“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu
At the conclusion of my first year working for my company, my boss and I were chatting about the year we had. Our work was winding down, and we reflected on the challenges we had overcome and what lie ahead next year. As far as I was concerned, I was fortunate to find a job I really liked and was excited about. I had never really considered “doing more” than just being an employee, but I did think it was important that my co-workers have what they needed. In fact, I came in to work early a couple of times to make sure water jugs were filled, and rotation sheets were prepared to ensure lunch breaks ran smoothly.
This was enough for me. I was fulfilled with my job and level of responsibility. That was until my boss ended our conversation with this “You should apply for that open leadership position. You’d do a good job because you really care about the other employees.”
That initial endorsement stuck with me and still does to this day. I didn’t appreciate that leadership can be viewed through the lens of serving others. I’m sure if you had asked me then, I would have been surprised to learn that I would go one to lead teams for nearly twenty years. My fundamental approach to leadership hasn’t changed much, although my appreciation and comprehension of what I was doing certainly has. Prioritizing follower needs and their related development is what Servant Leadership is all about (Northouse, 2019).
Peters (2010) expands on this idea further. Not only is it about addressing the needs of your team, Servant Leadership is the process of identifying and removing barriers that prevent your team from being successful. Northouse (2019) agrees, stating that this form of leadership is often characterized by leaders stopping
“his or her own tasks to assist followers with theirs” (p. 233). I would argue that assisting followers is the primary task.
In my most recent leadership role, I was asked to oversee a team of Food & Beverage professionals. The business model was built around 70 different locations, with different types of operations, including restaurants, concessions, franchises and third-party operators. I was phenomenally excited about this opportunity but woefully underqualified in the technical sense. I had never worked a day before in my life in a restaurant. But where I did find success and credibility was in my Servant Leadership approach. Among the characteristics that Spears and Lawrence (2002) identify as being synonymous with service-driven leaders, the ones that have been most useful for me are:
- Commitment To Growth Of People
Thankfully, these characteristics could be implemented without any knowledge of restaurants. When I first started the role, my goal was to listen as much as possible and understand what was going on in the operation before I arrived. I listened to the challenges, the missed opportunities, and the barriers that my team had faced. It was clear there were several things that needed to be addressed in order for the team to find success- among them, a lack of business intelligence, a lack of performance feedback, and an unclear path for growth.
Addressing these organizational impediments points becomes the basis for organizational healing (Song, 2018). Once these initial obstacles to organizational success had been discovered, it was clear that the way to help people grow and develop was to help them fix these problems. In doing so, it would simultaneously become clear how they could grow – my direct reports would repeat the process that I had started with them, with their teams. This is not unique to the team I was working with. Greenleaf (1970) predicts that when the principals of servant leadership are applied, followers are likely to adopt them as well in their leadership approach.
At the start of this blog, I quoted Lao Tzu, who perhaps also adopted the ideals of servant leadership himself. Whether it was ensuring my coworkers had water jugs filled on a hot day, or giving my direct reports a framework to grow and develop themselves and their teams, servant leadership comes naturally to someone who cares about their people.
Greenleaf, R.K. (1970). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Peters, T. (2010). Leadership: Servant Leadership. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/BHIKRmEaC6Y
Song, J. (2018). LEADING THROUGH AWARENESS AND HEALING: A servant-leadership model. The International Journal of Servant-Leadership, 12(1), 245-284. Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/2216255280?accountid=13158
Spears, L. C., & Lawrence, M. (2002). Focus on leadership: Servant-leadership for the twenty-first century. New York: J. Wiley & Sons.