Robert Greenleaf, in the early 70s, coined the term servant leader. He wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
Max De Pree, the long-time CEO of Herman Miller, echoed a similar thought in his book Leadership Is an Art, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”
In a world that values authority, position, and power, servant leadership turns those values on its head. It’s a radical and revolutionary concept. But, it’s an invaluable asset in leading and managing others.
I came to understand this concept early in life. My Daddy owned a shoe store. His core business was to meet the needs of others through selling shoes. And, he did a pretty good job of it. I remember many a day arriving at the store with him and having to weave our way through thirty or forty women waiting to get in to purchase shoes.
When I was in graduate school and needing work, it only made sense for me to work in a shoe store. Whereas my Daddy’s store sold shoes off the rack, my new place of employment was the high-end shoe store where the salesperson measured, retrieved, and fitted the customer with the right shoes.
I learned some invaluable lessons from my shoe clerking days about servant leadership.
- Act in humility.
As a shoe clerk, I knelt before the customer, took off their shoes, measured their feet, retrieved shoes, and placed them on their feet. It was an act of humility.
It’s worth remembering the root of the word humility is humus, meaning dirt or soil. Humility is not thinking lowly of ourselves but thinking accurately of ourselves. It doesn’t mean we are dirt; it means we get down on the dirt.
The servant-leader humbles themselves in spite of their positional role. Some leaders often think their position gives them a vaulted authority and higher right. Often this action produces negative consequences because the leader has assumed the responsibility that is not given. They have usurped their boundaries because of a title. Instead, the position a true servant leader is not first but last, not demanding authority but humbling themselves before others. The servant-leader knows titles, degrees, and jobs are meaningless without an attitude of grace and actions that assist others. The servant leader doesn’t wear a title to show who’s in charge, doesn’t think he’s or she’s better than everyone else.
- Lead with others in mind.
As a shoe clerk, the customer came first. I was to fit them with the shoes they wanted or needed, regardless of my likes or tastes.
The servant leader’s motivation is love for others. Love always puts the needs of others ahead of your own. The leader displays this love through time spent in knowing and responding to the needs of others. Sacrifices of time, money, and prestige are made because of their passion for the people in their care. This love distinguishes genuine leaders.
- Listen to people.
As a shoe clerk, I listened to what the customer wanted. Dress or casual or play shoes? Then, I retrieved the right size and color. Once the shoe was on the feet, I felt the foot to see if the shoes fit correctly. I instructed the customer to walk in the new shoes, as I observed the fit.
Servant leaders listen receptively and nonjudgmentally. They listen because they genuinely want to learn from other people—and to understand the people they serve. They listen deeply. Servant leaders seek first to understand and then to be understood. This discernment enables the servant leader to know when their service is needed. One of the critical traits of a servant leader is listening not only to the words but to the heart.
- Affirm others.
Once the shoes were on the feet of the customer, I affirmed their selection, providing the appropriate compliments and encouragement.
A hallmark of servant leadership is affirmation. Instead of trying to catch someone doing something wrong, servant leaders look for what people are doing right and tell them. They appreciate them. Most people long to be recognized. And, words of encouragement, coming from a leader, can produce powerful and productive goodwill.
- Treat everyone with respect.
I, the shoe clerk, treated every customer with respect and dignity, regardless of age, appearance, or aptitude.
No matter age, status, popularity, or seniority, the servant leader responds to all with the same level of admiration and decorum. They make time for others. They allow for interruptions. They value people. They treat all with dignity.
- Mentor others in their development.
When the shoe store hired new employees, it became my responsibility to train and to equip the new hire in the art of attending to the customers’ needs in the shoe purchasing process.
The servant-leader teaches, trains, and coaches others. They show others how to lead through serving. They provide opportunities for personal growth. Leaders use all situations to teach, train, and mentor people to maturity.
- Cultivate a culture of trust.
I learned quickly in my shoe selling days that I would benefit greatly from returning customers and their referrals. Therefore, through my expertise, kindness, respect, and grace, I sought to build a culture of trust. In time, my customers returned to purchase more shoes and recommended my services to friends and family.
Trust is a needed trait in businesses. Establishing a trusting atmosphere enables the company to move forward. Part of this comes as leaders are faithful to the task and responsibilities assigned to them.
- Care for others.
As a shoe clerk, I wanted to meet the needs of the customer and for them to have a positive buying experience. I cared for them.
We’ve all heard the famous quote, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Being knowledgeable does not make a good leader; being caring does. Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek said, “Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” Servant leaders display kindness and concern for others. As the term servant leadership implies, servant leaders are to serve, not to be served. Servant leaders genuinely care for the people they serve. And, when the leader takes care of his people, they will take care of the customers.
Successful leaders maintain a servant’s heart and thus encourage their people to do the same. Imagine what your business’s culture would look like if you and all of your team become servant leaders. What impact would this have on your customers’ experiences? Only good can come from you showing your people what it means to serve first. I challenge you to explore ways to foster servant leadership in your leadership style and among your team as well.