Servant leadership means that leadership is exercised as a SERVICE to the organization, because the leader has a permanent concern for the needs of the teams. He/she feels responsible to create the conditions that will allow employees to be successful in any given situation. That is a big shift from the traditional top down perspective where leadership is seen as a prerogative to set direction and to hold other accountable for their achievements. Such decisive decision making is part of a service oriented leadership and should be exercised when required to provide clear direction. But leaders should also be inspirational, create great working conditions and be able to coach team members when needed. This is a much broader understanding of leadership and can be seen as the black belt we should strive for during our lifelong leadership learning journey.
The traditional perspective on leadership is to associate the notion of power. It is related to the prerogative of setting direction and defining priorities, the authority to allocate tasks and resources and the right to hold others accountable for their achievements. This a top down perspective and therefore asymmetric by nature.
Leadership as a service
I would like to outline here a very different way of looking at leadership. Let’s think of leadership as a service. The idea is that servant leadership is exercised for the benefit of the team and the organization. It is not a prerogative but it is a responsibility for which the leaders can be held accountable by those who receive that service (e.g. the team members).
a) Understand the needs of the team
Just as in the case of any other service, the service provider should understand the needs and specific requirements of those he or she serves in order to best respond to those needs. As you see, this is quite a shift in terms of perspective. Here we look at leadership much more bottom-up instead of top down. The needs of the organization come first.
B) Create the conditions for THE team to be SUCCESSFUL
Leadership as a service (or servant leadership) means that the leader has the responsibility to create a work environment where all team members can execute their work in the best possible conditions and to their greatest satisfaction. It is also the role of the leader to ensure that the team members are fully equipped to do their job efficiently and to offer development opportunities when needed. The leader should also act as a coach to support her/his team members if they encounter challenging situations.
C) Be inspirational
The servant leader engages in true conversations where he / she listens to understand more deeply in the spirit of caring and with a spirit of empathy. He or she is committed to honest feedback, to build trust within the organization and to provide inspiration and support in order to allow people in the organization to reach their potential.
You will agree that this is a very different perspective from the more traditional one that I outlined earlier. But you might also agree that these service oriented leadership tasks certainly contribute to a productive workforce.
D) Decisive decision making is part of servant leadership
Some might argue that the directive leadership is also sometimes required and I could not agree more! It is part of the service that the leader should provide to the team to make tough choices when needed and to take decisive decisions if required. Service oriented leadership does not mean that the manager is pleasing everyone. The business will at times require a captain style leadership.
E) Adjust to the situation
But the key point is that whatever the situation requires, the leader adapts her or his style to these needs with a service oriented mindset: to do what is right for the team and for the business.
Servant leadership has two main implications:
The team comes first
Firstly it means that the leader places her / his ego after the needs of the team. The ability to understand what leadership actions are adapted to the specification implies that the own needs come second. That is a true service mind-set. The others come first!
Adjusting to the situation
Secondly, it means that the leader is able to adjust her/his leadership style. We call this situational leadership. That is the ability to move from a more directive style in a situation where clear decision making is required, to a more collaborative or coaching oriented style in situations where empowerment and development are the priority.
The “natural” leadership style
This can be quite challenging for us. We have a tendency to believe that we have a “natural” way of operating. This approach has made us successful in the past and is therefore also a guarantee of our future success as a leader. But that is actually quite short sighted. As we saw, different situations require different leadership. More generally, the service oriented leadership places the team first, not what would work best for the leader herself or himself.
Leadership is a lifelong learning journey
It is clear that this is not making the leadership task easier. Quite in the contrary! It does require a lot of experimentation, hard learning, patience, observation, feedback, self- and situational awareness and learning to get there. Yes, leadership is like arts, performance or sports: it requires effort and training. But this is also what makes it such a great experience. Leadership is a lifelong learning journey and it takes a very long time to reach black belt mastery: servant leadership.
What are the needs of my team in this situation? How can I best respond to these needs as a leader? These questions will help you on this leadership learning expedition.
Ask your team about your leadership service level
Last but not least: your best coaches are your team members. Tell them what your intention is. Let them know that you see the leadership you exercise as a service to them. Ask them to help you understand their needs. People will tell you where they would have expected that you should have been more decisive.
Ask them to tell you what your leadership service level is! They will let you know where your feedback to them has allowed them to be more successful or where in the contrary you should have given them more space and autonomy. Hold your team accountable to provide this feedback to you and welcome it as your compass on that journey.
More information in my book:
Sven Sommerlatte : Successful Career Strategy – An HR Practitioner’s Guide to Reach Your Dream Job (Springer, June 2023). ISBN: 978-3-662-66790-3