Over the past 25 years, I have had the good fortune to be running my own business and earning a living at it. And during that time, I’ve developed my own leadership style based upon those things that have worked well for me in the past. As I look through the chapter on Servant Leadership, many of the behaviors are ones that I regularly employ usually to strong, positive results. Unknowingly, I have adopted the ten characteristics described by Robert Greenleaf in his research and writings, (Northouse, pp. 227-229). These were never taught to me specifically as a cohesive list, but have all proven to be useful and highly effective aspects of leadership.
Listening– Servant leaders listen first to their followers. This has the effect of acknowledging and validating their viewpoints, (Northouse, p. 227). Over the past two years, my business partner and I have begun a weekly tradition known as “breakfast with the boss.“ We gather a small group of employees (different every week) and individually have breakfast with them before they get started on their workday. During this time, we listen. We ask lots of questions. We try to get a sense of how they are doing and what they feel about their employment situation. We later compare notes about what we heard. And while I can’t claim that we don’t interject and attempt to make a few points during those sessions, they are primarily for listening and getting to better understand the mindset of our employees. This has helped us more quickly ascertain when problems were starting to brew, but has also driven home the point that we care about our followers and what they think.
Empathy– Servant leaders make the effort to see the world through the eyes of their followers. This helps them gain valuable perspective and in genders trust with followers, (Northouse, p. 227). It’s not very difficult for me to empathize with my employees as it wasn’t too many years ago that I was doing their job myself. I try to keep that in mind at all times and remember the difficulties associated with the tasks. When talking with employees I regularly ask about their day, express that I know what they are going through, and often tell some anecdotes about my own experiences from just a few years ago. Some of these employees are newer and never saw me in a less senior role, so it’s important to both empathize with them and also to let them understand that I do.
Healing– Servant leaders care about the well-being of their employees/followers. They strive to make sure that they are healthy both mentally and physically, (Northouse, p. 228). A few years ago, we had an outside firm provide polling of our employees (anonymously) in order to give us some sense of how people were feeling about working at the company. To our great surprise, a large percentage reported that they were feeling very stressed. We hadn’t realized that before, but we were sufficiently concerned. We began bringing in a mindfulness stress management coach to run weekly sessions whereby everyone was taught stress management techniques and was guided through some meditation and breathing exercises. While the sessions were voluntary, the effect was pretty dramatic and we soon had the majority of the company joining in. Informal feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and the sessions continue to be popular. In our industry, we tend to have a much stronger employee retention rate than most of our competitors. It is my observation that these stress reduction efforts are a strong contributing factor.
Awareness– Servant leaders are aware of their surroundings, their own behavior, and how they are impacting the situation and those around them, (Northouse, p. 228). This is a difficult behavior to measure precisely because we all tend to think that we are aware of ourselves and what’s going on. As a frequent visitor to New York City, I find myself regularly amused to see tourists causing a backup on the sidewalk as they congregate right in the middle while hundreds of busy New Yorkers are bustling to get by. They seem blissfully unaware of the effect they are having on the perpetually rushed city folks. I do make a concerted effort to constantly be aware of how I am affecting those around me at any given moment, and then to adjust behavior accordingly if necessary. For me, this often simply means modeling appropriate behavior that I would expect to see from others. Currently, I make sure to wear a mask and gloves at all times at work in order to send the message that safety is a priority and in order to encourage others to do the same during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Persuasion– Servant leaders persuade rather than coerce, (Northouse, p. 228). I have always valued a piece of leadership advice given to me by my father many years ago. “Leaders don’t walk behind a group cracking a whip. They walk in front of the group while waving a banner.” As I write this post, I am only a few hours removed from a presentation that I gave to our 10 highest ranking employees. These are managers who have a great influence over the company on the whole. This presentation was regarding our company brand image and a new marketing campaign that we will be rolling out. But the key message was about what it means to be a part of our company and how that fits into our marketing focus. We talked about what makes us special, why someone would choose us over a competitor and why we should take a great deal of pride in that. The goal of the meeting was not to warn people that they had better get on board with our brand image campaign. It was to arouse a passion and pride associated with the message we will be putting out to the public. And while results from this effort are yet to be seen, the reaction and feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
Conceptualization– Servant leaders keep a strong eye on the big picture. They see a vision for the future of the organization and they share that vision in effective, direct means, (Northouse, p. 228). About four years ago, we created something known as a BHAG; A big, hairy, audacious goal. We were going to grow our lawn care company up to 17 vans and 2000 customers, all by the year 2020. We gathered the company and did a big presentation to explain it. Most people liked the idea, but were skeptical that we could reach the goal. But as we discussed the possibilities, I continually stressed how the company growth would provide more jobs, more advancement opportunities, higher income earning potential, and much more. We actually ended up hitting those numbers by the beginning of 2019, over a year ahead of schedule. We have since gotten more aggressive with setting goals. But by taking the time to think about our goals and overall aspirations, then showing how those directly affect individuals, we were able to induce a certain energy into the organization that continues to this day.
