Am I here to serve or to be served?
‘Answering this question in a truthful way is so important. You can’t fake being a servant leader. I believe that if leaders don’t get the heart part right, they simply won’t ever become servant leaders.
Life is all about the choices we make as we interact with each other. We can choose to be self-serving or serving. I hope you consider the benefits of servant leadership—to your organization, your people, and yourself. Being a servant leader is not just another management technique. It is a way of life for those with servant hearts.’
A New Model For Leadership in Today’s World
When I first began to teach managers back in the late 1960s I met Robert K. Greenleaf, who was retiring as a top telecommunications executive. Because he coined the term servant leadership in 1970 and published on the concept for the next twenty years, Greenleaf is widely considered to be the founder of the modern servant leadership movement. To put it simply, servant leadership is about effective leaders and managers serving their people, not the other way around.
When people hear the phrase servant leadership, they are often confused. They picture the inmates running the prison, leaders trying to please everyone, or an approach used only by church leaders. They associate it with soft management because they think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two kinds of leadership involved in servant leadership: strategic and operational.
Strategic leadership has to do with vision and direction—the leadership aspect of servant leadership. The traditional pyramid hierarchy is effective for the strategic phase. Kids look to their parents, players look to their coaches, and people look to their organizational leaders for direction so that everyone is aligned and working together toward the same desired results. While leaders should involve experienced people in this stage of leadership, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated.
Once people are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to a service mindset when it comes to operational leadership, or implementation. This is where the servant aspect of servant leadership comes in. How do we live according to the vision and accomplish the established goals?
Many organizations and leaders get into trouble during the implementation phase. With self-serving leaders at the helm, the traditional hierarchical pyramid is kept alive and well. Bureaucracy rules, and policies and procedures carry the day. When that happens, who do people think they work for? The people above them. All of the organization’s energy moves up the hierarchy, away from the frontline workers who are closest to the customers. When there is a conflict between what customers want and what the boss wants, the boss wins. This creates unprepared, uncommitted customer contact people who are trying to protect themselves—and it leaves customers uncared for at the bottom of the hierarchy. This scenario doesn’t do much to move the organization in the desired direction toward accomplishment of a clear vision.
Servant leaders, on the other hand, feel their role is to help people achieve their goals. To do that, they theoretically turn the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down so that the people working directly with customers are at the top. Now those people are responsible—able to respond—to the needs of the customers. As a result, when it comes to implementation, servant leaders are responsive to their people’s needs, training and developing them to accomplish established goals and live according to the vision. These leaders have servant hearts and serve their people, who serve the customers. This change may seem minor—but it makes a major difference between who is responsible and who is responsive.
We Each Have an Opportunity to Serve
Sometimes when I’m leading a session for a big group of managers, I’ll ask, “How many of you think of yourself as a leader?” Usually only about a third of them raise their hands. Somehow they think the word leader is reserved for high-level positions like president or CEO.
Anytime someone tries to influence the thinking, beliefs, or development of another person, they are engaging in leadership. Of course there are traditional organizational leadership responsibilities that involve goals and objectives, but if you think beyond those confines, you’ll realize that everyone is a leader—you are a leader. Each of us has the ability to influence someone else, whether it is in the office, at home, or with friends.
When I ask people to tell me about someone who has had a positive influence on their life, they seldom mention a leader at work. They usually talk about parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, coaches, or teachers. The one characteristic common among all of these influencers? Their interest in helping another person develop. That’s a leader with a servant heart. True servant leadership is about serving and impacting people in a positive way—letting them know you truly care about them and want to help them be the best they can be.
Even if you don’t have a traditional leadership role right now, chances are that you have a significant role in the life of another person. Identify it, claim it, and recognize the effect your servant leadership can have on their life.
The Mirror Test
In his best-selling book Good to Great, Jim Collins sets up an interesting metaphor using a mirror in the corner office to explain the difference between servant leaders and self-serving leaders. When things go well for self-serving leaders, they look in the mirror, beat on their chest, and congratulate themselves on their great accomplishments. But when things go wrong, they look out the window to see who’s to blame for the failure. In contrast, when things go wrong for servant leaders, they look in the mirror and consider what they could have done differently. When things go well, they look out the window to see who they can praise. What kind of leader would you rather work for?
