Servant leadership: Growing business by serving people
As buzzwords go, the term “servant leader” has largely fallen out of the everyday vernacular. As an executive coach, the successful practices that I regularly see call to mind this still important and nuanced concept.
What is servant leadership?
Servant leaders have the confidence to build something more formidable than their own careers and are able to put purpose over profit. They help their customers succeed and keep all their stakeholders top of mind. It takes work to break some of the patterns that propelled many of these executives into leadership positions, and that work has allowed these leaders to live by their values and find a greater purpose in their journey.
These respected and effective CEOs, these “servant leaders,” adopt a global view of what it means to lead. Many have successful marriages and happy, healthy children. They volunteer. They act with intentionality. And they inspire others to do the same.
Top qualities of servant leaders
I’ve been in a room filled with servant leader types. While they all have their own unique personalities, perspectives and business approaches, there is a clear pattern of shared characteristics they display. Here are 10 typical qualities of a modern servant leader.
1. They are customer-focused
These executives look at their companies through the lens of their customers and ask, “How can I enrich their lives?”
2. They are purpose-driven
These leaders ask how their actions can serve humanity and not just the bottom line. This approach does not discount the importance of profit, but it puts profit in the context of a more holistic view of what the company can accomplish.
3. They are courageous
Employees sometimes come up with better ideas than the boss. Courageous executives adopt a growth mindset that puts egos aside and allows others’ perspectives and ideas to flourish.
4. They are authentic
Servant leaders show their true selves to others. They are transparent and open. They are adept at discovering and discussing other people’s strengths and weaknesses because they have already become aware of their own positive attributes and faults.
5. They are approachable
Humility is what makes the servant leader approachable. It’s the difference between the executive leader that employees want to avoid in the hallways and the leader who makes team members feel comfortable and at ease.
6. They are excellent listeners
Most people don’t listen as well as they think they do. Servant leaders surpass average active listening—they are deep listeners. And because they really take in what others say, they are able to ask illuminating questions and provide intelligent and strategic guidance for a business leader.
7. They are trustworthy
A servant leader is a confidant. These leaders act as sounding boards for important decisions. Because servant leaders are natural encouragers and want the best for others, people turn to them over and over again.
8. They are long-term thinkers
Knee-jerk decisions in reaction to immediate pressures is not the way of the servant leader. Instead, these leaders rise above the short-term noise and cultivate value according to a long-term vision.
9. They are committed to personal growth and value people
Servant leaders have genuine care and concern for people. They are dedicated to the personal and professional growth of the people they lead and they value individuals for who they are, not just for what they’ve accomplished.
10. They are well-connected to the community
Because this leader values people, they make the effort to form bonds and grow their social networks. They engage with the community on and offline and are recognized as positive influencers.
An example of servant leadership in action
When fire season forced last-minute closures of many of California schools, employees of school lunch company Choicelunch took it upon themselves to donate 5,000 meals to first responders on the front lines.
These employees didn’t call CEO Justin Gagnon or his partners. They didn’t ask permission or create a mile-long email chain to discuss whether to donate the food. They acted, knowing that it was the right thing to do and that their leadership would support them.
“That was one of my proudest moments,” Gagnon said. “I was in awe.”
Gagnon and his partners had cultivated a company culture of action and ownership that was reflected back to them that day. On his company’s blog, Gagnon wrote how grateful he is to work with “problem solvers wired to do good in the world.” When CEOs make the mission and vision of their companies clear to employees, and enable them to make decisions in alignment with the company purpose, stellar results like this one ensue.
How to become a servant leader
Business executives can benefit from taking the time to self-reflect on their leadership style and ask the question, “Am I a servant leader for my team and my business?” Here are four ways to begin to transform into a true servant leader.
Strike a balance between valuing people and results. Research shows that leaders who primarily focus on just one or the other are not viewed as strong leaders. Leaders who are positive and motivational toward employees in addition to being strategic about business goals makes the winning combination that produces great leadership.
Ask how you can support rather than tell people what to do. This approach will leave behind the boss-gives-orders mentality and cultivate the leader who provides vision, direction and resources.
Discover ways you can give people more power. The best leaders give their power away. In doing so, they earn respect from those who follow them. True power is the ability to empower others to lead and flourish in their own capabilities.
Show employees they are valued through words and actions. Do you express appreciation for employees by thanking them for something specific they did? Do you have an employee recognition program? If so, does that program reward only revenue winners or does it spotlight employees who have exhibited extraordinary teamwork, integrity or kindness in the workplace?
As a Vistage Chair and executive coach, I am continually impressed and inspired at the leadership growth and improved effectiveness of my Vistage group members. While I see a common thread of purpose-driven service coupled with business outcomes focus, I also admire their integrity to and engagement with their families, communities, and personal health and well-being. I believe taking care of their personal lives fuels their capacity to give generously at work.
Working with our Vistage members in a holistic way makes being an executive coach the most fulfilling profession of my life. These executives embody a generosity of spirit and growth-oriented intention, propelling good companies to greatness and helping their employees evolve into leaders themselves. This is the essence of servant leadership.