How To Be A Servant Leader (And Avoid Becoming A Self-Serving One)

Who here has had the distinct displeasure of working with a manager who is self-centered, a terrible listener, unapologetic, unavailable, and worse? Sadly, most people I’ve talked to about this have had multiple experiences like this – it’s too common in the workplace.

That’s why when I recently heard Tommy Spaulding speak about servant leadership during a work conference, my heart got excited and dare I say it, even hopeful, for one day changing the manager-employee narrative to a more collaborative and empowering one.

What is ‘servant leadership’?

The original definition of servant leadership was penned by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay published in 1970. Greenleaf declared the most important characteristic of being a servant leader is making one’s main priority to serve rather than lead.

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible,” described from The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership website.

Examples of servant leadership in the corporate world

While most of us have had few and far between servant leaders in our work lives (if any), there are notable companies whose organizational leadership has cultivated servant leadership in their culture.

I first experienced servant leadership at the workplace while interning at Nordstrom. As a Nordstrom college intern, I saw the leadership team encouraging management to best support and empower sales and support employees so they could create a fantastic experience for their customers. Even as an intern, I had the autonomy to make judgment-based decisions.

Their operating philosophy is summarized in one-line, “Use good judgment in all situations.” I was also encouraged to share new ideas and try out different strategies to experiment and determine best practices for my work. Often, employees were recognized for their hard work and success with shout outs at team meetings, fun competitions, and perks. Read more about Nordstrom’s servant leadership culture.

You don’t have to be a company employee to recognize servant leadership in action. We can all think about companies that do their best to make customers happy and will make things right if they’re wrong.

Starbucks has built a servant leadership culture where they value employees first. They emphasize supporting subordinates via a culture of belonging, inclusion, and diversity to prioritize everyone’s growth in the company. Openness in the form of encouraging employees to communicate with superiors and ask questions and building relationships with colleagues is also engrained into the organizational culture.

Want to learn more about which companies prioritize servant leadership? Check out Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, and you won’t be surprised that many organizations self-identify as companies that practice servant leadership. 

Qualities of a servant leader

I’ve been highlighting companies that practice servant leadership, but not just companies do this – individuals exercise servant leadership, too. Think back to your favorite manager and consider what made them your favorite supervisor. Did they practice transparency, humility, or empathy? What qualities did they exude that made them compelling to follow as a leader?

Below is a list of soft skills that effective servant leaders emanate:

Acting intentionally
Dedicating time for others
Empowering others
Removing obstacles
Serving others
Helping with humility
Interact with integrity

How enlightening would it feel to walk into work tomorrow and feel trusted, valued, and empowered by your boss/company to do your job? Similarly, how badass would it feel to start practicing these skills yourself and incorporating them into your own professional career? You can be a servant leader, too.

Bring servant leadership up at a team meeting or with a colleague. Have a discussion about what it means and what it could look like if intentionally implemented at your workplace or ideas for how to start incorporating it into your work life (I bet it wouldn’t hurt to practice these skills in your personal life, too!).

Remember, you don’t have to do everything to do something that makes a positive impact. Let us know what you decide to try out!


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