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.

Remote Onboarding

 It’s quite possible to onboard new leaders effectively into a remote-working environment. The biggest barrier is probably mindset. We are all being tested to adapt to new ways of working, and it’s no different with virtual onboarding. Here are some principles to guide you.

1. Be crystal clear about short-term objectives.

Like every leader in transition, your new hire needs to quickly figure out how to create value, and that’s even more important during a crisis.

2. Provide a structured learning process.

To accelerate learning in a virtual context, you need to provide information in a more structured manner. Doing so requires paying much more attention to what you include in the upfront “document dump”: organizational charts, financial reports, strategy and project documentation, and the current crisis response plan. Beyond that, you need to help your new hires get a broader and deeper view of the organization and their role in it.

3. Build a (more) robust stakeholder engagement plan.

Your next priority is to help your new hires identify, understand, and build relationships with key stakeholders. When onboarding is virtual, it’s essential to be even more detailed and structured here, too. Start by building a consensus internally about who the new leader’s key stakeholders are and, critically, the order in which the new leader should meet them; these things are often not apparent to new hires themselves.

4. Assign a virtual-onboarding buddy.

Quite a few companies built buddy systems into their pre-crisis onboarding processes. And for new managers coming into remote-working organizations, a buddy is essential. Good buddies play four key roles: (1) They help orient new hires to the business and its context (2) They facilitate connections to people whose support is necessary or helpful (3) They assist with navigation of processes and systems, and (4) They accelerate acculturation by providing insight into “how things get done here.” Of course, you must take care to choose buddies who have the time, ability, and inclination to help, and you need to brief them on how they can be of most assistance. Typically, they should not be in the new leader’s chain of command; they should be peers or others with the “big picture” understanding necessary to be of real help.

5. Facilitate virtual team-building.

Helpful in face-to-face situations, a new-leader assimilation process is essential when onboarding happens remotely. This is a structured process for creating alignment and connection between a leader and their inherited team. A facilitator asks the leader and team members questions to uncover what they would most like to share with and learn about one another. The facilitator summarizes the resulting insights and uses them to guide a conversation between the leader and the team. The good news is that this process can be done effectively through video conferencing.