9 Ways To Be A Better Servant Leader
First, let’s start with — what is “servant leadership” anyway?
Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” Robert K. Greenleaf
I first learned about servant leadership in high school. My leadership advisor introduced us to the concept. Later that year our principal came in to share how he chose to educate and lead with servant leadership and challenged us to do the same. One of the pieces of our final exam asked us to identify ways in which we practiced servant leadership and what we could do to improve. Hence, the idea behind this post— how do we practice servant leadership now and how can we be better?
Although I feel as if I try to live by this mantra of servant leadership, thinking of concrete examples proved to be difficult. The topic of servant leadership feels so ambiguous that it was challenging to focus in on the small, yet powerful, choices we get to make as leaders.
As a manager at a small, but busy, restaurant I find myself in the position to lead others consistently. The title that I hold allows me to force through delegation and authority, yet even writing that sentence feels wrong. The hierarchical leadership style is not one I enjoy practicing, so I try to be conscious about using servant leadership instead. I find ways to show our employees that I care and I make sure their needs are met before my own. One simple way I show this is by always asking if they want to take their lunch before I will ever take mine. As with most people, if they get hungry, they don’t perform as well and I want them to feel happy and comfortable while on the job. Although this small choice often goes unnoticed, the intention behind it has started to shine through; employees are realizing that I care about their needs and am actively trying to serve them first.
I started asking people around me how they use servant leadership themselves. I was inspired by their answers and loved that, regardless of what profession they were in, they could still find ways to serve, and to “serve first”. So, with the help of many great friends, I have compiled a list of Nine Ways to be a Better Servant Leader.
*For the sake of the servant leaders mentioned, all names have been changed.
- Facilitate others, but do not do it for them
Russell is a parent of a highschool student and a university professor in mechanical engineering. He finds there is a fine line between using servant leadership as a parent while also not allowing his daughter to demand special treatment, specifically on school assignments. He used an example about a recent project in which she needed to use power tools. Russell facilitated the set-up and discussed how to safely operate such tools but when it was time to actually use them, his daughter did it wholly by herself. He chooses to use servant leadership to “reinforce confidence and empowerment” in his daughter. Russell took the time to help her get started and created the space for her to be able to learn and understand on her own.
- Listen with genuine care
Keisha is a retired educator who spends her time substitute teaching, travelling, and volunteering in the community. She tells me that everywhere she goes people open up to her about their lives. She’s often in awe of how much people will even tell her in the grocery store lines! I’m not so surprised though. Keisha is an active and genuine listener. She will focus solely on the conversation at hand without trying to think of her own response. People feel cared for, even if Keisha doesn’t have much to say in response, simply because they have been heard and acknowledged. Quite often, that’s enough. Robert Greenleaf has identified 10 Principles of Servant Leadership, and “Listening” is listed as the first one. I often find that leaders are great at talking, but aren’t as good of listeners. Servant leaders take the time to actively listen and do so with genuine care.
- Ask questions first
Elias is the primary developer in programming projects and although he admits he has faltered at times, he is continually striving to be a better servant leader. He said “understanding that not everyone grows and learns at the same pace is important” and acknowledged how tasks that are easy for him could be difficult for another team member. To better understand his teammates, Elias starts by asking questions. This does three things — it gives his team members the chance to report their stance on the task, it helps them know that he is not trivializing the situation, and finally it opens up an honest discussion. After the two of them set off to solve the task at hand, Elias will continue to ask questions to help facilitate a way to find an answer, without simply doing the task for them (notice the similarities between Russell and Elias?). That way, in the future, his teammates will be able to solve similar tasks on their own and will feel empowered by doing so.
- Recognize all jobs are important
Alex is an Assistant Account Executive in one of the biggest advertising agencies in the United States and is based out of New York City. She recently graduated from college and is in her first “big girl job”. Alex has relayed to me that there is often a “figure it out yourself” kind of attitude in the Big Apple. She rejects the adoption of that attitude and relies on her servant leadership background to continue to serve others first.
During a product photoshoot, Alex was responsible for checking on the photographer, keeping the texture stylist on a track with time, helping the equipment managers with their appliances, and communicating with the leadership team of their client to keep everything running smoothly. She had a moment of down-time and jumped in to help the catering company set up the food and drinks for breakfast and lunch. Her boss told her that the catering company was paid to do that and that she didn’t need to help, but she felt that part of her contribution needed to be “sharing a relationship” with people outside of her team. Alex realizes that all jobs are important and necessary to achieve the final outcome. Choosing to help the catering company with their set-up shows her stance on what leadership means and hopefully shows others that the “figure it out yourself” attitude doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes.
