“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu was onto the idea of servant leadership centuries before it became a modern-day concept. This leadership style boils down to one principle: The goal of a leader is to serve.
“Servant leaders put the needs of others first and work to empower those they lead. This type of leader creates a collaborative environment where everyone can contribute their ideas and expertise. This is especially important in today’s workplace, where no one person has all the answers,” says Ryan Fyfe, COO at Insightful, a workforce analytics platform.
“Going forward, I see servant leadership as the only fail-proof strategy for maintaining – and retaining – an efficient workforce,” adds Anjela Mangrum, founder and president of Mangrum Career Solutions and certified personnel consultant. “Employees today know their worth, and with the struggles, they’re facing lately, they need managers who listen and provide them with the kind of environment and resources to help them excel at their jobs.”
What most people get wrong about servant leadership
While the benefits of servant leadership are bountiful, a lot of leaders confuse it with simply being nice and helpful, which is not conducive to impactful leadership. “While these are certainly important qualities for a leader, they are not the only things that matter. Servant leaders also need to be strategic – people fail to see how important vision, values and setting goals are to the success of any organization or community,” says Fyfe.
It’s not about making your team happy at all costs without acknowledging business goals or performance challenges. As a servant leader, you’ll still need to set expectations. But the idea is that you’ll be dedicated to equipping your team with what it needs to succeed. “The word servant is just used in the context of facilitating employees’ day-to-day and easing their hurdles by being at their service and providing everything they need to do their jobs,” according to Mangrum.
Servant leadership habits and principles to embrace
Here are leadership habits and principles to embrace to become a servant leader.
1. Put the needs of others before your own
The fundamental principle of servant leadership is to put the needs of your team members before your own, says Fyfe. This leads to a more harmonious and productive work environment. For example, you may decide to use some of your quarterly budgets to organize a team-building activity instead of traveling to a conference yourself. Or you may choose to set up a hybrid work model based on the feedback of your team even though you personally prefer to be in the office all the time.
2. Take ownership of your team’s actions
According to Mangrum, servant leaders know they’re responsible for their team’s performance. This applies to both wins and losses. Servant leaders never blame their team for something going wrong, they look at themselves and what they could have done differently. They also see team success as an indication that their efforts are yielding results, yet give all the credit to their team to reward efforts.
3. Listen actively and with empathy
Fyfe also says that one of the best ways to show your reports that you care and you’re there to serve is to actually listen to them: “When you listen actively and with empathy, you not only understand what people are saying but also how they are feeling.” This habit builds trust and helps you optimize the work environment in a way that boosts both team morale and productivity.
4. Be a role model for team members
Another golden principle of servant leadership is to walk your talk. Since you are focused on service and not control, you’ll need to model the behavior you want to see in your team rather than tell your team what to do. “As a leader, it’s important to set an example for employees by behaving in a way that reflects the values of the company,” says Fyfe.
5. Prioritize career development
“Servant leadership is a style of leadership that focuses on the growth and well-being of individuals and teams. The servant-leader strives to develop others into leaders in their own right, while also devoting time and energy to serving others,” adds Fyfe. According to him, servant leaders seek to create an environment where people can thrive both personally and professionally. “It is about creating opportunities for people to grow and succeed.”
6. Implement an efficient feedback system
On that note, it would be impossible to prioritize growth and development without feedback mechanisms. “Enabling your employees to suggest steps you can take to make their day-to-day better is one of the best leadership practices, especially when you’re proactive in [following through and making changes accordingly.] This makes professionals feel valued and can help you earn their loyalty,” says Mangrum.
“It is also equally important to provide feedback to employees about their performance. Praise or rewards for a job well done and constructive criticism and training for below-average performers can do wonders for team productivity and morale,” she adds.
7. Adopt people-first policies
Finally, servant leaders tend to adopt people-first policies. “Rather than believing old-school rules like ‘the customer is always right,’ servant leaders recognize the significance of their employees, accepting them as the real drivers of their organizations,” says Mangrum.
“They don’t fire their subordinates over a petty customer complaint – not without listening to both sides of the story, at least. This builds trust when paired with actively listening to employee requests and prioritizing their issues.”
In other words, show team members that you’ve got their back.