Is servant leadership all that great?
By Jim Funk
In my years of working with executive teams, I’ve noticed a common expectation that good leaders must be able to do four main things:
- Empower people
- Inspire people
- Create a shared vision
- Lead change
Although virtually all organizations agree on these baseline expectations, many have set an even higher bar: being a servant leader.
This term can be a bit confusing because people typically think leaders are served by their reports rather than the other way around. So, who or what does a servant leader serve, and why?
When I ask this question in one of my workshops, a common response is that by being served, people have the support and resources they need from their leader to do the work of achieving results. They cite examples of the servant leader making sure that people and teams have the direction, supplies, time, and talent they need to get the job done. The servant leader ensures everything is in place to make the team successful.
While that is true, when I observe leaders who I would characterize as servant leaders, I see much more than making people and teams functional and successful. I see leaders who have a disposition of service to others, putting others first even at the risk of short-changing themselves. These service-oriented leaders not only make sure people have what they need, they take a personal interest in them and care about their well-being. They put others’ needs ahead of their own. They are willing to sacrifice, and to take less in order to give more.
So, what difference does servant leadership make? Isn’t it the responsibility of everyone to simply do their part, and to be accountable for their results without having to be served? Let me give a few examples of why servant leadership is not only good leadership, it makes a huge difference in what can be achieved.
- John Mundell is the owner of Mundell and Associates, an environmental consulting firm and Economy of Communion business. John took time and resources from his business to help start and support a non-profit, Project Lia, that gives women who are coming out of prison an opportunity to learn job skills so they can re-enter the workforce. Who or what is John serving: Individuals who are coming from a vulnerable situation, and arguably serving the community itself. The difference it makes: In all likelihood, these women will not commit crimes that would return them to prison. (Another re-entry program in Indiana has been able to reduce the 3-year recidivism rate in the state from the usual 36.1% down to 12.5%.) Instead they will become contributing members of society.
- Joe Pickard is the executive director of The PEERS Project, which trains and develops peer leaders in high school to share their experiences with middle school students about how to make good decisions and avoid risky behaviors. Although the program went through budget cuts that eliminated funding and positions, Joe took on extra work to keep the program going. Who or what is Joe serving: The peer leaders, the schools, the students, and the program itself. The difference it makes: Without Joe’s selfless commitment, the program would have folded long ago. Instead, the community will continue to benefit from a program that helps local youths.
- Loraine Brown was the interim vice president and chief mission officer for a major hospital system. Although the role was temporary, she chose to backfill her previous position to ensure things continued running smoothly in her absence. She did this at the risk of not having a position to go back to when her temporary assignment was completed. Who or what is Loraine serving: The people and hospital departments that need the services of her former position, and the mission of the organization. The difference it makes: Important services are provided, and the jobs of her other staff are preserved for as long as possible.
- Grant Marsh is the general manager of The Guild House, a creative American cuisine eatery in Columbus, Ohio. He gave one of his waitresses the week off so she could see her sister who was moving away, even though it was a busy time and all hands were needed on deck. Who or what is Grant serving: The personal needs of the individual and her family. The difference it makes: The waitress feels cared for as a person, and will likely be a loyal employee for years to come.
These may each seem like small things, but when the leader’s first thought is of others rather than of self, there is an impact that will be felt well beyond the immediate situation and people involved. In each of these examples, there is a positive ripple effect that extends to other people, to the broader organizations, and even to whole communities. Relationships are also built and strengthened through service to others, and loyalty is developed when people experience the care and concern of a leader who is in a position to make a difference in their lives and work.
Servant leadership is an important characteristic in the model of Holistic Leadership I have developed that places the person at the center. It is based on the principle that work not only provides income to people and profits for a company, but it gives meaning. People want to contribute to products and services that are good for consumers and communities.
How does a leader develop into a servant leader? Regardless of whether a leader is new in his or her role, or seasoned with many years of experience, there is always an opportunity to further develop the mind, heart and spirit of a servant. I say mind, heart and spirit because service is not only about taking outward actions, it is about the disposition of the person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Start with these fundamental questions:
- Do I think of others’ needs before my own?
- Am I willing to risk losing my own ideas in order to promote the ideas of others?
- Am I careful not to take credit for work that is done by my team, even though I am their leader?
- Do I have true care and compassion for the people I lead, and take an interest in matters that are meaningful to them?
- Do I look for ways I can help the people I lead rather than thinking of what they can do to make me look good?
These are starting points for reflection, but on a longer-term basis developing servant leadership requires genuine humility, love for people, and a desire to give rather than receive. I don’t know if any single workshop or book can develop the mind, heart and spirit of a servant in a leader, but an openness to feedback from others, and seeking a mentor who demonstrates servant leadership will go a long way. Give it a try. If you have ever worked for a true servant leader, as I have, you know it’s not only a good thing—it’s great for people, and great for business.
Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org