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Why and how servant leadership is good for business


Most people routinely encounter servant leadership through everyday interactions. They just may not realize it.

Top-flight staff in businesses of all sizes utilize servant leadership, whether it’s:

  • When one employee waits to hold the door for another
  • An executive taking the time to sit and talk with a new employee
  • A fast food employee walking a customer to their car with and umbrella because it’s raining or coming outside in the heat to expedite a busy drive-thru lane

That sustained, consistent and personalized care fosters and nurtures customer loyalty.

The individuals in these examples demonstrate an enthusiastic concern for the needs of others. To do so consistently, while also putting one’s own needs second, is the essence of servant leadership. Stephen Covey, in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

All things being equal (tasks, salary, working conditions), companies with consistent, reliable customer service are ultimately rooted in a culture where management values servant leadership.

Ask yourself:

  1. Why should it be any different when it comes to your own employees?
  2. What’s to be gained from embracing servant leadership over other styles?
  3. How can you, as a leader, create a company culture where staff at every level – from the front lines of customer service to the C-suite – engage in servant leadership?

Let’s think about some key concepts to help you develop some answers.

Influence vs. power

When creating a workplace culture, there are two primary ways leaders engineer an environment or create a climate.

  1. Meet staff needs through servant leadership.
  2. Meet staff needs through power, force and control.

The former approach is selfless; the latter – to coin a phrase – is “self-more.”

Here’s the trick: Unless we’re careful and intentional about our efforts and work consistently to build our influence through servant leadership, it’s easy to slip into power and control mode.

It’s difficult to put ourselves second. To do so routinely requires practice and dedication. With time and concentrated effort, however, you can accomplish more when you work from a place of influence.

This is true of all sorts of relationships, frankly, not just in business. We tend to find it easier to treat customers with more consideration than we do people with whom we interact daily. Employees, coworkers, friends and family are more apt to bear the brunt of our daily frustrations. They’re expected to just understand us.

Yet, when you interact from a place of consideration and kindness, people can be more willing to respect and listen to advice, to honor reasonable requests.

In these instances, you’re demonstrating the same behaviors at the core of servant leadership: choosing influence over power.

Building influence

If you want to motivate large groups of people, you must build trust, understanding and value your people. That requires an investment of time, energy and care.

No wonder the military relies upon servant leadership as its predominant style. Senior officers inspire investment and trust in the organization, from top to bottom. When they’re called into action, our service men and women not only know what to do but do it with dedication and determination.

When implementing servant leadership to achieve optimal productivity levels, your staff needs appropriate:

  • Training
  • Resources
  • Equipment
  • Support
  • Appreciation for their uniqueness

Great servant leaders meet the needs of their people first then reap the rewards themselves second. Simon Sinek, in his book “Leaders Eat Last,” does a great job sharing this philosophy.

When you’re motivating and leading someone through influence (rather than power), you don’t ignore uniqueness. Instead, you center on it because you know understanding builds connections. That’s why servant leadership has lasting impact on relationships throughout a small business or large company, between supervisors and supervisees and also between coworkers.

The dangers of power

A company culture dependent solely upon motivation through power can result in:

  • Rebellion
  • Mistrust
  • Passive behaviors
  • A lack of creativity and imagination

Power comes at the cost of relationship.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t many instances in which leaders must exert some degree of power, especially in settings in which health and safety matters are involved. Yet, if you’ve built an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in the first place – one in which employees know you have their best interests at heart – it’s much easier to gain engagement and discretionary effort.

Basically, trust breeds trust and reliability. And fear? It breeds mistrust and misunderstanding.

Now, which workplace would you prefer to spend your days? Which atmosphere is going to have the most appeal for employees, customers and clients?

Beyond the golden rule

You’re probably familiar with the golden rule, which invites us to do unto others as we’d have done unto ourselves. But it’s important to go beyond that and to meet people where they are.

In a nutshell, that’s what servant leadership is about.

By understanding individual personality traits, the chemistry between peers and how team members work under routine and high-stress situations, you can develop useful strategies to motivate them.

When you understand motives, hindrances and other individual differences, you can more effectively tap into your organization’s human capital.

In the sports world, leaders discuss if an athlete is “coachable” (i.e. willing to take and respond promptly to constructive feedback). What isn’t talked about enough is whether we’re coaching optimally. If you can enhance our own management skills and abilities, the entire company culture benefits.

Ultimately, this is reflected in the bottom line, although perhaps not in ways we’re used to considering:

  • Happy staff members tend to be inclined to stick around.
  • Less turnover means less money spent recruiting and training staff.
  • Less time is lost on the essential functions because position vacancies are fewer and far between.
  • Enthusiastic, talented employees tend to refer and attract similar coworkers while treating clients and customers well.

Reaping what we sow

Here’s something you’ll be surprised to hear me admit:

Power works.

It does, but only for a little while.

You’ll get results – and some of them might be quite satisfactory at first. But with unchecked power comes resentment and other negative behaviors. You simply won’t get the harvest that you’d produce by cultivating a culture that nurtures your team. “You can get several seasons out of power, you will reap a harvest out of influence.”

A good example of this phenomena can be found in parenting.

Experts talk about how authoritarian approaches (which rely on power, coercion and insistence on full compliance) are less effective in the long run than authoritative (thoughtful, measured and responsive) styles.

If one relies upon shouting, punitive punishment, shame and other forms of non-verbal and emotional force, a parent may get compliance in the present. Yet there’s a real risk kids won’t comply – or respect – demands when they are older.

Raising your voice to an 8-year-old may get her out the door (perhaps in tears), but the same approach with a 15-year-old will deepen the misunderstanding and lessen the influence at the cost of the relationship. Now try using power regularly with an employee.

As the popular saying goes, an employee is more inclined to quit a poor manager than a company. And word about negative supervisors and workplaces tends to spread.

Fortunately, the same is also true about good companies and effective, influential bosses. And that’s another reason to choose to be an influencer through servant leadership.

Embracing influence

If you’d like to fine-tune your servant leadership skills, then let’s consider the fundamentals.

To be an effective servant leader, you must:

  • Be honest and accountable for your actions to both superiors and subordinates
  • Be competent and well-suited for the job at hand
  • Be willing to learn and grow as a manager – be coachable
  • Possess (or be willing to cultivate) a high degree of emotional intelligence
  • Believe in the organization’s mission and the individual employee’s role in that organization

Self-awareness about one’s own strengths and struggles is vital, even before you try to assess the same in your employees.

In the practical application of servant leadership, it’s helpful to remember that if something is meaningful to your employee, then it should be meaningful to you.

A good example: how you approach an employee prone to asking questions in meetings.

When you’re working on your own goals and objectives, you may feel frustrated with probing questions. If your otherwise solid, dependable employee has a need for additional information, take the time to listen and respond respectively.

Remember: Other employees are watching and listening, too. Every encounter, no matter how brief, is an opportunity to reinforce your influence within your company culture. Ask yourself a simple question, how do I want to be remembered after this interaction?

Summing it all up

Becoming a servant leader requires intentionality and a willingness to talk about it, think about it and model it.

For it to take root and flourish requires that you approach every decision and interaction with respectfulness and a servant’s heart, ever mindful of others and their needs. With practice, that positive attitude will spread not only through your office but also into encounters with customers, clients and prospects.

Bottom line: Servant leadership can be great for business.

For more tips and advice on enhancing your leadership style, download and read our complimentary magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.