For a while I’ve been thinking about leadership as a learned skill and the needs and requirements for great leadership. From my own perspective one of the most basic tenets of great leadership is the ability to balance the fulfilment of the organisation’s vision with the fulfilment of the basic, as well as the more complex needs of those who work within the organisation.
This has led me to the belief that a leader’s intrinsic strength in visualising and sticking to joint goals, coupled with their capacity for (and ideally love of) satisfying the human needs of their people, is instrumental for leadership.
In much of the reading that I’ve done, and in my consideration of my comfort levels as I question my own personal style of leadership, I’ve always felt most comfortable with the style of Servant Leadership, the modern movement for which being attributed to AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, via his now seminal book The Servant as Leader – very well worth reading. Worth noting that the concept of Servant Leadership has been around for thousands of years, with references to the terminology and culture of servant leadership to be found in such diverse sources as the Gospel of Mark and the Tao Te Ching.
In this piece I wanted to spend a little time talking about what I think are the four most important aspects of the servant leader (and why!).
First on the list, as it stylistically frames all of the other aspects. Humility in this context represents both the attitude and an acknowledgment by the servant leader that they are not omniscient and that their employees will have more knowledge and experience on specific topics than they do.
This is, in my opinion, particularly important for servant leaders in companies dependent on knowledge workers (such as those I’ve always worked in), as there is high probability that employees will absolutely know more about their specialisation (and in fact be employed for their specific knowledge).
The key acknowledgment of the limits of your own knowledge as a servant leader assists in facilitating a learning environment in which employees are encouraged to learn, grow and develop through their own innovation, ideas and experimentation, and through interacting with and learning from others. The potential for, and encouragement to, self-determination provides a hugely positive influence on the culture of the organisation and aids the long-term fostering of a learning culture.
Building on the above is the ability to be real and authentic, which is an acceptance of and encouragement to the organization’s people that not only can they be themselves, but also that the company’s culture and environment genuinely encourages and welcomes this.
Authenticity requires that the servant leader acts with integrity, do what they say they’re going to do and remain consistent in both actions and and words and be true to themselves in every way possible.
The desire to build a strong organisational culture and values can benefit greatly from the above: a culture of authenticity and openness is encouraged and thrives under servant leaders who understand that they are key cultural ambassadors for their organisation. In a sense they are the keystone of the culture that the organisation builds for itself.
3. Stewardship, Empowerment and Clarity
Stretching it on the ‘4’ here but these are all closely interrelated in my opinion!
Stewardship is both the desire and the willingness to be responsible for the larger organisation and to focus attention mainly on service to those whom they lead instead of on control and self-interest.
True servant leaders act in a care-taking role, but also (and just as importantly) as important role models for those around them in the organization. Setting the cultural, value and ethical tone helps to encourage the rest of the organization to act in the common interest and with a strong view to teamwork, loyalty and the social framework and values of the organisation.
Regarding clarity and empowerment: an understanding for every employee in the organization as to the servant leader’s expectations, their role and boundaries (or lack thereof) and clarity on the methods by which they should interact and work with those around them provides increased levels of ownership and the right environment for individual and group achievement.
Clear acknowledgement of the skills, talents and strengths of employees, coupled with an environment that encourages employees in their actions and in their own personal growth can only assist in excellent outcomes and in creating leaders in their own right who understand the key aspects of their responsibilities and value as individuals in the organisation (and the workforce at large).
4. Empathy and Forgiveness
The ability to understand and to experience the motivations, feelings and expectations of others is totally essential in a servant leadership culture. The ability to put yourself in the shoes of those whom you work with as a leader can only make for better and more impactful decision-making, particularly where those decisions have direct impact on those around you (see Authenticity above).
The encouragement to forgive and to move forward is again essential in the creation of a culture where it is accepted that people can, do and will make mistakes – essential in my opinion for innovation to occur naturally inside an organisation and a key cultural aspect for the servant leader to foster.
Acceptance of the individuality of all employees and a desire to treat them as such provides the ground for eliciting the unique perspectives and ideas of employees and additionally ensures that people know hat they matter in the organisation.
Simon was the GM and Head of Business at SitePoint, and a mentor at INCUBATE.