Where Does Servant Leadership Come from?

You can find the antecedents of our modern concept of servant leadership in ancient texts, from Sanskrit to Taoist and Confucian, to the Bible. And, in more modern times, numerous leaders from history serve as examples of servant leadership, men and women like:

·         Ernest Shackleton

·         Harriet Tubman

·         Abraham Lincoln

·         Jane Goodall

·         Mohandas Gandhi

·         Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The Modern Articulation of Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf led management development at AT&T for many years. It was there that he first conceived his ideas of Servant Leadership. He coined the phrase Servant Leadership in a 1970 essay, called ‘The Servant as Leader.”

In that essay, Greenleaf distinguished between: “the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” And: “…one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

After retiring from AT&T in 1964, Greenleaf founded what is currently called the Robert K Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

The Traits of a Servant Leader

Lots of writers, from Greenleaf onwards, have articulated their own assessment of the traits of an effective servant leader. They are, in effect trying to define the term, by reference to its behaviors.

For me, this needs to be a practical checklist of how to manage with servant leadership. So, I offer my own selection of 12 ways to be a servant leader.

I don’t claim that it is complete. And, neither do I claim that just by doing them, you will become a servant leader. Rather, these are a guide. If you follow this checklist with an attitude of service first, then you will be heading in the right direction.

Personal Traits

1.      Self-awareness is a current buzzword in the world of leadership thinking. But there can be no doubt of its value. It links to the ideas of authenticity and mindfulness and therefore, an ability to be aware of the situation around you. This allows you to make wise judgments.

2.      Humility is a vital aspect of a service mindset. But to truly serve, you also need an empathy for the people you lead.

3.      Absolute integrity is not negotiable. The servant leadership metaphor encompasses the idea of stewardship. Therefore, your leadership must be moral and ethical.

4.      I’d also include results-orientation. But beware – this is not an ends-justify-the-means moral blank check. In service, what matters is the goal. We devise a process that puts that first, not ourselves.

Cultivated Servant Leadership Skills

5.      Foresight is your ability to foresee the needs of your followers, and the implications of your choices.

6.      I hope it goes without saying that a good leader is an excellent communicator. But as a servant leader, you must put your focus on listening in order to understand the perspectives and needs of the people you serve.

7.      As a leader, you may or may not have authority. But, as a servant leader, you will never leap to use it. Instead, you’ll rely on your ability to be influential and deploy the craft of high-integrity persuasion.

8.      A servant leader must have intellectual authority – the ability to understand and assess the needs of the moment.

Behaviors Towards Your Team

9.      While you will serve each person within your team, your primary duty of service is to the team itself. So, a servant leader must be collaborative in the way you operate. Part of your role is to build a community and a team spirit.

10.  Vital to this is your willingness to show trust to your team, and empower them to do the work, while you serve them rather than guide them.

11.  A servant leader also needs to commit to developing the people on the team. You should be constantly alert for opportunities to help them grow their skills, confidence and professionalism. And your style would be a coaching approach, rather than one of telling.

12.  Finally, my last suggestion is to play a role in managing conflict to ensure the work environment stays productive and respectful. And, where you cannot achieve that, to assist with healing the harm from damaged relationships.

So, those are 12 ways to manage with servant leadership. Whether you like the term or value the concept, I hope you will consider adopting some of these approaches into your own leadership style.

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