The power of servant leadership

Leadership  Relationships
23 February, 2015

This influential philosophy finds supporters from across cultures and millennia - from Chanakya and Jesus, to the US Marine Corps

Several months ago, I had shared a video of renowned ethnographer and leadership expert, Simon Sinek, talking about his book, Leaders Eat Last, in which he explores the dynamics that inspire leadership and trust. (If you haven’t already watched it, you can do so at)

In his talk, Simon uses an example from the US Marine Corps to explain the importance of why leaders should be focused on their people. He says that when the Marines gather to eat, the soldiers who are the most junior are served first, while the most senior officers are served last. There are no apparent orders given for this – the Marines instinctively do it this way. The leaders are expected to eat last simply because they must place the needs of their soldiers over their own, in everything that they do. As they see it, the soldiers are entrusted in the care of their leaders. And so, it is for these leaders to care for them in every possible way.

This idea of leaders placing the needs of others over their own self-interest is rooted in a powerful philosophy called ‘The Servant Leader’. Drawing from this, in my message today, I want to focus on why we must commit to SERVING our team members – and how this will help us become better leaders and build happier, more fulfilled teams and a stronger company.

Where does this idea come from?

The term ‘Servant Leader’ was coined in 1970 by an ex AT&T employee and ‘seeker’ (as he called himself), Robert Greenleaf, who wrote three seminal publications that explored this idea – The Servant as Leader, The Institution as Servant and Trustees as Servants. This concept has, however, existed for generations, across cultures. In the 4th century BC, Indian philosopher, Chanakya, wrote in his book Arthashastra: “… the king (leader) shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects (followers); the king (leader) is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.” In the New Testament, Book of Mathew, Jesus Christ is quoted as saying,“…anyone wanting to be a leader among you must first be the servant… if you choose to lead, you must serve”.

The apparent paradox

For some of us, on the surface, the idea of leaders being servants could be a bit of a paradox. The general perception of servants is that they tend to be docile. Leaders are meant to be heroes; they are supposed to exude power. So, this seems to turn the traditional perception on its head.

But you need to remember that there are two sides to this idea – the servant and the leader – and you are expected to play both roles.

As leaders, we are expected to be tough in terms of laying out the direction for our company. We need to be rigorous in terms of defining values, setting accountabilities, and demanding the highest standards of performance. But once we have defined the direction, our roles should be centred around serving our team members – understanding their needs and enabling them to become their best so that they can accomplish the desired objectives that we have set.

That is the essence of being a servant leader.

In fact, if you think about it, our core philosophy of TOUGH LOVE is very rooted in the servant-leader principle. We expect our leaders to be tough in terms of performance and raising the bar. At the same time, we expect a nurturing and supportive environment, with unparalleled learning.

Leadership as a responsibility

My guess is that you have not really thought of leadership as a responsibility. In fact, very often, we get distracted – we fall into the trappings of power, get more concerned with how many people report to us and protect our turfs – and as a result, approach things from an individual lens. Our personal egos take over, So, we end up being self serving rather than serving our company.

The reality is that on our own, we are nothing. Our entire ability to be successful is dependent on our teams. We look only as good as our teams.

Not just that, we don’t often realize this – but we actually have a tremendous impact on other people. Your team members will most likely spend more waking hours with you and the rest of their team, than they would with their families or friends. And they are entrusting their careers to you. Implicit in this trust is a responsibility that you need to carry, to take care of your team. So, you have to ask yourself – will your team members grow and develop as a result of your influence? Will they become better individuals as a result of the time that they spend with you?

As Greenleaf wrote, “[Servant Leadership] begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant – first to make sure that other people’s highest-priority needs are being served. The best test and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”.

Remember that using the “boss” card will only work to a certain point. There is a great quote from Bob Nelson, the comedian – “You get the best efforts from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within them”. The KITA (Kick In The Ass) approach only works once in a while. Your team may do as you say, but unless their minds and hearts are fully in the game, they won’t give their best. And they not going to do this until they know that you truly care for them – you have to learn how to instill a sense of purpose and meaning, appreciate them, take time to listen, demand excellence, lend a helping hand and be trusting.

So, what does it take to be a servant leader?

You have to recognise that your role is to serve your team members. You will only grow if your team members grow. And you have to be committed to it.

In a great book, The Seven Principles of Servant Leadership, James Sipe and Dan Frick lay out 7 pillars that define a servant leader:

1. Person of Character

Makes insightful, ethical and principle centred decisions. Is honest, trustworthy, authentic and humble. Leads by conscience, not by ego. Is committed to the desire to serve something beyond oneself.

2. Puts People First

Seeks first to serve; then aspires to lead. Serves in a manner that allows those served to grow as a person. Expresses genuine care and concern for others.

3. Skilled Communicator

Seeks first to understand; then to be understood. Listens earnestly and speaks effectively. Influences others with assertiveness and persuasion, rather than power and position.

4. Compassionate Collaborator

Invites and rewards the contributions of others. Builds caring and collaborative teams. Relates well to people of diverse backgrounds and values individual differences.

5. Foresight

Articulates and inspires a shared vision. Is a discerning, decisive and courageous decision maker.

6. Systems Thinker

Thinks and acts strategically. Manages change effectively. Balances the whole with the sum of its parts.

7. Moral Authority

Inspires trust and confidence. Empowers others with responsibility and authority. Establishes and enforces quality standards for performance.

Reflect on these seven traits. Which ones are living up to your satisfaction? Which ones are you falling short on? Go back and relook at your 360 feedback. What insights can you get from the feedback?

While the servant-leadership principles sound simple in theory, this is something that you have keep at it. While reading this list is nice (for those of you who have taken the trouble to read this entire piece, thank you), you have to put them to practice (as they say, no one learnt to be a good swimmer by reading a book). You need to set the highest standards for yourself, take feedback, learn and improve as you go.

I truly believe that if we can try to be good servant-leaders, we will be able to unleash the full potential of our great company. As always, I would greatly appreciate your perspectives.

P.S. If you are interested in learning more, this piece draws heavily from Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek, The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf, The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle by James Hunter, The Seven Principles of Servant Leadership by James Sipe and Dan Frick and the writings of Larry Spears.



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