Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organizations. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.
Servant Leadership in Practice
Larry C. Spears, founder of the Spears Center for Servant Leadership shares 10 common characteristics of servant leadership:
1. Listen: Servant leaders commit to not just asking questions but also actively listening to the responses. For example, someone who listens typically repeats what they hear, confirming knowledge. By doing so, they encourage constructive conversation and better understand the individual or group’s requirements. Listening effectively also allows time for reflection and thoughtful responses.
2. Show Empathy: Emotional intelligence (EI) is one of the top traits of great leaders. EI increases by actively working on self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management. Empathy as a part of social awareness involves social interaction and practicing compassion, sympathy, concern, or understanding. In short, the more a servant leader gains perspective and walks in others’ shoes, the more they can fulfill their purpose by recognizing and serving the needs of those they lead.
3. Heal: Servant leaders call people to join them in serving a mission greater than themselves, this is a natural feeling for servant leaders. Their focus on purpose can bring healing to those who are searching for a sense of fulfillment. By developing empathy, awareness, listening, and community-building, they equip themselves with essential tools to build trusting relationships with those they lead.
4. Have Self-Awareness and Social Awareness: The four cornerstones of EI are self-awareness, social awareness, emotional awareness and social intelligence. Self-awareness focuses on the recognition of one’s emotions and how they impact others. Social awareness focuses on recognizing, understanding, and caring about the feelings of others. In business, this means constantly checking in with yourself and your employees and taking care of their needs.
5. Persuade with Positive Influence: Persuasive leaders actively listen, look for commonalities, and build bridges. In this leadership model, authority is decentralized and servant leaders guide with influence and persuasion.
6. Cast Vision and Conceptualize: Without a vision, people within a community cannot be called to achieve a collective purpose. It’s important that servant leaders establish a daily visualization practice to help them determine and communicate the organization’s direction.
In The Infinite Game, best-selling leadership author Simon Sinek explains the importance of having a vision that serves a just cause. What are you doing to serve the greater good? Start casting a vision for what can be accomplished by a team of people working together toward a better future.
7. Use Foresight as a Strategic Tool: Having foresight means using analytical thinking to visualize potential outcomes in the future. Foresight is a strategic decision-making tool that proactively guides the organization in the right direction.
8. Act as a Steward: Servant leaders are stewards who feel a sense of duty and obligation to humbly serve the needs of others. In action, they practice accountability and discipline while sharing their wisdom. Stewardship takes leaders from the top of the organizational food chain and places them on the ground.
9. Develop People: Servicing community members is a core tenet of servant leadership. This means recognizing a person’s full potential and providing guidance on how to achieve it. Leaders can influence others to become the best versions of themselves with mentorship and leadership development opportunities. Ultimately, servant leaders create an incubator for personal and professional growth and development.
10. Cultivate Trusting Communities: Finally, servant leaders build communities of trust and belonging. “Trust is not something that can be dictated; it’s environmental. Leaders determine the environment,” says leadership expert Simon Sinek.
Leaders who put the needs of others ahead of their own create an anxious and paranoid work environment. Sinek says the key is to eliminate self-interested behavior and lead from a place of values and ethics. Companies succeed when those at the top focus on helping everyone in the business to flourish.
Passing the Servant Leadership Test
So, how can corporate executives know whether they are genuinely servant leaders? Robert Greenleaf established a “best test” in “The Servant as Leader” to assist in identifying this leadership style. He writes, “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?” If these three objectives are met, a person is a servant leader.
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