One Activity Critical to Servant Leadership: One-on-One Meetings
One of activities proven to make a profound change in not only company culture but also manager/employee relationships is when a servant leader makes time to speak to a direct report one on one. To some, the phrase “we need to talk” conjures up dread or fear. But a one-on-one conversation, done right, can improve relationships and job satisfaction for both parties. Our company’s research shows employees want to have more time with their leaders. We discovered gaps of up to 16 percent between how often people actually meet with their managers and how often they want to meet.
Several years ago my wife, Margie, was consulting a fast-food chain and learned its turnover rate was substantially lower than the national average. She asked the manager what he was doing to keep the rate so low. At first he said he didn’t think he was doing anything special, but further discussion revealed the answer: this manager made sure to take at least ten minutes every week to talk to each employee. These conversations weren’t about job performance; they were opportunities for the manager to simply check in with each employee to see how things were going with them.
After learning this, Margie talked to some of the staff. When she asked why they stayed, they all mentioned their manager and said they liked working for someone who cared about them. A few said they knew they could go to another fast-food restaurant and make a little more money, but they wanted to continue working for this manager. Why? Because he made time for each of them, which in turn made them each feel they were a respected member of the team.
Margie was so enthusiastic about this concept that she shared it with our leadership team and went on to develop a process for what we call One on Ones. Our process requires managers to meet individually with each of their direct reports for 15 to 30 minutes at least every two weeks. These meetings are not for the manager to talk about performance or for the employee to report on their progress—they are meant to enhance the relationship between manager and employee.
The leader schedules this meeting, but the direct report sets the agenda. It’s the employee’s chance to talk about their goals, share personal information, learn more about the company, ask for help with a problem, or anything else they want to discuss. These kinds of conversations allow managers and employees to get to know each other as human beings.
We’ve found in our research that when employees are not just allowed but encouraged to talk with their manager about the ups and downs of their everyday lives, relationships reach a new level of trust on both sides. And trusted working relationships improve performance at all levels. Spending dedicated time lets each employee know their work is important and that they are valued as a person. These conversations are the foundation for strong, productive relationships that align people with each other and with the work of the organization in a satisfying, meaningful way.
As a leader, you might be thinking I just can’t afford to spend time on more meetings. But I say you can’t afford not to make time for your people. If you can’t find a few hours a month to mentor and develop your people, leadership might not be the right role for you. One-on-one meetings deepen relationships, create loyalty, and build partnerships.
One Important Question for Leaders to Ask Themselves
Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of leaders. The best and most successful ones achieve results while acting with respect, care, and fairness for the well-being of everyone involved. Many companies put pressure on leaders to reach or surpass goals at any cost. But wise companies realize that leaders who can achieve results through serving their people and creating a motivating work environment are the leaders who will sustain future success.
Effective servant leadership begins on the inside, with your heart. Leading from your heart is about leadership character and intention—the foundation of servant leadership. Leaders with a servant heart believe their role is to bring out the best in others. They thrive on developing people and helping them achieve their goals.
Servant leaders are always trying to learn what their people need to perform well and to live according to the organization’s vision. Rather than wanting people to please their bosses, servant leaders want to make a difference in their employees’ lives as well as in their organizations. These leaders believe if they do a good job serving their employees and showing them they care about them, the employees will, in turn, practice that same philosophy with their customers. The customers, who will appreciate the caring service they receive, will come back for more and tell their friends.
If you are a leader wondering whether this process would work for you and your organization, begin by asking yourself one important question: Am I here to serve or to be served?
Answering this question in a truthful way is so important. You can’t fake being a servant leader. I believe that if leaders don’t get the heart part right, they simply won’t ever become servant leaders.
Life is all about the choices we make as we interact with each other. We can choose to be self-serving or serving. I hope you consider the benefits of servant leadership—to your organization, your people, and yourself. Being a servant leader is not just another management technique. It is a way of life for those with servant hearts.