Last night, I was honored to participate in a panel on Servant Leadership at Hope College’s Center for Faithful Leadership. The panel was part of the college’s mentoring program. Below are the questions we covered and my responses (including more content than covered in the session) :
1. What does Servant Leadership mean to you?
For me, Servant Leadership is the only real form of leadership. After all, if you’re not serving others, you are not leading. If your primary ambition is self-motivated for personal success, fame and fortune and not for a greater cause, then all you’re really doing is pursuing vain ambitions.
In contrast to the self-serving individual, servant leaders seek to help others become something greater. They put all stakeholders before themselves in some degree. Some people think servant leadership means only serving your employees, the poor or any singular constituency, but it’s really about understanding the needs of the broader organization. So, in business for example, this means yes, serving your employees, but it also means serving your customers, supervisors and investors.
2. Why should we strive to become servant leaders?
Not only is servant leadership the only real form of leadership – it’s also the greatest. When you think of leaders that motivate you, chances are they’re serving you and others, first. While it is possible to become successful in business, athletics, academics or other fields by yourself, you can only go so far on your own. Nobody changed the world by themselves. People, supporters and team members want genuine, authentic leaders with noble motives and intentions.
Fewer people support the leader today who just wants to make a profit. Instead, people want to follow greater causes. This is true in every field – not just altruistic causes. In business, people don’t just want to make more money – they want to provide a better lifestyle for their investors, while making their customer’s lives better. So the greedy CEO who is willing to win at any cost will find fewer and less dedicated followers.
3. How does one become a servant leader?
Put the needs of others before your own. You don’t have to sacrifice everything, but you should strive for the greater good before your own fame, fortune or glory. From my own experience, I did not start this way. When I was a college student myself, I had never heard the term servant leadership. In fact, I was pretty close to the opposite. If someone asked me if I believed in these principles, I am sure I would have agreed, from a theoretical perspective. However, the reality was quite different.
I wanted to be the next Bill Gates, Donald Trump or any wildly successful technology entrepreneur. I wanted my name in lights. But then something happened. I met my first servant leader in business.
This man was contrary to everything I thought you had to be in business. I thought you had to be cold and heartless. I thought you had to always be looking out for number one. But this manager was always looking out for others, always had time to hear my concerns, always helped his staff and always framed decisions in how they would impact the broader organization. Over time I met several other servant leaders and worked for many similar managers.
Then something changed. I began to experience other leaders and organizations that were much less service focused. Yet in some way, every manager or leader was successful. The difference I witnessed was in how each leader got their results. The servant leaders had a great degree of sustainability. Their happy staffs had lower turnover, the organizations ran on lower overhead as a result and people enjoyed their jobs. In contrast, the more self-centered, autocratic leaders had higher turnover, lower morale and greater overhead expenses as a result.
This all culminated when I worked for a true narcissist. This senior executive had a nasty habit of hiring and firing people within a year. I was responsible for one-half of his team and we’d grown successfully over the course of two years. We had great results to report and the team seemed, overall, fairly happy with their work. In contrast, the other half of his team had turned over three full times in the same 2 years. They faced serious audits and were under great scrutiny both internally and externally. Much of the work in the area had to be outsourced for continuity and stabilization.
I had to find a better way of explaining this better way of leadership I now tried to practice. And so began my long journey to raise awareness and support of Servant Leadership. So while I still have a long way to go, it is possible for someone not initially servant leader-focused to develop these skills.
4. What is most rewarding about servant leadership?
Seeing others succeed. I’ll never forget the day I heard an employee on one the teams I was responsible for say he wanted to ensure he always tried to practice servant leadership. I introduced the concept to him months earlier and he was so impressed at how it generated broader success and results for all that he’d adopted it as his own philosophy. When I saw it listed in his career development plan later that year, it was all I could do to keep from shouting with joy. The concept is infectious and it helps us all win together.
5. What is most challenging about servant leadership?
For me, it’s checking your own pride and ego at the door. I still struggle with this myself and I suspect I’m not the only one. Would I still like to see my name in lights, on that magazine cover or attached to some big award or title? Sure, at times. But when I die, I don’t want them to say I won some great awards or was recognized as some great expert. I want them to say I helped build something greater than myself, something others were proud of and that I helped spread that approach. So you have to be willing and wanting to truly help others. Again, not just your team, but all stakeholders.
Following the formal panel, I was impressed by the students and their mentors’ questions and comments. The group recognized a growing trend among “generation Me” to focus on self-promotion and the resulting need for greater servant leadership. Yet, at the same time, there were great examples they referenced of servant leadership in business, both from direct experience at organizations like Ford (which also had an example of autocratic leadership), Fleetwood and a local restaurant as well as among non-profits and service organizations. The students recognized the greater results and benefits from servant leadership and seemed clearly aligned with these beliefs. As a result, I was encouraged by the session, these student’s perspectives and Hope College’s development of those they serve in this space.
Note: My thanks to Dr. Steve VanderVeen, Marcia Floding, Hope College, Center for Faithful Leadership staff and co-panelist Jinny DeJong for this opportunity to develop greater awareness and support for Servant Leadership principles. You are all great servant leaders. Please continue the great work.
Question: What servant leaders have you known and how have they helped you?