The idea that leaders are the servants of those they lead has been around for centuries. It is ingrained in military leadership doctrine and for the last twenty or more years has gained traction in the business world. Servant leaders, as they were first termed by Robert Greenleaf in his 1971 essay, “The Servant as a Leader,” put the needs of those they lead first.
For some leaders, the idea of servant leadership is a foreign concept. Isn’t it the job of those who are led to support the leader’s grand vision and plans? Isn’t the leader the focal point of a team’s efforts? The answer is that teams with an authoritarian central leader can be effective in the short term, but teams led by a servant leader will outperform other models in both the short term and long term.
The primary focus of servant leaders is on helping their teams be more effective. They deflect the attention of the group from themselves and focus it on accomplishing the goals of the group. They see their primary function as removing obstacles of their teams ensuring they have the proper tools, resources, and time to accomplish their objectives.
Servant leadership is a powerful model that transcends positions of authority. It can be practiced as team member, just as well as the centrally appointed leader of a group. Servant leaders look for ways to serve the team. They assume responsibility and look for ways to go beyond their specified duties to help the group and individuals in any way they can. Servant leadership is as much of a mindset as it is a set of defined practices.
In times of calm or crises, servant leaders, whether in authority or not, display four primary leadership traits.
- They remain calm in stressful situations. Emotional responses are not helpful to formulating solutions to difficult problems. Fear, anger and other extreme emotions can cause individuals and groups to act irrationally and irrational actions do not lead toward pleasing results. A calm mind is needed to effectively lead.
- Leaders are pragmatic. They forego wishful thinking and take the world as it is and not how they wish it to be. In the face of a setback or crises, they do not spend an enormous amount of time lamenting how or why something happened, they assess the situation and adjust their plans and actions based on the resources and time available.
- They create thoughtful strategies with plans of execution. Every good leader makes the time to formulate a plan. Knee jerk reactions are rarely thoughtful enough to harness all of the people and resources needed to accomplish anything of meaning. They harness their imagination to backwards plan from an objective in the future to formulate all of the steps that need to be accomplished to be successful. They do not create their plans in a vacuum. They seek council and input as quickly as possible and then they make a decision and execute the plan without delay.
- They organize people and resources. The natural state of the world and of teams is one of chaos. They both need to be organized in a deliberate manner. People need to understand how their efforts fit into the overall plan and what they need to do to be successful in their capacity. Without a structure and guidance no plan or strategy can be effectively executed.
Wherever you are, no matter what your position, you can practice servant leadership. Take responsibility for something and help everyone involved be successful. Focus all of your attention and actions on others.
If you are nervous about taking a leadership role and just want to practice, try volunteering at a local charity. It is an amazing way of contributing to a good cause and learning how to lead even without a title or formal position of authority. It can change your life and career for the better.