Who Do You Serve? An Approach to Servant Leadership
I live in Minnesota which has an interesting history of corporate stewardship and community engagement. So it isn’t surprising that servant leadership has been on the minds of leaders here for a long time. It felt fitting that over the years as I have taught at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota that this quote from local businessman Curt Carlson worked its way into my teaching.
“Whatever you do, do with integrity. Wherever you go, go as a leader. Have courage to lead. Whenever you serve, serve with caring. Whenever you dream, dream with your all. And innovate, never give up.” ~Curt Carlson in America's Richest Families: A Forbes Compendium Of Stories Since 1977
Fortunately for me, this leadership style aligns with both my values and approach to leadership coaching. As a coach, I am there to serve the leaders I work with. They set the agenda and together we determine an approach to accountability. Being a servant leader doesn’t mean being a pushover - in my coaching practice it means challenging assumptions, encouraging mindset shifts and pointing out the BS that leaders are telling themselves. In addition, my personal development plan is also part of my commitment to my clients because the more I invest in building my skills, the more I have to offer. It is one of many ways that I can be of service. But, this article isn’t really about me. I share these examples as an illustration of where we are headed.
As burnout continues to drive disengagement and turnover at workplaces, servant leadership is a particularly relevant topic for leaders and organizations to consider. Done poorly, servant leadership can create more burnout in leaders. But, done well, it can build culture and connection for leaders and teams. For employees seeking to connect to purpose at work, a servant leadership style can drive retention. In companies where servant leadership is the norm, people feel connected to both the company and their work because their interactions with leaders are thoughtful and human. They can see themselves in the organization’s vision. For organizations with a younger workforce or an interest in recruiting the next generation of future leaders, studies are showing that Gen Z is the most values driven generation in the workforce, although they are far from alone in looking for purpose in their work. If you are a leader who wants to develop more of a servant leadership approach, have conversations with your team about organizational strategy and purpose. Help them see where they fit in the bigger picture and ask questions about how they see themselves contributing to the success of the organization, now and in the future.
Organizational culture is at the heart of servant leadership. When leaders adopt a servant leadership approach, they set the tone and vision for the entire organization that fuels progress. Servant leadership contributes to organizational culture in other ways too. It fosters stronger relationships, trust, and psychological safety within teams. Leaders who genuinely care about their employees create an environment where people feel valued and heard. This open and empathetic approach leads to higher-performing teams. Team members are more willing to take risks, share ideas, and collaborate when they feel psychologically safe. The result is a workplace that thrives on innovation and creativity, driven by the collective strengths of its members. If team or organizational culture is an area where you want to build your servant leadership skills, try a different approach in meetings. Listen more, let the team work through problems, and talk less or last. If this is a big change from your current approach in meetings, let your team know what your goal is with the change. A little bit of transparency goes a long way here because you don’t want them to think you are checked out or testing them when the opposite is true!
Servant leaders also influence organizational culture through high levels of emotional intelligence. They tend to exhibit self-awareness, a keen understanding of interpersonal relationships, optimism, and a strong sense of social responsibility. By embodying these qualities, leaders become not just managers but mentors and role models. They inspire others to develop their emotional intelligence, creating a ripple effect of improved communication and empathy throughout the organization. Leaders who adopt this approach often find a deeper sense of purpose and fulfillment in their roles, contributing to their personal growth and well-being in addition to positively impacting business outcomes. It’s a win for the individual and the collective.
When assessing the impact of servant leadership, it's crucial to consider relevant metrics. Organizations can use tools like engagement surveys, 360-degree feedback assessments for leaders, and team assessments focused on psychological safety to understand the effects of a focus on servant leadership. Improved engagement, higher retention rates, increased customer satisfaction (CSAT), enhanced employee satisfaction (ESAT), and elevated Net Promoter Scores (NPS) could be used as indicators of the positive effects of servant leadership on an organization. As a leader, you don’t have to wait for these organization-wide surveys - although you should pay attention to the results! Once you commit to servant leadership and have put some key behaviors into practice, check in with trusted peers and your team to understand what is working and where you still have opportunities for growth.
As the workforce continues to evolve and face challenges like burnout and disengagement, servant leadership offers a powerful antidote. It nurtures a culture of shared vision, fosters stronger relationships, and enhances emotional intelligence within teams and leaders. By focusing on metrics that reflect improved engagement, retention, and satisfaction, organizations can tangibly demonstrate the impact of servant leadership. Embracing this approach aligns with the values and expectations of the workforce, while also supporting the organization in reaching its goals. Servant leadership is not just a leadership style; it's a commitment to building a more thoughtful and considerate workplace and world.
Key tips for servant leaders:
Stay curious and self-aware
Who am I in service to in this situation?
What is the most helpful way for me to contribute while allowing others to achieve their full potential?
Am I maintaining healthy boundaries for myself to manage my energy? (Servant leadership is not about setting your needs aside; it requires balancing the needs of others with your own which can be tricky to navigate as you get started.)
Build trust and spend time on relationships
Be consistent as you shift to a servant leadership approach. You won’t always get everything right, but stick with it.
Spend time working with your team to understand their motivations and goals to co-create a plan to support their growth.
Create a personal development plan
Being in service requires having the needed skills to help others. Think about areas where you have the most to contribute and focus your time and energy there.
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
Trust & Inspire by Stephen M R Covey
True North by Bill George
Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf
Multipliers by Liz Wiseman
This article was also published on Medium.