When managers start their journey in an agile or human-centred organisation, one of the first paradigms they learn about is Servant Leadership. There is lots and lots of advice on what that is and what is expected. There is one thing that I see people constantly struggling with: Starting to be a Servant Leader!
About Servant Leadership
Put simply, the main goal of any servant leader, as it was first described by Robert Greenleaf, is someone, who instead of leading by directing through the force of power, instead leads by serving. In other words, by being helpful. Thus, the focus of the servant leader is to enable growth and greatness in the people they serve. Rather than having people serve the leader to reach a goal, the leader serves, is helpful, and so helps people to reach a goal. In fact, servant leadership tends to be contagious within an organisation. As the servant leader grows his or her people, these people themselves grow into servant leaders, enabling the same traits in others. Servant Leadership creates a wave of enablement and support, resulting in greater focus and productivity for everyone.
Be a Decent Fellow
A lot of leaders, who I work with, are keen on getting that started. Still, they struggle to understand how to start. It’s not that this only applies to juniors, but also senior and especially veteran leaders. One of the most surprising questions I get asked in my work is: How can I be helpful to my people?
I find it quite astonishing, that it is experienced managers and executives come up with this question. Sometimes it feels like there are whole generations of managers, who are supposed to lead, but then instead stumble over the fact that they don’t know how to be helpful. Well, to be honest, it is not, that they would not have any idea about it. Usually most of those people know how to be a decent human being, having kids, families and friends. And they are being helpful to all of them! Just, when they are at work, they get baffled and seem to lose their knowledge about that.
My advice on servant leadership: Just be a decent fellow to your co-workers!
First Steps Towards Servitude
Admittedly, this advice won’t help anyone, who struggles with it, to start being a servant leader. I could easily point you to a myriad of books and articles about the topic like The Servant Leader by James Autry or Greenleaf’s own works like Servant Leadership. Reading and learning about it is one part of the game. I also want to advise anyone interested in acting as a servant leader to familiarise yourself with the topic.
One thing I want to provide you is a few first steps on becoming a servant leader. Just something to get you started on the journey: The Triple-A.
1. be Authentic. Check for yourself if you can and want to be a servant leader. There is no shame in figuring out, that this is not your style of leadership. There are a lot of alternatives, that equally support others. In case you, for yourself, conclude, that you are currently not in the right position or emotional state to be a servant leader, keep on looking for alternatives! Just pretending to be a servant leader will not help you grow your peers. Being a servant leader requires dedication, the will to take a step back and let others run the show. Most importantly, it requires you to sincerely be interested in your followers and making them great.
2. Ask the basic question. There is a very simple question, that outright makes you a servant leader. It is rather simple, and everybody knows it: How can I help you today? This is the most vital question to ask as a servant leader! Go around your peers, your teams and your people and just ask this simple question. When asked in a candid way, with real interest in the answer, it is the most powerful thing you can do. It is an act of empathy.
3. Act in order to help. In the beginning, asking the basic question will mostly result in confused faces. Especially when people in your organisation are not used to it. After a while your peers will come up with problems, ideas or suggestions. That’s the time to strike: When someone asks you to help with a problem they face, help them to overcome it. If the printer is not working, fix it – or find someone who can fix it. If they are running out of coffee, get some. If they need to talk about something, listen. Combining the empathy with the action results in compassion – the basic key to unlock servant leadership.
Practicing these three, fairly simple, steps on a daily, or maybe just weekly, basis will spin up a cycle of behaviour that gets you to be a true servant leader. Just do it.