Foresight – A servant leader has to be a bit of a soothsayer. They need to look into the future and see where things are heading and what changes might be in store, (Northouse, p. 228). Approximately one year ago, we started up a company crisis management committee. We hired a consultant on the topic and began preparing for potential crises scenarios. Accidents happen and if handled poorly, the results can be devastating to the organization. And while we might not know precisely what crisis we might face a year or two years from now, we know that we can prepare for the foreseeable ones, and we can practice general handling of crises for the unforeseeable ones. COVID-19 was truly unforeseeable. But when it hit in March, we convened the committee and put our planning practice into use. We developed a strategy for protecting employees while also addressing their concerns and personal needs. We did the same for customers. As one example, we gave all employees one full week off with full pay while not deducting any personal, vacation or sick days from their annual allotment. During that time we kept in close communication with them while developing a company safety protocol. Before they returned to work, we had effectively assured them that we were taking things seriously, that their safety was our top priority, and that we could do our work without putting anybody at undue risk. And while these may just seem like common sense behaviors in retrospect, they came directly out of the playbook we had developed over the previous year. And thankfully, they worked extremely well. Employees who had been largely panicked to leave home prior to the week off were now excited to get back and were thankful to have a job at a company that demonstrated genuine concern for their needs.
Stewardship– Servant leaders view themselves as the caretakers of an organization that exists for the betterment of all stakeholders. Their job is not to glorify themselves, but to maintain and improve an organization for those who will come after. While I am the CEO of my company, I will often tell my employees that I could be run over by a truck tomorrow. And in the event that such a thing happens, one of my last wishes would be that this company continues to thrive long into the future. And with that in mind, I regularly challenge them to both help create an organization that we can all be proud of, but also to challenge themselves to learn new skills and responsibilities, including the responsibilities currently held by me. Our chief operations officer is working towards his MBA, paid for by the company. This is in anticipation of him taking over my job someday. I want to make sure the company is left in good hands whether I go willingly or not.
Commitment to the growth of people – Servant leaders push and encourage their followers to grow and improve as individuals and as an organization, (Northouse, pp. 228-229). Approximately 2% of our company revenues go into continuing education programs. Several employees are taking classes through the Penn State World Campus (myself obviously included). ESL classes are available to anyone who needs them. Every employee is encouraged to obtain industry certifications that are not technically necessary for the work we do. But these certifications allow them to do their job better while taking more pride in their career. And when those diplomas and certificates arrive, we frame them and put them up on the wall for all to see. In fact, one whole room in our main office building is set up as a classroom, solely to be used for continuing education and training.
Building community – Servant leaders don’t simply challenge individuals to work hard and succeed. They build a sense of community in their organizations, (Northouse, p. 229). This might also be thought of as culture or style. Humans are social animals who thrive on existing as a part of something greater than themselves. As our company has grown, we have seen how important it is for employees to take pride in being a part of it. Over the winter, we started sponsoring an indoor soccer team, complete with company uniforms. On the last Friday of each month, everybody comes back to the office a few hours earlier than usual and we have a big barbecue. These and other initiatives help everyone to feel as though the company is a sort of home away from home. The net result is that people look forward to going to work rather than fearing it as a drudgery. A good servant leader will foster the sense that it means something specific to be a part of the organization. Your identity as a member of that community becomes a part of who you are.
Servant leadership has proven to nicely describe many of the leadership behaviors that have served me well over the years. If you have similarly seen value in these approaches, I hope you’ll leave a comment describing your experiences.
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.