- Be consistent
Arram is a Youth Group Leader and talks about how he goes from being a stranger to the youth at his church to a good friend, mentor, and leader. Arram takes the time to develop relationships with his youth group members by learning their stories, their family life, and by being consistent. Arram is there with those kids every Sunday and almost every Tuesday of the year. They know that they can depend on him, not only because they trust him to care about their stories and their lives, but because he has proven himself to be reliable. As a servant leader, Arram knows the importance of staying consistent. One of Greenleaf’s 10 principles of servant leadership is the “Commitment to the Growth of People”. Arram’s consistency with his youth group shows his commitment to those kids and their growth.
- Remember what people tell you
Vivian is a hairdresser with a busy schedule and a large clientele. She tells me that the clients she sees frequently often pick up their conversation where they left off because Vivian can easily remember what their last conversation was about. The clients that she sees less frequently go so far between appointments that it made it difficult to ask them about the important things in their lives. She wanted all of her clients to feel important, so she started to write down bullet points of what they had last talked about. Vivian is not only committed to building her clientele and forming true and strong relationships with each client, but is also committed to being a servant leader. Vivian strives to remember even the littlest details about her clients so that when they come to her it’s not only about making their hair look great, it’s about creating a space to have an honest and, oftentimes, vulnerable conversation with someone who cares to listen (notice the similarities between Keisha and Vivian?).
- Seniority should not mean priority
Ricardo is an event director in warehouse sales and is one of two managers that must be present at every company event. Even though the two managers are equals, Ricardo always asks his co-manager what days he wants off before he determines his own. When I go into a high school, I often see the seniors take priority, whether that’s for a pizza party in their classroom, getting supplies, or being released for assemblies. I think it would be good to switch it up to show that simply because someone has seniority does not mean they should always take precedence. The upperclassmen should also be able to let the freshmen and sophomores go ahead of them so that they are practicing servant leadership in a similar way to Ricardo.
- Don’t do it for recognition
Angela is the daughter of Russell who is mentioned above. Angela is in high school and seems to be one of the “cool kids”. Her “cool kid” status doesn’t make her a jerk though — a stereotype that we typically see in the media. Everyday after the lunch period ends she walks outside to pick up trash left behind from other students. The dean of her school eventually took notice and emailed her parents to let them know that their daughter was consistently treating her school with care and pride and that this action was not going unnoticed. Her parents just got that email a few months ago, but she has been picking up trash everyday for more than a year. Angela was being a servant leader on her campus by, not only, picking up the trash, but by not expecting acknowledgement. She was doing the right thing because she knew it was the right thing, and not for any other reason.
- Create connections
I have only known Lupe for a few months now, yet in this short amount of time I have come to the conclusion that she is one of the best people I know at making friends, keeping friends, and then connecting friends. Another one of the 10 Principles of Servant Leadership is “Building Community” and Lupe does this so naturally by identifying how seemingly different people can relate. As a servant leader, Lupe is intentional about trying to create connections. She may introduce two people by their names, but then will add a tidbit of information about each person so the two can spur their own conversation. It seems very simple, yet it doesn’t come naturally for me, nor many others. Lupe continues to lead others through service and has created an incredible network of “genuine souls” through her servant leadership style of making and connecting friends.
Okay — don’t be overwhelmed!
These are nine ways that people in my life have committed to being servant leaders; some of them may seem simple and some may take more practice. I encourage those searching to be a better servant leader to start by simply being intentional. Be intentional about trying to remember names and what people tell you. Be intentional about trying to create connections between others. Be intentional about doing what is right for the sake of doing what is right rather than for the sake of acknowledgement. Choose one of the nine that seems the easiest for you to try and be intentional about practicing it for the next three or four days. After you feel accomplished, choose another one of the nine that seems more daunting to you. Create small goals for yourself because becoming a better servant leader won’t happen overnight. It is a process that never ceases and is something that I am constantly reflecting on so I can be better too. There is always room for growth, whether that be as a manager, a hairdresser, a program director, a student, parent, educator, or servant leader.
Good luck and have fun!
*Meet the Author*
Lindsay is free-spirited but prepared. She is going to grad school in the fall for school psychology and loves working with youth. When she’s not studying or working you can often catch her getting tangled up in aerial silks, doing acro yoga, or dancing.