Servant leader. These two words don’t seem to go together in our common discourse.
Yet in 1970, Robert Greenleaf then an executive with AT&T not only put them together but started a movement. He wrote his thoughts in his first essay, “The Servant as Leader,” in 1970. He challenged his colleagues with the question, “Are you a leader first then a servant or a servant first then a leader?” He went on to suggest that the servant leader is one who serves first then aspires to lead. Servant leaders measure success by the success of those they serve, while those who emphasize leading first measure success by personal achievements focused on power and accumulation of possessions.
The movement is gaining more importance today as companies face new and different challenges posed by global volatility, political disruptions and restless employees who move from one company to the next every few years. Companies such as Starbucks, Zappos, Whole Foods, Aflac and Nordstrom tend to put their people first in operating their businesses. They are practicing servant leadership. Five of the top 10 companies Fortune Magazine selected as the best companies to work for were practicing servant leadership in 2012.
The movement continues to grow. Why?
Because more and more companies are focused on growing their people by listening to their ideas, seeing a positive future despite challenges, and knowing how to forge relationships with their suppliers and customers that reflect their people focus. Size doesn’t matter; many small to mid-size companies are practice servant leadership without using the label.
Companies that encourage self-managing teams; keep employees informed; seek their ideas and participation; develop talent with mentoring and coaching; provide opportunities to stretch performance into new and different functions; foster a sense of corporate identity as a community of resources working toward a common purpose and mission; and exceed expectations in all measures of success are practicing servant leadership. Customers sense their focus on people and have a positive experience that keeps then coming back. There’s mutual trust with suppliers, customers and all stakeholders. Their “silos” aren’t mutually exclusive, and the CEO isn’t lonely.
What does it take to establish a servant leadership culture?
First, take fear out of the work place. No one should fear being heard or fear not being given this opportunity to succeed. Use persuasive techniques as opposed to relying on authority. Constantly seek alternatives in problem solving and decision making to assure the best option is selected. This can take time, especially when you involve other stakeholders. But the process is serious and deserves this level of attention.
Reward behavior that supports service to others both externally and internally. Discuss and define performance in terms of how people were treated; how much personal growth was emphasized; the empathy shown to others; how conflicts were resolved so all parties felt good; how team work was fostered; and whether the mission was accomplished based on the key values of the company. When people feel respected and engaged, they perform better and achieve more. With a strong sense of purpose and a few dreams, people transform themselves and contribute more, according to the latest neuroscience research.
No company succeeds without achieving positive financial results. “No margins, no mission” was the mantra of the Daughter of Charity who headed up a major health care system of Catholic hospitals. And she was right! Without positive financial results, her system could not provide all its services to the poor or maintain its culture of servant leadership.
How can you sustain a culture of servant leaders? It sounds like trying to herd cats — but it’s not if you assure everyone understands what servant leadership is. Reward behavior that exemplifies servant leadership. Prepare future leaders in the principles and practices of servant leadership. Critically evaluate progress with the entire organization. Speak and encourage servant leadership in public settings.
Above all set the example. Perhaps one day your company will be selected among Fortune Magazine’s “Best Places to Work.”