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Do You Have What It Takes to Become a Servant Leader?

6 min read
Aug 7, 2020

Are you a leader? Do you want to become one in the future? Becoming a leader is a process. Once you begin your journey, you’ll see that it takes constant learning to stay on top of your game and lead your team successfully. Recently, I described seven different leadership styles and their characteristics. Later on, I thought that article didn’t do them justice and decided to cover those leadership styles in detail. Despite many differences, most of them also have a few things in common. Among those styles, servant leadership stands out from the rest. 

Journey to the East

To learn more about modern servant leadership, we need to go back in time to 1970. Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of the modern servant leadership movement and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, coined the term in his essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Larry Spears, President and CEO of the Larry C. Spears Center for Servant-Leadership, revealed that what inspired Greenleaf to coin the term “servant-leader” was a 1932 book by Hermann Karl Hesse, “Journey to the East.”

In the novel, the League, a religious sect, sets on a pilgrimage to the East to find the ultimate truth. It’s all fun until the main protagonist, Leo, known as a simple servant, disappears one day. A group that was successfully moving forward with their quest suddenly starts to fall apart and struggle with reaching their end goal. The League finally realizes that Leo held the whole group together and moved the journey forward. He was their leader. 

What’s servant leadership?

Servant leadership turns leadership upside down. Those who decide to lead according to this style serve the people instead of people working to serve the leader. 

A servant’s primary goal is to make team members feel that they’ll do their best to help them succeed. They lead with empathy and bond with their teams. Usually, they’re responsible for building a company culture that makes people feel good about working in a particular place. They also never put themselves ahead of their people. 

The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership defines servant leadership as, “A philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.”

According to Greenleaf’s essay, a servant leader is a servant first. This means that their main focus is to serve, i.e., help people grow before anything else. Then, if they feel like it, they pursue their desire to lead by serving their team members. Robert K.Greenleaf argued that leader-first and servant-first types fall on the opposite of the spectrum. He believed that servants need to continually ask themselves crucial questions like, “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Greenleaf concludes that the growth and well-being of the team members is the main focus of a servant leader. A team led by a servant should work like an inverted pyramid. Instead of accumulating the power at the top, a servant leader empowers their team members by pushing them higher and putting their needs first.

Characteristics of a servant leader

According to Greenleaf, an essential characteristic of a servant leader is to prioritize serving over leading. Leadership will come naturally, as a consequence, as long as one desires to be a leader. It’s all about putting a team's well-being in front of our individual needs and being unselfish. Pat Falotico, CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, says, "If you have selfish motivations, then you are not going to be a good servant leader. It has to be less about you."

Larry Spear distinguishes ten characteristics of a servant leader. They are empathy, listening, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. 

1. Listening

To serve people well, you need to learn to listen to them. Give them your full attention and understand what exactly they’re saying. Let them speak their minds and don’t interrupt them until they finish what they have to say. After that, let them know what you think, and provide feedback that’ll help them grow.

2. Empathy

Put yourself in their shoes, and try to understand their intentions. You’ll only be able to help them effectively if you do your best to see things from their point of view. 

3. Healing

Provide a healthy work environment. Give people the space to do their work, and make sure they maintain a healthy work-life balance. On top of that, healing can also relate to helping your new team members cope with any difficulties they experienced in their previous jobs. 

4. Self-awareness

While you should put your team ahead of yourself, don’t forget to take a step back and look at yourself and how you perform as a servant. Summarize what you’re doing well and what you can improve on in the future. Rethink your behavior, and try to find ways to increase the productivity of your team. 

5. Persuasion

Instead of using psychological tricks to make your team do their work, try to persuade them with day-to-day support that builds trust. When they see that your methods are continually working, it’ll be easier to motivate them to do their work.

6. Conceptualization

Think bigger. Stretch your thinking to encompass a broader perspective, and help your team understand your vision. They need to feel that outside of their daily, routine tasks, they’re also working towards a greater goal.

7. Foresight

Understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and be aware of the potential consequences of future decisions. This will help your team better understand your actions and hop on board with your ideas. 

8. Stewardship

Take responsibility for the actions of you and your team. Lead by example, and demonstrate what you expect from your team. They need to know the direction your team is going, and you need to react if they’re not aligned with that vision. 

9. Commitment to the growth of people

This one is as simple as it gets. Servant leaders put a strong emphasis on the development of their team members. Nurture their professional and personal growth. Talk with your finance team to set aside funds to provide your team with a budget for workshops, conferences, or anything else they need to grow.

10. Building community

Try to mold your team into something more than just a bunch of people who work towards a specific goal and have nothing in common outside of that. The bigger your team, the more difficult it’s going to be, but try to organize a barbecue or grab a beer on a Friday afternoon to start building relationships outside of work.

In his book, “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t,” Simon Sinek says, “Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.” That’s what defines servant leadership. If you want to become a leader because you want to help other people grow and not just feel the power of being at the helm, these are the rules you should live by.

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