How to develop into a servant leader

We need to understand in Nigeria that bossing around employees is so behind the times. Developing people, treating them with respect, encouraging their talents and input—these are trends that research has proven build strong companies and give them the competitive edge. Servant leadership—the philosophy of focusing first on the needs of employees and customers—has gained popularity in recent years.

“If you really listen to your colleagues and figure out how to get them what they need, they will perform at a higher level, which improves the customer experience, which affects business results,” says Kent Keith. The world is increasingly competitive, and the work required for companies to succeed is more knowledge-based and depends on employees being creative and making good judgments. It makes sense to invest in growing employees in order to grow the capacity of a company.

The essence of servant leadership—serves the employees first, and success with clients will follow—might appear to be the antithesis of modern business. The roots of the philosophy are thousands of years old, with examples dating back to the 4th century B.C. In contemporary practice, it means actively listening to employees, treating them as people with needs, interests and failings, and respecting their roles in the company and the world.

Southwest Airlines’ former CEO Herb Kelleher believed that his company’s flight attendants were the airline’s most important leaders because they had the biggest impact on the customer experience. Those who have flown the airline know that Southwest flight attendants are some of the happiest people in the air. The corporate culture is often identified as an example of servant leadership, says Hunter, and the company is one of the industry’s most profitable. “The test of true leadership is whether employees leave the company better than when they got there,” Hunter says. “You want everyone growing and changing and improving. That is the only way your company will grow and change and improve.”

Unfortunately, the concept of servant leadership tends to evoke high-level philosophical meanderings with little practical application. However, advocates say that there are everyday habits leaders can incorporate into their management routines that can have powerful results.

As a leader, you should pay attention to how you interact in face-to-face conversations, large groups and meetings, Keith advises. How do you communicate with your peers, subordinates, vendors and customers? How much do you really hear what they are saying? Do you understand what they need? Find meaningful ways to invite employee feedback and suggestions, like peer evaluations or an idea box.

Do you treat the assistant the same as the executive? The waiter the same as the banker? The leader sets the level of respect within the organization. Also, do you offer your employees the tools to become the best they can be? What do you provide in terms of training, new job development, book clubs or other personal growth tools? The emphasis should be on coaching as opposed to controlling.

“People already have power and energy. They can use it or not use it,” Keith says. “How can you help them develop it?” Focus on decentralizing as many decisions as possible so employees can use the power of their experience to help the company. Those with direct customer contact should be involved in customer service policy making, and those in operations should have a say over those decisions. “Everyone is already showing up and getting paid. Why wouldn’t you want each one to make the biggest contribution he or she can make?” Keith asks.

Over the years, I have spent some quality time researching the DNA of high-performing companies, and much to my surprise the leaders at most of those companies did not fit commonly espoused theories of leadership. You know many people believe that great leaders are charismatic, have a commanding presence, and are visionary and educated at elite schools. But to my utmost surprise, almost all the leaders of the high-performing companies that I studied had none of those traits. Instead, they are what I call servant leaders.

I have come to conclude that high performing leaders do share common characteristics: One, they are servants in the best sense of the word. They are people-centric, valued service to others and believe they have a duty of stewardship. They are humble and passionate leaders who are deeply involved in the details of the business. They do have long tenures in their organizations and they do not forget what it is like to be a line employee.

Two, they believe that every employee should be treated with respect and have the opportunity to do meaningful work. They lead by example, live the “Golden Rule,” and understand that good intentions are not enough — behaviours count. They serve the organization and its multiple stakeholders. They are servant leaders!

As a first-class leadership and management consultant, I have met with many people who think that a leader cannot be people-centric and maintain high standards, because employees will take advantage. This is another leadership myth. The truth is; people-centric environments and high performance are not mutually exclusive. Employees in companies and organizations being led by servant leaders do usually have high emotional engagement, loyalty and productivity, and outperform the competition on a daily basis over long periods of time. In fact, the relationship between high performance, high employee engagement and how you treat employees is compelling.

Most people seek a leadership position because they want more pay, more prestige, more perks and more power. They seek and fall for the intoxicating powers of leadership. Servant leaders side step that failing. They are paid more, but very few ever make the highest-paid CEOs list. Instead, they fight elitism in themselves and their organisations.

See you where servant leaders are found!