I’ve been fortunate to work for some amazing managers in my career (unlike the bad bosses we’ve described), and each one had these traits in common:
- They offered great feedback.
- They trusted me to make decisions.
- They shared knowledge and information, and acted as a sounding board when I needed help.
On the whole, they were helpful and supportive and cared about my growth — not just as an employee, but as a person.
Unfortunately, my experience is uncommon. A dominant style of leadership is much more prevalent. And using this style, dominant leaders take action and implement policies that mainly benefit themselves.
Why did this style become so popular, despite significant drawbacks? Scientific American notes that because of globalization, innovation, and technology, and the rapid pace of change in jobs and skill requirements, people are looking to regain control over their lives. Dominant leadership can be appealing because it projects authority, stability, and decisiveness.
Is that the type of leadership people really want? What if leaders empowered and supported people to grow their skills to accommodate the future, rather than exerting control to manipulate and slow the rate of change in an ever-evolving world? What if leaders were more servant than dominant?
A new style of leadership
According to the Greenleaf Center, servant leadership “…is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.”
The founding principles include nine behaviors: serve first, add value to others, build trust, listen to understand, think about your thinking, increase your influence, demonstrate courage, live your values, and live your transformation. What do these behaviors look like in practice?
1. Serve first
Serving first is about approaching work with a collaborative mindset. Instead of thinking, “How can I win?” leaders with a serve-first mentality look to make situations a win-win for all participants. These leaders go beyond simply giving a job description to an employee and sending them off to tackle the day. Instead, they care about the whole individual, including the personal and professional growth of each person.
2. Add value to others
This differs from “serve first” because it’s about what you as a leader can add to help others grow. What are your strengths? What are the unique skills you can use to help improve other people’s projects, ideas, and careers?
Imagine a greenhouse with lots of plants, and each plant represents an employee. Maybe at a typical company, the CEO is the tallest, strongest plant that the other plants aspire to one day become. That’s not how I think of my role. Instead, I think of my role as the architect of the greenhouse, and to help figure out the right conditions within the greenhouse to enable all of the other plants to flourish and thrive. — Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos and author of Delivering Happiness
3. Build trust
When trust is high, cost is low, and speed goes up. To achieve these benefits, high-trust leaders choose to delegate and not micromanage, meet deadlines and give actionable feedback, and be accountable for decisions and outcomes.
The days of the boss being the smartest person in the room are gone — my team constantly remind me of this. As leaders, we need to trust the people around us to make smart decisions; we need to encourage open debate; and we need to create safe environments where everyone’s voice can be heard. — Scott Farquhar, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Atlassian
4. Listen to understand
It’s not about listening to decide when to chime in with your own opinion; it’s about listening to ACTUALLY understand. Leaders should practice active listening, and make sure they’re not interrupting people during meetings or 1:1s. Try these two questions to listen to understand: “Tell me more” and “Help me understand.” These questions open the door for others to share their perspective, without feeling like they’re being undermined or doubted.
5. Think about your thinking
Servant leaders evaluate how they think about the messages, situations, and behaviors they experience. Is input or feedback received in a negative way, or as a positive opportunity for improvement? The trick is to differentiate between useful thoughts and non-useful thoughts, and re-frame negative beliefs. For example, don’t use absolutes like “always” and “never” when describing situations or behaviors.
If we lead with positivity, we will get an organization that is heartfelt and positive. If we lead with negativity, we will have an organization that also reflects that negativity. — Lolly Daskal, Leadership coach and author of The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness
6. Increase your influence
Typical leaders think about grabbing more power when they look to increase their influence, but the servant leader aspires to share what they know and what they’ve learned over the years to enable other people to learn from and utilize that knowledge. It means more people possess the information and ability to make decisions and innovate, and ensures the leader is not a bottleneck to progress.
7. Demonstrate courage
People often mistake servant leadership as being “nice,” but sometimes the kindest thing you can do is have the hard conversations with people, deal with conflict, make tough decisions, and hold people accountable. Demonstrating courage is about encouraging people to move forward and get results.
Courage is not just about making tough calls and swinging big. It’s about getting comfortable with the possibility of failure. We often associate success with “always getting it right” when, actually, success comes from making mistakes and learning along the way. You can’t be successful unless you try something new, but you have to be prepared to take the risk. — Mike Cannon-Brookes, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Atlassian
8. Live your values
As many tasks become automated and competition for talent increases, employees look for more alignment between their personal values and company values. Leaders who live company values aligned with the principles of servant leadership foster a more inclusive and productive environment for their teams.
9. Live your transformation
Becoming a servant leader is not a one-time action or seminar — it’s a lifelong pursuit. The principles become part of the leader. They live them day in and day out, and take them into the business and their community.
I’m a big believer in two things that drive success: servant leadership and the golden rule. Employees today don’t want command-and-control leadership. They want leaders they can learn from and who can help them get their jobs done. I believe strongly in the notion that I’m here to help the organization meet its goals, not the other way around. And the golden rule is one of the simplest and most prescriptive management philosophies that I know. Show others the respect, dignity and candor you’d want them to show to you. — Irene Rosenfeld, former CEO and Chairman of Kraft Foods
Impact of servant leadership
In addition to boosting team morale and professional growth, servant leadership yields strong business results. For example, a 2015 study conducted by KRW International found that CEOs whose employees gave them high marks for character delivered an average return on assets of 9.35% over a two-year period. That’s five times as much as CEOs with lower marks for character, with an average return on assets of only 1.93%.
Results have been measured for years, including a comparison of “Good to Great” companies and “servant leadership” companies. In their book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership: Practicing the Wisdom of Leading by Serving, James Sipe and Don Frick share that during the 10-year period they studied, stocks from the 500 largest public companies (S&P 500) averaged a 10.8% pre-tax portfolio return. Companies featured in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great averaged a 17.5% return. However, the servant-led companies’ returns averaged 24.2%.
And researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago saw measurable increases in key business metrics, including a 6% increase in job performance, 8% increase in customer service, and 50% increase in employee retention.
The results are clear: servant leadership is not only good for the soul; it’s good for the spreadsheet.
It’s tempting to hoard information, approach colleagues as competitors, and attempt to win at all costs as the world moves faster and faster. But it turns out that collaboration and a servant mindset increase your chances of success, not only as a leader, but as a business.
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