost, successful servant leadership starts with the desire to serve our staff. This approach begins with the onboarding phase for each employee.

After initial introductions, the servant leader should ask for the new hire’s observations, impressions and opinions. This sends the message that the employee’s thoughts are valued.

The servant leader keeps the focus on talent development in several ways. Leveraging employees’ strengths can lead to better performance and higher satisfaction as staff work on tasks they are passionate about.

Another way is to selectively give power so employees can lead certain projects and take ownership, thus building confidence and capabilities.

Letting go can be hard, but is a crucial requirement for effective servant leadership. Leaders are no longer individual performers, they are enablers.

Question Close, Listen Closer

Close listening and searching questions are two core practices of servant leadership.

Servant leaders build relationships with staff by listening closely and asking lots of questions—on anything from the employee’s background to their view on the organization culture and direction. If an employee is struggling, leaders should ask about what could be the cause. Even questions about smaller aspects of operations sends the message that their opinion does matter.

Listening to understand is crucial to get the employees point of view. Servant leaders wait patiently until the person is finished and briefly summarize the thoughts for clarification. This used to be considered common courtesy, but with the rise of technology it has become harder to listen with understanding, and may take concerted effort on the part of the leader.

Encouragement, Humility, Trust

Encouragement is the hallmark expression of a servant leader, and can be a powerful tool. Encouragement and humility should mark every interaction. When employees make mistakes, the leader isn’t scolding them as if they were children.

Instead, the servant leader engages in respectful conversation which demonstrates trust in the employee to make the needed adjustments.

Trust is both a defining characteristic and a defining outcome of servant leadership. Remember, servant leaders are both servant and leader. Though they serve, the dimension of leadership must be present—character and competence. Competence means the leader has a track record of achieving results, with skills that are relevant. Character means results and accomplishments are achieved with integrity and ethics.

Trust is a prerequisite for servant leaders, because the leader must trust that the employees are worth serving, and they, and the organization, will benefit from their service. In turn, servant leadership generates trust in the employees, who may be inspired by their manager’s competence and character and convinced by their manager’s serve-first practice that he or she has their best interests at heart. Trust is one of the means to achieve servant leadership, and it is also an end that is achieved by servant leadership.

Engagement – 5 Questions

Mission and vision are important, but day-to-day leadership involves connecting each team member with an inner sense of purpose. Each action has many levels. I’m typing on a keyboard, writing an article, and encouraging better leadership at the same time. One action-different levels. True leaders walk employees up that ladder to help them find meaning in even small tasks. Asking these five questions is one way to make that connection.

What are you good at doing? Which work doesn’t seem like work? What gets you noticed because you are so good at it? Help identify their strengths and open up the possibilities.

What do you enjoy? During the week, what do you look forward to doing? What do you see on your calendar that energizes you? If you could decide, how would you spend your time? Help them rediscover what they love about work.

What feels most useful? Which work makes you most proud? What tasks are most critical to the team or organization? Helps to identify the inherent value of certain work.

What creates a sense of forward momentum? What are you learning that you’ll use in the future? Where do you see yourself next? Show how today’s work helps get to future goals.

How do you relate to others? Which working partnerships are best for you? What would your favorite team look like? Think about and foster relationships that make work more meaningful.