What is Servant-Leadership?
Richard Greenleaf is credited with the popular definition for servant-leader, when he wrote in 1970:
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
The roots of servant-leadership extend back much further. Confucius said, “A benevolent man helps others to establish what he himself wishes to establish and also helps others achieving what he wishes to achieve. If one is capable of treating others as one would be treated oneself, this is the best way to be benevolent.” Some scholars are applying the words of Confucius about humility to leadership practices. The humble leader is one who can listen and learn from the people around her, and benefit from their insight.
Why is Servant-Leadership Important?
When we practice servant-leadership, leaders benefit from the insights their teams provide, while the teams are able to trust and collaborate with each other for the best possible outcomes. Leadership expert Simon Sinek explains in his 2014 TED talk that when leaders make their teams feel secure, those teams can be more productive. The teammates can trust each other and work together more effectively if they aren’t spending energy on protecting themselves from real or imagined reprisals. When we feel secure in our place on our teams, we can do our best work together. As servant-leaders, we can easily set aside our personal concerns for our teammates, because we know they would do the same for us.
How Can We Be Servant-Leaders?
Anyone at any level of the organization can be a servant-leader. Being in a position of authority isn’t required. Like any new behavior, it will take practice for us to make servant-leadership a habit. On a personal level, we can practice our servant-leadership skills by helping others with tricky challenges. We can mentor others through formal or informal mentorship programs. We can take on a mundane task that needs to be done so someone else can stay focused on their work, whether it’s taking notes in a meeting or cleaning up the spilled coffee in the break room. On a project level, we can practice our servant-leadership skills by assisting teammates to improve their craft. We can promote their great ideas to the rest of the team (and give them credit). We can remind each other of the client needs that drive our work. On an organizational level, consulting companies can be the servant-leader for their clients. We can listen to the client’s needs in the sales pursuit process. We can structure projects to grow their capabilities and mature their systems. We can build solutions to move them forward to reach their business goals.