A servant leader differs from that of a traditional leader. Where a traditional leader will usually use a top down approach to leading, servant leaders work in reverse. The servant leader spreads power across the team and puts the needs of the team before their own. They will focus in on the growth and wellness of the team and communities they area a part of. The servant leader looks at themselves as in service to the needs of the team.
Servant leaders show many key characteristics:
Servant leaders empower those they lead to reach their full potential. This requires that they create an engaged culture that is fully in sync with the purpose and values of the business. Empowered employees are given clear direction on what needs accomplished and they understand what part they will play. They are also given the trust and support of their leader to reach that accomplishment, without micromanagement. Employees who feel empowered will naturally solve problems and bridge gaps when they see them, and they will be unafraid to speak openly and honestly with their leader and team.
All too often in traditional leadership we see managers taking credit for all the work done by the team. Not with servant leadership! Here, the accomplishments of the team and individual team members are celebrated, and the leader’s contribution takes a back seat. It’s never “look what I’ve accomplished” it’s “look what we’ve done as a team.” A servant leader shines the spotlight on their team and makes them feel accomplished and valued.
Servant leaders are humble, they know that they are no more or less important than those who work below them. This shows in how they communicate to their team. For example, a humble leader will be more open to feedback and more willing to admit when they have made a mistake. Leaders without humility will often be unable to course correct when a mistake has been made for fear of losing face. By contrast, the servant leader can admit a mistake and ask for help from the team.
This goes back to the idea of “practicing what you preach” or “walking the talk.” A traditional leader may have expectations of their team that they don’t meet themselves. Or, they may show one set of values at work and a contradictory set outside of work at team building events or on their social media profile. This creates a trust issue with the team, where what their leader says they value and what they show they value are in conflict. By contrast, a servant leader is consistent in their values in both personal and professional life.
Servant leaders have the courage to take a risk and they encourage their team to do so too. They are not afraid to fail as they see this as a learning opportunity, and their team approaches failure the same way. This creates the space needed for innovation! In this space the fear of failure is kept in check and everyone will be less timid and more willing to take calculated risks if the reward is worth it. Courage modeled by the leader will also help communication to flow freely within the team so that good ideas can become great.
The best leaders are good role models, and servant leaders are no exception. They will hold themselves to the same standard they hold their team to. The culture of the team will be one in which everyone owns their choices and actions and doesn’t seek to blame one another. In this environment each team member knows what is expected of them and knows that they will be held accountable for the result. People want to know what the cause and effect of their actions will be; it creates a sense of stability and predictability.
Servant leaders seek first to understand rather than be understood. This results in better listening within the team, and better overall conversation. From a diversity and inclusion angle this also creates a sense of acceptance within the team that members are free to be themselves. When team members feel this way, they can speak freely and without fear of being judged for their perspective. Servant leaders not only model this in their communication with the team but they expect it across communication within the team.
Perhaps most importantly; servant leaders are committed to something much bigger than themselves. They are in service to a purpose or community that is near and dear to their heart and values. Team members who share a similar commitment will be inspired by this leader and committed to the cause. Both the leader and the team understand that their role is to grow that cause or make that vision a reality. Their needs are subordinate to the needs of the greater cause; this is where self-actualization can really happen.
Taken together servant leaders help to create an environment where employees who have their basic needs met can then have their psychological needs met. They do so by empowering the team to grow, giving them credit, making sure they have a voice, and that they act in accordance with their values. Additionally, they create space for innovation, they know what is expected of them, they support one another, and they are committed to the purpose of the organization. This last bit- the commitment to something bigger- that’s where the magic happens. Employees who have all of this will truly align with the purpose of the organization and flourish themselves; resulting in great work and a better community.
Servant leadership is:
- All about serving the team so they can reach their full potential and further the higher purpose of the organization.
- They create an environment where they psychological needs of their team can be met.
- This is done by:
- Empowering the team to grow
- Giving the team credit for wins
- Making sure they have a voice
- Supporting the team acting in accordance with their values
- Creating space for innovation
- Letting the team know what is expected of them
- Fostering a culture of support
- Ensuring commitment to the purpose of the organization
- Servant leadership is one of the strongest mechanisms for creating highly engaged cultures and high-performing teams. Don’t underestimate it!
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