What are you serving as a leader?

Margaret J. Wheatley said, “Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” Take a moment and ask yourself, what are you serving as a leader? If you answer this question with brutal honesty, you will arrive at the core of your intention or motivation as a leader.

In my coaching work, I see a real struggle between being a servant leader and a self-serving one. Some leaders do not perceive a quick enough “return on investment” in being a servant leader; this is especially true when the organizational culture doesn’t seem to value servant leadership. In such cases, leaders are rewarded for individual results, not team results; this drives them to focus only on doing their personal best, without also helping others to do their best. In a recent study by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, it was revealed that 59% of millennials have zero tolerance for this type of leader. I think it would be fair to say that most of us don’t.

According to Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges in their book The Servant Leader, one of the quickest ways you can tell the difference between a servant leader and a self-serving leader is how they handle feedback. If a self-serving leader feels the feedback threatens his or her status, he or she will react poorly; one of the biggest fears that self-serving leaders have is to lose their position and status (they are thinking with a scarcity mindset), so they spend a great deal of time and effort protecting that status. When you give them feedback, they usually respond negatively because they perceive your constructive feedback as a sign that you don’t want or need their leadership anymore.

Servant leaders, on the other hand, perceive leadership as an act of service and an honor. They have a strong awareness of what is going on and their possible role in the situation and are always absorbing information so they can make informed decisions about people or situations. They embrace and welcome feedback as a source of useful information on how they can provide better value as a leader.

According to Blanchard and Hodges, another way to tell a self-serving leader from a servant leader is how they approach succession planning. Self-serving leaders are addicted to power and recognition, and afraid of loss of position, so they’re not likely to spend much (if any) time or effort training their successors. Servant leaders are always looking for and developing their replacement. Along the way, servant leaders must never forget that their biggest responsibility is to grow and develop people. Bottom line, your employees don’t work for you—you work for them.

In my 20+ years working with leaders across all industries, I have found seven essential traits of being a true SERVANT leader:

  • Selfless: There’s a selfless quality about a servant leader. Others perceive them to have the ability to put their own self-interests aside for the good of the group. Servant leaders have an innate desire to help others. They never do this for their own selfish gain. Servant leaders think “you,” not “me.” They say “we” more than “I.” Someone who is thinking only, “How does this benefit me?” is selfish.

  • Encourager: Encouragement is the hallmark of a servant leader. Servant leaders encourage people to share their ideas because they are genuinely interested in hearing them. They encourage others to work together and encourage a collaborative spirit among individuals and teams. A true servant leader says, “Let’s go do it.”Servant leaders also strive to develop people by encouraging them to reach their highest potential. They seek to connect people to roles that are in alignment with their strengths, desires, and passions, which helps increase their motivation and engagement. This might mean losing good people on your team. However, if you don’t take time to develop people they might quit and stay and then you have an even bigger organizational challenge.

  • Respectful: A servant leader values and respects everyone’s contributions and regularly seeks out opinions even when they might be different from his or her own. If people feel like they must parrot back your opinion, you are not going to be nominated for servant leader of the year award. The best leaders I have ever worked for never made a decision that was going to significantly impact the team without first seeking our feedback and actually listening to it. If they didn’t agree with us, they always explained WHY!

  • Versatile: Servant leaders encourage others to think outside the box. They encourage creativity and innovation and foster an environment where this can occur. They value challenging the way things have always been done. They are also open-minded to change and avoid thinking that this is the way it has always been and therefore, should always be. Servant leaders challenge themselves and their people to do better and be better. They never let you get away with saying you can’t change something because it has always been done that way.

  • Accountable: Servant leaders who are accountable accept complete responsibility for their behavior. They don’t make excuses for it and they don’t place blame on the team. They are willing to admit when they have made a mistake. True servant leaders own failures and tend to give away credit on successes.

  • Nice Servant leaders truly seek to understand what is occurring in their people’s lives and how it impacts them. They make a genuine effort to recognize, perceive, and directly feel the emotions, circumstances, and problems of others. Servant leaders genuinely take an interest in people. Servant leaders “walk a mile” in others’ shoes.

  • Trustworthy: A study by Harvard Business Review revealed only 7% of employees trust their senior leaders. Servant leaders cultivate a culture of trust. Employees who trust their leaders are motivated, more productive, more innovative, and more likely to stay. Trust is not built with large-scale initiatives or big pay increases, but with consistent attention to everyday workplace concerns.

Becoming a servant leader requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness. It  requires you to know your strengths and understand how to maximize them, and it also requires you to know your weaknesses and how to effectively minimize them. You must be willing to see your blind spots and be open to receiving feedback about them. With these seven essential traits in mind, ask yourself some questions about your leadership:

  • Do you really want the input of others, or do you really just want them to agree and validate your opinions and ideas? If the latter is your end game, don’t ask because it will do more harm than good to the relationship with your people.

  • Do you truly listen to what other people are saying with their work and actions, as well as what they’re not saying? Do you listen to understand, or do you just listen to respond? Are you perceived as having listened?

  • Do you communicate effectively through your words and behavior? Are your words and actions aligned? Do you “walk the talk”?

  • Do you take time for regular personal reflection as a way to grow? Do you seek feedback from others to ensure others’ perceptions are in alignment with your own?

  • Do you seek challenges for personal and professional growth? Are you continually seeking to learn and develop yourself and others?

  • Do you advocate for others even when it means you may not get what you want?

  • Are you willing to put your own personal agenda aside for the betterment of others?

All this stuff works. We just have to commit to doing it. We need to continually remind ourselves about the basics of doing the right things to be more servant leader like. This journey requires reflection and a constant commitment to improve yourself.

So take a moment and ask yourself, “What do you want to serve as a leader?” Then, commit to serving it!

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