Southwest Airlines’ major claim to fame is that, as of 2019, it had 46 consecutive years of profitability. This long-term success is attributable to Herb Kelleher. His ability to lead while allowing others to grow and succeed plays a crucial role in why this company continually turns a profit in an industry where most do not. Specifically he successfully implemented what’s called servant leadership.
“If serving is below you, leadership is beyond you” – Bill Weber, US Army BG (ret)
Whereas traditional leadership is focused on helping an organization thrive, servant leaders put the needs of their employees first. They focus on developing individuals so they can perform their best. The superiority of servant leadership over autocratic leadership has been well documented, and it prevents and reduces all kinds of problems directly related to command-and-control leadership.
Implementing servant leadership through leadership training can improve performance by 15-20% and work group productivity by 20-50%. Moreover, in Fortune magazine’s annual ranking of the best 100 corporations to work for, companies that practice servant leadership consistently rank within the top 10 (e.g., Google and Wegmans Food Markets).
In this post we will discuss tactics to promote a servant leadership style in your organization. In specific we will focus on 3 steps:
- Be a better listener
- Persuade without being forceful
- Commit to the growth of your people
As always, our team of researchers searched through dozens of studies drawn from the field of cognitive and organizational psychology to bring you science-backed tips on how to become a servant leader.
What is servant leadership?
Being a leader isn’t easy, it’s a hugely challenging job and many people flounder. In addition to failing to meet profitability goals, organizations are often plagued by systemic cultural problems like abuse of power, bullying leadership, social isolation, and violations of employees’ work-life balance.
For example, the CEO of Uber condoned a workplace with sexual harassment, and its exposure led to his resignation and kicked off the #metoo movement. The interest in value-laden leadership–like servant leadership–should therefore come as no surprise.
Psychologist Robert K. Greenleaf stated that servant leadership begins with the natural tendency that one wants to serve, and therefore, a servant leader is a servant first. The leader’s main responsibility is to support their people, and it differs from traditional leadership in a sense that it doesn’t believe in the exercise of power but in putting others’ needs first. This hinges on building influence and authority rather than using control and toxic leadership tactics. Dr. Greenleaf identified several principles:
Servant leaders do not attempt to control others; rather they share wisdom and seek to develop understanding. Instead of focusing employees on their leader and how they can help him or her meet company goals, a servant leader focuses on building an environment in which people can thrive. The primary goal of a servant leader is the well-being and growth of his people.
The following statements might help you better understand the core of servant leadership, it is about:
- Influence rather than power and control
- Inspiration rather than position and title
- Focusing on others’ strengths rather than weaknesses
- Listening rather than giving orders
- Humility rather than pride
- Long-range benefits rather than short-term profits
- Creating new futures rather than maintaining the status quo
- Global vision rather than territorial instinct
When does it fit? Of course, every company and every leader is different. Research shows that leaders are more effective when they adapt their leadership to match the needs of the situation. To see what leadership style fits you best, take a look at one of our previous posts on identifying leadership styles.
Two main advantages of servant leadership are that it aims at curbing abuse of power and it is flexible. Whether you are a charismatic intuitive leader or a down-to-earth methodological type, you can always benefit from practicing servant leadership since it makes people feel valued and that their voices are being heard.
In general servant leadership is most effective in organizations with low formalization, low differentiation, and high centralization. In what follows, we will discuss several techniques that you can use to cultivate your servant leadership skills.
Be a better listener
Did you know that people spend between 70%-80% of their day engaged in some form of communication? And about 55% of their time is devoted to listening?
Listening is critical to demonstrate respect and appreciation. The openness of leaders to receive input from others influences leader-follower trust. Leaders benefit from listening because it is a critical aspect of delegating and empowering. Here are some tips that may help you to engage in active listening.
Show that you are paying attention. It might feel like an open door, but an important thing to keep in mind is that you should face the speaker and remain in eye contact. If you’re zooming out and checking your phone, you are dividing your attention which signals that you don’t value the speaker’s time. Make sure you keep all distractions aside when talking to someone.
It is also important that you don’t interrupt the speaker, as they might feel that you find your own voice more important than theirs. Giving regular feedback may also keep the speaker invested. Sending feedback to clear doubts keeps the conversation transparent. You can also express your thoughts with your body language or respond with an occasional ‘uh-huh’.
Improve your understanding. Though interrupting should be limited, one exception is when you want to ask questions to ensure understanding. Asking questions is a good way to show you are engaged, to clarify any confusion, and to encourage the discussion to continue. It is important that your questions are related to the original topic.
Also keep in mind that you should be empathic, this shows that you are present with the speaker emotionally. Try to put yourself in their shoes and put your heart in the conversation. Paying attention to gestures like tone and voice, eye contact, and posture is important as these signals can convey important information that is not put in words. This may help you understand the other person better. Take a look at our previous posts about emotional contagion and body language to learn more about non-verbal communication.
Be approachable. Another thing to keep in mind is that you should be approachable as this can foster communication and information flow. It may help when you, even if you are high in hierarchy, remember people’s names. Most of the time, we are overly focussed on how we come across and quickly forget the names of the people we meet. But as Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
So whenever you meet someone, repeat their name: “Hi, I’m Jim”, “Hi Jim, nice to meet you”. If you repeat their name out loud, you are much more likely to actually remember it. Which leads to another very simple tip to be approachable: just say ‘hello’ to everyone, regardless of title and status. Also, leave your ego at the door and don’t be overly focussed on whether you get that big office with a nice view.
