Servant Leadership Is a Philosophy, Not a Checklist
Put your people first.
Servant leadership is en vogue right now. There are reams of books, articles and podcasts on the subject with “how to” advice for acting like a servant leader. While there are many explanations for servant leadership and how to implement it, there remains one underlying truth that each leader must understand: servant leadership is a philosophy, not a checklist. Therefore, the real question is not how to “act” like a servant leader but how to “be” a servant leader.
At its core, servant leadership inherently focuses on the leader at the bottom of the proverbial organizational chart, rather than the top. Its principles form the basis of a leadership style that aspires to serve by bringing out the best in people and providing the structure they need to reach their full potential.
I’ve found that keeping the foundation of servant leadership simple is the best plan. There are four questions that leaders can ask themselves to understand if they have what it takes to be a true servant leader.
1. Why servant leadership?
Servant leadership is certainly not the only effective leadership style. In fact, many of the world’s greatest leaders are not servant leaders (e.g. Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison). Regardless, it can be a tremendously powerful philosophy for whomever it resonates with. The important thing is that it cannot be false or simply adopted; it has to be sincere. You need to truly embody the servant leadership philosophy at a visceral level.
As Simon Sinek, the author of Start With Why, points out in his book and iconic TEDx Talk, it’s critical to start with “why.” Ask yourself, “Why do you have the desire to lead in this particular way?” The key element of servant leadership is to serve others, therefore, it has to come from a genuine motivation to do good, to hold oneself to a higher standard and to provide the structure needed for others to realize their own path in order to reach their goals.
2. What is my role?
As a business leader, our jobs are difficult. There’s no questioning that. We’ve got the rudder in the water, and we need to steer our respective ships and encourage our employees to row like hell. As CEOs, we need to ensure that we have the right mission and vision for our company; are in the right markets; have a sound business model and unit economics; requisite financing; and have the right people in place to lead the organization. But the folks who are doing the hard rowing of the company are not the CEO or her leadership team -- it’s the employees. Executives are not on the front line answering support calls from upset customers, meeting aggressive sales goals or writing software code to meet product deadlines. Our job as leaders, or as a coxswain in this well-known analogy, is to set our teams up for success.
A servant leader must create an environment where all of his employees can do their best work. The servant leader succeeds in this task by breaking down barriers, providing clear direction and encouraging people to think outside the box. The most immediate and practical way to do this is to simply ask the teams and individuals you meet, “What do you need?” These four words can encourage employees to articulate great ideas or voice concerns about obstacles being faced. Asking “What do you need?” is one of the strongest steps you can take toward empowering your employees. I try to end nearly every meeting I attend with this simple question.
3. Am I spending enough time with my employees?
There are countless demands on our time as leaders, and it’s easy to get trapped up in the ivory tower. From staff meetings to initiative updates to operating meetings and internal planning sessions, our days can be spoken for before we know it.
In order to effectively inspire action and keep our people engaged, we must invest a meaningful portion of each week with our employees. Personally, I try to meet with newly-promoted managers and leaders to congratulate and coach them. I meet with functional teams, oftentimes to simply check in. I also spend time with those who aren’t faring well in ratings from teammates to do my best to assist. Finally, something that’s very important to me, with more than 400 employees and growing, is making it a priority to meet with every new orientation class to educate them on our culture and values. A servant leader should ask themselves, “How do I spend my time? Am I spending enough of it with my employees?” If they prioritize time with employees even a handful of times each week -- from the freshest face to the most senior-level executive -- they will pass on an important leadership value: to help and encourage others.
4. What motivates me?
There are 10 characteristics of servant leadership, including listening, empathy and commitment to growth, healing and foresight. These attributes are instilled in most people very early on in their lives through their parents or caretakers, who I believe are the best servant leaders.
In my own life, I found motivation to serve others through my mom, who was an extraordinary servant leader to her family and community. She often recited a simple but important Indian parable. It said: “When we enter this world, we all enter as babies with our fists clenched, kicking and screaming and crying. When we leave, we all leave at peace, with our hands open. There’s a reason why this is: We all carry into this world a special and unique gift -- a gift you clench in your fists as a baby. Your job, the point of your life, is to discover what that gift is and then give of that gift. When you are done giving of that gift, then it will be your time and you will pass at peace.”
No one can teach you how to become a great servant leader. That’s something each person will need to find on their own. But once you understand the why, the servant leadership philosophy, what it takes and what motivates you, you’ll be an important step closer to opening your hands and giving to others, whether it be to serve one person or an entire company that’s counting on you.