As retailers bombard us with Black Friday emails urging us to buy, buy, buy, I’m reminded of the Bible’s exhortation that “It is better to give than receive” (Acts 20:35). While I may have struggled with the concept as a child, I now know this to be true and, as a proponent of servant leadership, am convinced of its merits. By putting others’ needs first, the servant-leader derives enormous personal benefits as well as helping those around them. You could call it the win-win of servant leadership.

Defining servant leadership

The concept of the servant-leader was developed by Robert K Greenleaf in his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader, in which he wrote:

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong… The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Greenleaf notes that, at the other end of the scale, there may be found a very different kind of top-down leader, one who wants to lead “because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

I’m not especially religious, but I am acutely aware of the benefits for my well-being of living in a state of ‘love and abundance’ (which is where I’d place servant leadership) rather than ‘fear and scarcity’ (where a top-down leader would reside). As such I derive great joy and personal happiness from doing things for others, taking time to surprise them and trying to exceed their expectations.

Mutual benefits

Servant leadership is also an excellent tool for overcoming our own inadequacies. As humans we are all innately insecure (even if some resist admitting it!) and too often such feelings hold us back from achieving our best. At their worst, imposter syndrome or other forms of self-doubt can prevent us from ever fulfilling our potential.

But it is also true that we only ever bring our insecurities into focus when we are thinking about ourselves. By practising servant leadership and putting our full attention onto others, and how we can help the greater good, all thoughts of our own failings are banished.

Bringing out the best in others also brings out the best in us.

Organisational benefits of servant leadership 

Servant-leaders foster a strong sense of community and teamship within their organisations, which leads to higher engagement, greater levels of trust and increased innovation. The psychological safety created by this supportive environment enhances honesty and openness, engendering a ‘speak up’ culture and enabling teams to learn collaboratively.

This sense of shared endeavour is something we’ve explored in another blog which looks at the importance of being of value rather than being ‘a success’, which leads to an important caveat about servant leadership: while the servant-leader focuses on the needs of others, it’s important not to confuse this with focusing on their feelings.

Servant leadership does not mean avoiding making unpopular decisions or giving negative feedback when necessary. Key skills such as listening, empathy and communication are vital for building value into the relationship between a servant-leader and their team, and creating the right growth conditions for both parties.

Ask yourself: what are the one or two things you could do today to be more of a servant leader for your team? Try it and let us know how you get on. After all, iTS Leadership!

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