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Understanding True Servant Leadership

Why Being a Servant-Leader Will Always Win Your People Over

The image above is what we usually think of when we hear the word “leadership.”

In fact, it’s the first picture that comes up when you search “leadership” on Unsplash.com  (that’s why I picked it).

Leaders, we think, are genius oddballs who are always ahead of the pack, equipped with all the answers. Perhaps they have a secret insight that makes them, well, better than everyone else.

The Center for Creative Leadership notes 10 characteristics of a great leader. Integrity, empathy, respect, self-awareness, and communication, among others, are on the list.

These are all good and necessary things. I want to possess all of these qualities!

But the research behind these 10 characteristics is overlooking something, I think. It’s missing something more foundational than qualities or skills you can add to your arsenal. What is it?

Being a servant.

Be, Don’t Just Do

Most leadership qualities we’re taught are things we can do.

A servant-leader is something you are.

You can learn it to be sure. No one is born a servant. We’re all born screaming, “Hold me! Feed me! Help me!” That’s not a servant.

Servants do the holding, the feeding, the helping.

Over time, we grow. We don’t just learn skills. We become a certain kind of person. Servant-leadership is a disposition of your heart. It’s hard to describe, honestly. Yet it’s easy to recognize when we see it. And when we see it in our leaders? Oh my, do we want to follow!

It might be best to say it like this: when you are a servant, you will possess those leadership characteristics or qualities and develop them in increasing measure over time.

But if you aren’t a servant, you can’t hide your true self by adding a bit of empathy here and a bit of communication there.

I’ll say it again. Servant-leadership is a disposition of your heart. An attitude and approach to everything that falls under your oversight.

What is a Servant-Leader?

What’s a good definition for a “servant-leader”? Let me take a crack at it:

A servant-leader puts people before power by considering the needs of others as more significant than his/her own.

Let’s dig into that idea.

Every leader has an agenda. Bring in better results, more profit, expanded scope. You wouldn’t be a leader without a vision and specific goals.

But servant-leaders don’t try to get people to fit into their nice, tidy agenda. Usually, that ends up with the boss looking great and everyone else being stepped on in the process.

Great servant-leaders don’t try to show others who’s the boss. I’ve worked under those kinds of bosses. You probably have, too. It’s exhausting and demoralizing. And it makes you want to quit.

Servant-leaders, on the other hand, seek to meet the needs of others by putting people before power. They prioritize relationships over results and building trust over completing tasks.

Servant-Leadership in Real Life

Having a hard time picturing this? Here’s a real-life example. Imagine you’re a supervisor at, oh I don’t know, let’s say a prestigious paper company somewhere in northeast Pennsylvania.

One of your employees is struggling to meet the metrics you agreed on during the last performance review. In fact, it’s been pretty awful.

A regular check-in with this person comes along. Here are two scenarios with two different approaches from the supervisor.

Scenario #1: “I know you’ve been struggling. I’ve been pretty disappointed in your numbers, and you need to get your act together. Your performance reflects poorly on me as your boss. You’ll need to hit at least 60% by next quarter or we’ll have to let you go.”

Scenario #2: “I know you’ve been struggling. Can I ask you a few questions? How are you? How are things going at home? What do you need here to thrive in your role? And what do you think I could be doing to help you succeed?”

Do you see the difference?

The first elevates you. It clearly communicates that you have the power to crush them. It might feel good. But it will never motivate anyone at their core. You’ll always have people who will struggle. With this approach, you’ll let them go, only to replace them with more people who struggle with the same problems.

Do you see the common denominator? (Hint: it’s not them.)

Now for the second scenario. It puts you in a rather vulnerable position. It admits you may have fallen short, even failed, as a leader. It shows that you’re willing to change and do more to help them be the best they possibly can be.

Of course, there will always be people that just aren’t a good fit for your organization, but we’ll leave that for another article. It also communicates care for them as a human. It’s oozing with empathy.

That’s servant-leadership. If you want to motivate, inspire, and influence, and if you want to work for the genuine well-being of your people and your company, then you must become a servant.

Still not convinced?

Here’s a simple question that might help: which kind of leader would you rather work for?

Be that leader.


This post originally appeared at https://jamespruch.substack.com/p/understanding-true-leadership on October 7, 2020.