Robert K. Greenleaf is credited as the father of Servant Leadership. While Greenleaf certainly brought the concept of servant leadership to the forefront with his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader, he did not create the concept of servant leadership. There have been several historically significant servant leaders over the years. Two that come to mind are Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. To understand what made them servant leaders, let's take a look at the traits of a servant leader:
- Commitment to the growth of people
- Building community
If you have even a modest knowledge of history, you can see how the two men were servant leaders. While this blog does not have a religious focus, my Christian faith is built on servant leadership. Jesus was the epitome of a servant leader. So concerned with the well being of others that he allowed himself to be crucified for them.
I suspect some of you are starting to see a pattern here. Do you have to be killed to be a good servant leader? No, of course not, but you will find it difficult at times to stand up to those who still subscribe to the authoritarian style of leadership. They simply don't understand why you spend so much time trying to develop your team, mentor them, and make them successful. Why not cast the under performers aside and get someone else who can do the job better? I once heard a "leader" say, "be slow to hire and quick to fire".
My career began in 1987 when I got my first paycheck for providing technology services. Over the past 33 years, I've seen examples of great leadership and examples of woeful attempts at leadership. A servant leader never misses the opportunity to listen and become aware of issues, but it doesn't stop there. Just as a coach watches film with their team, a servant leader has to do the same thing. It's important to talk with your team members both as a group when discussing team performance, and individually when addressing individual performance. Many leaders don't want to address issues. An example of this would be something I've seen happen many times. It's employee review time and the boss sits you down to discuss your performance over the past year. He starts to give specific examples of times when you fell below expectations and mentions some customer complaints. You sit in shock as this is the FIRST TIME you've heard any of this. Or what about the person who is driven, hard working, smart, and wants to move up in the company. They apply for every leadership position that becomes available, but eventually they have to leave the company to advance their career because they are never selected for promotion. After leaving the company, they are having lunch with a former co-worker who tells them, "you never got promoted because you said something that one of the VP's didn't agree with in a meeting once". Wow! So the organization was willing to throw away a hard working, dedicated employee because someone didn't have the intestinal fortitude to pull the person aside and said, "I want to discuss what was said in the meeting". As a leader, having conversations which address uncomfortable topics doesn't have to be an uncomfortable process. I once had to deal with a customer complaint regarding one of my team members. I took him to lunch and used the four most powerful words in the English language...."I need your help". When he asked how he could help, I told him the situation. He admitted he was wrong, and went on to describe some health issues he was experiencing which were weighing on him. At the end of the conversation he said to me, "this helped me more than you know". What I thought was going to be a very confrontational discussion turned out to be something that made us both feel better. I showed my team member that I cared about him.
One of the biggest mistakes most leaders make is offering criticism (constructive or not) and failing to discuss a plan to help that person become better. Have you ever been told, "You just weren't what we were looking for in that role" or "the company is looking to go in a different direction" but you never get any guidance on exactly what they were looking for or what direction the company is going? What they are actually saying to you is that they don't have enough concern for you to help you achieve your career goals. A true servant leader never holds their team members under water. They never suppress them to keep them from moving up in the organization just so they won't have to hire someone to replace them. I have many examples in my career where individuals I recruited and hired went on to greater heights than I have attained professionally. That is a huge source of pride for me.
As a servant leader my overall desire is to:
- Build Teams
- Help People
- Develop Relationships
- Deliver Excellence
- Provide Value
I do those things by using the traits of a servant leader. The top three traits all focus on people. I am a firm believer that you can teach skill, but you can't teach personality. I can show anyone how to do the last two. I can develop processes and standards to guide teams to providing excellence and value. What I can't do is shape someone's heart and mind.
If you are a leader responsible for building a strong team, make sure you develop a team culture around servant leadership. Hire people with the heart of a servant. In today's job market, so many companies scan for key words. I was once told that I should re-write my resume for every job I apply for so the keyword scanner will get my resume through the vetting process. I strongly caution you against hiring this way. Use my third bullet point above...develop relationships. Keep track of individuals you feel would be great additions to your team, even if you don't have available positions. Leverage the relationships of your existing team members. Chances are, they will know other people who have similar values to their own. Build a strong people network of quality individuals you can call on when needed and they can do the same with you.
Ultimately, it's all about people helping people.