The Mind of a Servant Leader
What sets them apart, what makes them effective
SERVANT LEADERS THINK differently from conventional authority figures. Their actions on a day-to-day basis may not look that different from others. Look closer and dig into why they do what they do, and you’ll see a sharp distinction in values, philosophies, and motives.
For followers there is a dramatic difference in their resulting experience. There are few things more enjoyable or stimulating than working with and behind an effective servant leader. That’s when a job has a chance to be a truly great job.
In my last two articles I addressed the situational nature of leadership, that you must match your style to the challenge. Most important is that you must apply Authoritative Leadership to bring a group from chaos to order, but Servant Leadership is how to lead that ordered group to creativity. Being a “servant” does not mean that you will do anything anyone asks you to do or work on a regular basis beneath your role and ability. The owner of a restaurant might pick up a broom on a given occasion, but that doesn’t make him the janitor. It’s an exception.
A glimpse of character
Taking that illustration a bit further, here’s another important point. Let’s say the CEO of a company did pick up a broom and a dustpan. How would people react? I think if an average employee came around a corner to see their company’s leader doing a menial task like that, they might be understandably surprised.
But if that CEO is a genuine servant leader, the employee upon reflection would realize something else: Yes, this is a bit unusual. But on another level it isn’t. It’s just an extension of what he does all the time: Whatever is required to serve the good of the company and its people. Servant leadership is not something you turn on and off. It is who you are.
The mindset of servant leaders
Whether you lead a large organization or a small team, the mindset of a servant leader is basically the same. Here are seven characteristics of how servant leaders think.
1. Servant leaders serve something greater than themselves
In Good to Great, Jim Collins explored the reasons behind some companies’ greatness. He identified five levels of leadership, and which type leads to exceptional organizations. They were forced by the facts to recognize that great companies are led by “Level 5 Executives.”
These proved not to be the flamboyant celebrity-type leaders, but tended to be unassuming, personally humble people. A Level 5 leader, they found, “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”
Servant leaders are in pursuit of something greater than themselves. In Great by Choice, Collins expands on his earlier study, and describes the most successful leaders this way:
“They didn’t define themselves by money. They didn’t define themselves by fame. They didn’t define themselves by power. They defined themselves by impact and contribution and purpose.”
People around them sense the genuineness of leaders like that and buy in to it.
2. Servant leaders view the development and protection of a healthy culture as a top priority
Culture is the best predictor of future performance. Every group has a culture: the question is not If? but What kind? Is it based on defined values or driven by personalities? Is it healthy or toxic? Motivating or demotivating?
Cultures can be formed accidentally like a sand dune, or by design like a building. Wise servant leaders know that their group’s culture cannot be left to be formed by chance, but deliberately build it according to a blueprint based on defined values and philosophies. They also know that healthy cultures are vulnerable and fragile, and must be protected to endure. Corporate culture is the atmosphere of an organization, like the air people breathe daily. A servant leader is dedicated to “climate control”; that is, protecting a healthy, values- and performance-based culture.
3. Servant leaders know they cannot do it alone, and view success as a team effort
Some conventional leaders like to be in the position of “a genius with a thousand helpers.” Servant leaders do not possess that delusion. They know their human limitations and believe in the power of a diverse group of talented people.
Servant leaders tend to be comfortably confident of their own strengths and aware of their limitations and weaknesses. Since their egos are not the main thing, they are also comfortable with other strong leaders around them. They don’t mind sharing credit for successes, and are not threatened when challenged, knowing that the organization is safer for having multiple people with the freedom and courage to speak up.
4. Servant leaders view themselves as being in the “people-development business”
Since the success of the organization rests upon the quality and performance of the whole team, servant leaders devote significant time and effort to developing people, and to channeling organizational resources to people-development processes and opportunities.
A CEO exemplified this attitude when he said, “It’s my job to build the people who are going to build the company.”
On the personal side: This means the servant leader embraces the role of teacher, trainer, coach, and helper. This is not hand-holding the unmotivated, but a people focus in concert with steady pressure to achieve higher levels of performance.
On the organizational side: Having been involved in people- and leadership-development processes for several organizations, I can say that without commitment from the top, they fall flat. The top leader’s attitude and commitment toward leadership development (or lack thereof) will flow down the ranks of the company. Servant leaders make that commitment.
5. Servant leaders ensure their people have what they need to perform
One of the most important roles of servant leaders is removing obstacles and hindrances so that people can do their jobs. They are also diligent to provide the resources, tools, and training people need to perform at their best.
Servant leaders know that many supposed “people problems” are really system problems, especially those that recur. Rather than displaying knee-jerk reactions to things going wrong, they have the patience and diligence to find out why. They look behind problems to ferret out dysfunctional pockets of the organization, and then fix those systems. They aren’t concerned with discovering and punishing those at fault so much as identifying and fixing the problems.
6. Servant leaders remember their role as captain
The pursuit of effectiveness for the leader of a group means remembering that only he or she can be the captain. If the captain is down in the engine room for very long messing around with the engine, who is guiding the ship? The captain can delegate efficiency all the way through the ship, but leaders must be responsible for their own effectiveness. Like a ship’s captain, the chief leader is responsible for the effectiveness of the entire group.
This means in practice that servant leaders aren’t trying to be everywhere doing everything. They remain “on the bridge” and allow other leaders and contributors to do their jobs. They are more interested in equipping and empowering others to take increasingly greater roles and responsibilities in pursuit of the team’s success.
7. Servant leaders are intentionally available to their people
After insufficient communication, the biggest complaint I hear in companies is the difficulty people have getting their leader’s attention. People need clear focus. They need to ask questions. They need their leader’s sign-off to execute on projects. They need their leader’s feedback on how they’re doing. Their leaders are elusive moving targets.
The best leaders I know put time on their calendars for unhurried discussions with their teams. They know time for their direct reports and others are not “interruptions” – it’s what they do in their leadership roles.
Servant leaders aren’t trying to be omnicompetent geniuses or command-and-control puppeteers. Their role is more like the conductor of an orchestra, guiding, teaching, and training a diverse group of musicians to play together according to their vision of the piece.
Being a servant leader can be quite challenging, but it is extremely rewarding. Li