Persuade without being forceful
Servant leaders guide and persuade team members. Where an authoritarian leader tells people what to do, a servant leader explains why a certain way might work best. They seek to convince the team as a whole and build a consensus. Using persuasion instead of coercion or manipulation is an ethical use of power. But of course, it is not easy to convince someone to carry out an action or agree with an idea.
Build a community. The art of persuasion all starts with building a community that works together. Servant leaders believe that it is the people who keep the boat sailing, so you have to make sure that they have the required resources, budget, skills, and attention to make an impact. Bottom-up empowerment only works if your employees have the tools they need to reach their goals.
You should also invest in cultivating relationships. Strengthening relationships helps foster emotional intelligence and builds trust. People are more likely to agree with someone they like, so improving your interpersonal relationships is one of the best ways to become more skilled in persuasion. Keep in mind that you should provide guidelines not rules, and give your employees the flexibility to make decisions.
During daily expectations and duties it can be difficult to connect, so it may help to schedule specific time to “get personal”. This could be at the beginning of a meeting or the start of the day, and you could also schedule after-work outings or team events. You can also do something special for employee birthdays, work anniversaries, or project milestones.
It is also important to think about who you hire. If you give your employees veto power on who to hire, you show them that you listen and value their opinion. Of course, this is not always possible, but especially when employees are working in teams, it is important that everyone is on board with a hiring decision. You can also do group interviews instead of individual interviews when hiring someone, to see how they react to and with other people. Related to this, servant leader Herb Kelleher suggested that you could also use model employees in the hiring process. It is also important to see whether someone fits the organizational culture personally, as ‘culture is the boss’.
Establish trust. Moreover, if you want to persuade your employees without the use of force, it is also important that you invest in establishing trust. If you ask someone else to take a risk, step outside their comfort zone, or put in extra effort, it is imperative that they trust your judgment. If you show yourself to be selfless and willing to help, others are likely to return the favor.
Of course, you should be available, arrive on time, and be dependable, but it also builds trust if you keep an extra eye open for employees who are struggling. Taking the burden off someone who is struggling to complete a project is a great way to build a relationship. So if you notice that an employee feels overwhelmed, consider offering them assistance.
Offering assistance also shows that you care for your team members personally. Helping them to cope with stress (e.g., by providing them with specific tools) or focussing on a healthy work-life balance (e.g., flexible work hours or programs to balance work and personal commitments) may help in showing that you care. Happy workers are productive workers after all. Also ask for feedback on how you could improve as a leader, as this shows that you want to do good for them.
Show recognition. Furthermore, it is important to let your employees know why their work is important. If they feel that they contribute to the overall success of the organization, they might feel more empowered and willing to invest in the company. Employee recognition programs are a good way to do this, but also make sure you use an individualistic approach.
Consider asking current employees the type of recognition they desire most. Recognition can be personal (like an employee of the month club or a lunch with the big boss) or financial (team bonuses, profit-sharing). In addition, consider sharing a hand-written thank you note as a personal and thoughtful gesture.
Commit to the growth of your employees
Servant leaders don’t only focus on being great leaders themselves, they are invested in helping employees to grow and develop. Encouraging team members to participate in employee development programs may help to expand their knowledge and skills. You can also encourage them to take active leadership roles during certain projects. Team members who know you are committed to their professional growth are more likely to listen to suggestions to help improve their work.
Provide opportunities to lead and develop. One way to do this is to regularly ask for input and demonstrate that you are open to diverse ideas. See who speaks up and offers thoughtful ideas on how to improve the status quo. You could also offer employees the opportunity to host a meeting to gain experience, or you could assign individuals to be the go-to-expert on specific topics or skills.
Also communicate with transparency and share information freely. Only when they have information, employees can make sound decisions on how they can contribute and step up to their leadership roles.
To identify potential enthusiasts, you can specifically ask them (during one-on-one conversations or performance evaluations) in which area they would like to develop themselves, and whether they would potentially see themselves in a leadership position in the future. Employees feel empowered when time and resources are invested upon their growth. They start to feel themselves as an integral part of the organization and this is where you can encourage them to lead from the front.
Lead by example and model the desired behavior. Modeling is believed to be the foundation for leader influence, and can be used to persuade employees to act a certain way. So if you want your employees to invest in themself and participate in development programs, you should openly promote this, and participate yourself.
Setting an example includes showing that you take care of yourself. Engaging in daily servant leadership behavior can come at a cost for leaders. One study shows that servant leadership can be mentally depleting, specifically for leaders who are low in perspective taking (that is, leaders who are not that experienced in taking others’ perspectives). So be aware of this and take some necessary steps to recharge yourself when needed!
Recap of rise by lifting others: Three techniques to become a servant leader
Servant leadership is good for business. You can build influence and authority instead of using control and toxic leadership. Use techniques from the servant leadership style and become a more servant leader by following these tactics:
- Be a better listener: Don’t interrupt, ensure understanding, and be empathic.
- Persuade without being forceful: Focus on building a community, cultivating relationships, and establishing trust.
- Commit to the growth of people: Encourage active leadership roles and lead by example.
By serving others, you can lift yourself up as a leader and improve your team’s well-being and performance.