A lot has been said about the leader as “servant”. I expect, given that it is a relatively young term (having been ‘born’ in 1970), it is also subject to wide interpretation. As such, while some people will experience great results from their efforts to serve, others will consider it a fad that will go away if they ignore it. Still others will make every effort to embrace the notion of the Servant Leader but find themselves exhausted, confused and possibly resentful because people seem to be walking all over them.
So what to do?
Well, first I’m thinking that we need some clarity about what it means to serve or be a servant. So I looked it up in a number of dictionaries and found this:
“Servant leaders are humble stewards of their organizations’ resources.”
“A Servant is one who serves another, providing help in some manner.”
“A servant is a person who performs duties for others”.
So far so good.
Then I went to the Thesaurus for some synonyms for the word servant. Between the words attendant and steward lay these words, lackey, flunky, minion and drudge. Okay then, herein may lie a problem.
Perhaps it is that many of us, when we think of the term Servant Leadership, take this subservient perspective (a.k.a. lackey, flunky, minion and drudge). In other words, it suggests that by serving, we are also submitting to the whims of others for no other reason than to render them superior. And, let’s face it, our egos are going to have a hard time with that. So, if you have been leaning in that direction when you think about the notion of Servant Leadership, I have some good news for you. I don’t think it’s about that at all.
Here’s what I do believe it’s about. It’s about…
knowing the Over-arching purpose I believe a good servant leader will focus on an over-arching purpose. This purpose becomes the master and the guide for all activities undertaken within the framework of the company. The leader serves the purpose through people. For instance, Southwest airlines’ over-arching purpose is stated as: “To provide the best service and lowest fares to the short haul, frequent-flying, point-to-point, non-interlining traveler.” This simple statement lets everyone know why Southwest Airlines is in business and whom it is there to serve.
However, in order to succeed, this understanding of service must permeate the organization and so it also becomes the role of the leader to:
Serve the people who are working to fulfill the over-arching purpose. This means providing the resources needed for people to do their jobs well and happily. It includes delivering needed training, supplies, connections, information, accommodation, direction and anything else that allows people working in the company to move the organization closer to the achievement of its purpose.
Encourage and develop an environment where people serve each other. Where we can go wrong with this servant leadership thing is that we fail to expect all people working in the organization to serve too. Or, we simply don’t convey it very well.
Those who believe servant leadership to be a role only for the designated leader would be wrong. In truth, an environment that embraces service will do so in an all-encompassing way. This means that regardless of title or position, each person will both lead and serve another, or a group of others, to achieve company goals and make a contribution to the achievement of its purpose.
So, having said all that, what does it actually take to create this environment where service is king? Well, for what it’s worth, this is what I think about that.
It takes Discipline: Staying focused on the over-arching purpose and using it, as a guide for providing service to others is not easy. As humans, we can become easily distracted. It may be easy to stay the course and remain true to the purpose when times are good. But, when they are not so good, it becomes tempting to stray and do what is expedient instead.
It takes Humility: Putting others before ourselves is sometimes a challenge, especially in business, but humility is an essential ingredient in a successful service environment. I’m not talking about being obsequious here. I’m talking about simply being unselfish and mindful of others’ needs and contributions.
It takes Collaboration: Simply put, in order to serve the purpose and each other, we have to learn to work together, avoid internal politics and protectionism and share our ideas and resources with each other more freely.
It takes Trust: Trust is often an earned thing. However, a leader who serves the people will, in my view anyway, start from a platform of trust rather than skepticism. In my experience, people respond well to a leader who conveys faith in their intent. People who feel trusted are more likely to be willing to serve the over-arching purpose. Will you be disappointed? Yep, from time to time you will. But, if you start out not trusting my hunch is you’re going to be disappointed anyway.
It takes Faith: I’m not talking about the religious kind of faith here. I’m talking about the kind of faith that makes you believe so strongly in your company’s purpose and its people that all of your activities centre around them and the financial results that you realize from that come as a by-product of your collective effort.
So, is servant leadership for the faint of heart? I’d say no. Is it about subservience, or slavery? Certainly not.
That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?
*Note: this post was originally published in 2010.