What Is Servant Leadership?
The traditional hierarchical pyramid is effective for the leadership aspect of servant leadership. Kids look to their parents, players look to their coaches, and people look to their organizational leaders for vision and direction. While these leaders should involve experienced people in shaping direction, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated to others
Once people are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to a service mindset for the task of implementation—the second aspect of servant leadership. The question now is: How do we live according to the vision and accomplish the established goals? Implementation is where the servant aspect of servant leadership comes into play.
When there is a conflict between what the customers want and what the boss wants, the boss wins. You have people quacking like ducks: “It’s our policy.” “I just work here.” “Would you like me to get my supervisor?” Servant leaders know how to correct this situation by philosophically turning the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down when it comes to implementation.
When you turn the organizational pyramid upside down, rather than your people being responsive to you, they become responsible—able to respond—and your job as the leader/manager is to be responsive to your people. This creates a very different environment for implementation. If you work for your people as servant leaders do, what is the purpose of being a manager? To help your people become eagles rather than ducks and soar above the crowd—accomplishing goals, solving problems, and living according to the vision.
The leadership aspect of servant leadership—is the responsibility of the traditional hierarchy. The servant aspect of servant leadership is all about turning the hierarchy upside down and helping everyone throughout the organization develop great relationships, get great results, and, eventually, delight their customers. That’s what servant leadership is all about.
One Question Every Servant Leader Should Ask
Am I willing implies that we are exercising volition—taking responsibility—rather than surfing along the waves of inertia that otherwise rule our day. We are asking “Do I really want to do this?” • At this time reminds us that we’re operating in the present. Circumstances will differ later on, demanding a different response. The only issue is what we’re facing now. • To make the investment required reminds us that responding to others is work—an expenditure of time, energy, and opportunity. And like any investment, our resources are finite. We are asking “Is this really the best use of my time?” • To make a positive difference places the emphasis on the kinder, gentler side of our nature. It’s a reminder that we can help create either a better us or a better world. If we’re not accomplishing one or the other, why are we getting involved?
On this topic focuses us on the matter at hand. We can’t solve every problem. The time we spend on topics where we can’t make a positive difference is stolen from topics where we can. Like closing our office door so people hesitate before they knock, asking ourselves “Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” gives us a thin barrier of breathing room—time enough to inhale, exhale, and reflect on whether the outcome we seek is a true positive that is intended for the benefit of others, or a false positive that is intended to polish our own image. For servant leaders who want to make serving others their primary mission, that’s a vital distinction.
Servant Leaders Celebrate Others
When you are deliberate about celebrating all of your team members, you will find that retention and productivity naturally increase. The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that 46 percent of employees who leave their jobs do it because they feel unappreciated. I believe one of the ways this statistic can be easily reversed is by leaders encouraging their people by celebrating their roles on the team.
In addition, people are more productive in positive surroundings. Celebration creates an environment where people want to work to meet the organization’s goals. Simply stated, what gets celebrated gets done! The more you affirm your team, the more productive they are. A servant leader who is intentional about celebrating will have a happy, hardworking team.
Celebration also serves as a great recruiting tool for your organization. When a recruit witnesses the ways we celebrate wins together as a team, they are eager to be a part of what’s happening here. Celebration is attractive partly due to its rarity in many organizations. In contrast, servant leaders always prioritize celebration.
The Servant Leader’s Focus
What distinguishes true servant leaders and makes them so precious to us is not that they do things for us—although they do. No, we are grateful to them because we know that they see and value us.
At times, we might be tempted to congratulate ourselves for all the good we do for others—for all the service we render. Perhaps you have too often been this counterfeit kind of servant leader—the person who wants to be noticed, seen, appreciated, and thanked. This is why it is almost an overpowering experience to be in the presence of someone who is devoid of such self-concern, and whose efforts truly are for the good of others. What a blessing it is to know them, and to be known by them.
For a servant leader, their service is not the point. Their actions are merely the behavioral extensions of their caring. They have learned to speak Becky and Jacob and David and Randy—and to speak those languages with an outward mindset. It is worth asking: If we would serve, whose languages do we still need to learn?
What You See Determines How You Serve
Every day we have to choose to see people the way God does. Too many of us wait for our feelings to lead, and then if we feel compassion, sympathy, or obligation toward someone, our action will follow. Too often we view love as a feeling. But love is intentionally caring or helping another person by doing something regardless of our feelings. Real servant leaders make choices about people first, and then the feelings follow. The Good Samaritan didn’t necessarily feel like interrupting his travel plans or spending his hard-earned money on a complete stranger. He simply saw someone in need and he made a choice.
What you see when you look at someone determines how you serve. Many of us say we want to love others—but we see, feel, and move on. Servant leaders remember that someone with a chip on their shoulder may have scars on their back—so their approach is not judgment but loving action. Servant leaders serve people differently because they see people differently.
Compassion: The Heart of Servant Leadership
What is compassion to the servant leader? Compassion is not just a feeling; it’s an action. It’s allowing the emotion we feel to ignite the fire within to act—and to inspire others to act as well. To meet someone’s need. To offer our help. To set an example for others. To do what Jesus did. To love how Jesus loved. To lead as Jesus led.
The Bible usually uses the Greek word splagchnizomai (splahgkh-NEED-zum-eye) to describe the kind of compassion we see in Jesus’s life. Splagchnizomai means “to have deep sympathy”—literally a yearning in the bowels—to do something for someone else. Not surprisingly, every time we’re told in Scripture that Jesus felt splagchnizomai, His compassion was immediately followed by action.
After the death of John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (Matt. 14:13), but the crowds followed Him. So what did He do? “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, He had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matt. 14:14). In Mark’s account of this same event, Jesus feels compassion “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” so He began teaching them (Mark 6:34). Moved by their need, He immediately began healing and teaching the people.
How to Spot Ideal Team Players
The three virtues seem quite simple, but require a bit of explanation:
Humble. The first and most important virtue of an ideal team player is humility. A humble person is someone who is more concerned with the success of the team than with getting credit for their own contribution. People who lack humility in a significant way—the ones who demand a disproportionate amount of attention—are dangerous for a team. Having said that, humble team players are not afraid to honestly acknowledge the skills and talents that they bring to the team, though never in a proud or boastful way.
Hungry. The next virtue of an ideal team player is hunger—the desire to work hard and do whatever is necessary to help the team succeed. Hungry people almost never have to be pushed by a manager to work harder because they are self-motivated and diligent. They volunteer to fill gaps and take on more responsibilities, and are eagerly looking around corners for new ways to contribute to the team.
Smart. The final virtue of a team player is to be smart. This is not about being intelligent, but rather about being wise in dealing with people. Smart people understand the nuances of team dynamics and know how their words and actions impact others. Their good judgment and intuition help them deal with others in the most effective way.
The impact of ensuring that members of a team value and demonstrate humility, hunger, and people smarts cannot be overstated. Most teams that struggle are not lacking in knowledge or competence as much as they are unable to access that knowledge and competence because of dysfunctional behaviors. A team full of people who are humble, hungry, and smart will overcome those dysfunctions quickly and easily, allowing them to get more done in less time and with far fewer distractions.