Has a manager ever skipped their lunch break to help you craft an email response? Have you seen your CEO carry product boxes up a flight of stairs? Has your boss picked you up from the airport after a business trip?
These are small but mighty examples of servant leadership. Yet, servant leadership theory is more than having a pay-it-forward attitude at the office. Servant leadership can define the culture and environment of your business.
Below we’ll break down what servant leadership is and provide real-life examples of the theory put into practice.
What Is Servant Leadership Theory?
Robert K. Greenleaf was the first person to articulate servant leadership theory. In 1970, Greenleaf used his experience as the director of management development at AT&T to publish an essay titled “The Servant as a Leader.” In the essay, Greenleaf states:
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
The theory flips a traditional top-to-bottom leadership approach on its head. Instead, servant leaders focus on the needs of the individuals rather than their needs or their superiors’ needs.
Greenleaf’s theory may seem like sunshine and rainbows when it comes to a social setting but how can it apply to your business? Servant leadership in business isn’t about you becoming an aimless do-gooder. It’s about creating a culture where everyone within your business matters. Servant leadership often goes unnoticed but it can lead to significant changes in the identity of your business that will make an impact on your employees and customers alike.
5 Servant Leadership Characteristics
Servant leadership is one of the easiest ways to impact your business culture. It doesn’t take a technical mindset or charismatic charm, just a commitment to look up from your email and notice others. Here are the identifiable servant leader characteristics that can bolster your business right now.
1. Empathy for Others
The ability to understand the feelings of others is a foundational characteristic of servant leadership. It doesn’t mean you need a social work degree but you must empathize with your people.
Ask your employees about the challenges they’re facing at work and life outside of work. Listen to their struggles, wins, and goals. This behavior can’t happen once a year in a 1-on-1 touch base; you must consistently be engaged with others and understand the challenges facing your team, business partners, and customers.
2. Commitment to the Growth of Others
By understanding the feelings of others, you can commit to supporting their growth. You can spot a business dedicated to servant leadership because people constantly improve and grow. Servant leadership puts value in the success of the majority rather than consolidating power under the few.
As the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats;” so too can career development help everyone within your business. Do this by investing in career development resources, creating a mentorship program, or a clear internal leadership pathway.
Many businesses say that they’re committed to the growth of their customers but rarely show it. Ensuring your business has a customer-centric mindset will help guide your business strategy and build loyalty to your brand.
Invest in others. They will be the future leaders within your business and the customers that stick with you through thick and thin.
3. Going Above and Beyond
As an entrepreneur, you naturally embody this servant-leadership characteristic. The concept of getting your hands dirty to help your business succeed should be second nature at this point, and it’s a characteristic you’ll continue to refine as your business grows.
Going above and beyond can be simple as delivering a product to a customer or vacuuming the floors of your workspace. But as you scale your business, you’ll find it harder to jump in and help in a hands-on way.
That’s where you need to think creatively to show your team and customers that they matter. For example, host a goal celebration at your home, answer customer service calls during a busy period, or write thank you notes to your contractors.
The more you show your commitment to the little things, the more you will inspire your team to do the same.
4. Show Don’t Tell
How frustrating is it to have a friend that always cancels on you at the last minute? Your customers and team feel the same when you don’t do what you say you’re going to do. Servant leadership is about actions, not words.
If your business’s mission is to provide eco-friendly cooking supplies but you have plastic forks littered across your break room, what sort of message does that send? Don’t just tell your employees that you care about their mental health—offer them mental health sick days or add virtual counseling to their benefits package. Likewise, don’t tell a potential client that the website you want to build for them will be a game-changer—instead, show them data on how you’ve generated 10x return on investment for a similar-sized company.
Slogans, rousing speeches, and presentations have their value. But your actions as a business leader are what stand the test of time.
5. Humble Generosity
Speaking of “show, don’t tell…” How about giving out raises instead of handshakes or giving a loyal customer an unexpected discount? Servant leadership requires you to give up time, talent, or treasure for the betterment of others. There are many different ways to be generous, and by embodying the above characteristics of servant leadership, you’ll know how to fulfill the needs of others.
The key to generosity is having a humble attitude. Don’t just offer a blanket discount because you know it will generate sales; offer a discount because it will help your customers be successful. The same humble attitude is required when leading a team. People can typically sniff out when a leader is insincere, overcompensating, or giving out iPods at the Secret Santa party to make people like them.
Be generous and lead with grace and humility. It’s a servant leadership characteristic that will make people flock to your business.
Benefits and Downsides of Servant Leadership
Servant leadership is a personal and emotional way to encourage and motivate others, yet its characteristics can sometimes clash with business demands. Below are the benefits and downsides of servant leadership that you need to know before implementing it into your business.
Benefits of Servant Leadership:
- Creates a culture of unity, transparency, and stability
- Encourages everyone to play a part in the organization’s purpose
- Motivates employees to model behavior across teams
- Customers and partners feel valued and connected to the organization
Downsides of Servant Leadership:
- Difficult to build a strong brand off of the leader’s personality
- Talent retention can be poor because of a lack of growth pathways
- Slow decision making and overcomplication of problems
- The leader’s focus can be easily distracted
3 Servant Leadership Examples In Business
Servant leaders in the business world aren’t typically generating headlines or trending on Twitter. If you want to find examples of servant leaders, look for brands that live out the characteristics of servant leadership in how they conduct their business. Here are 3 examples of business leaders that are successfully modeling servant leadership.
1. Cheryl Bachelder: Author and Former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
You may not expect a fast-food chicken chain to reflect servant leadership. Still, CEO Cheryl Bachelder has ingrained practices of caring for others and generosity at every level of the organization. After starting as CEO of Popeyes in 2007, she helped raise profits company-wide by 45%. In addition, she implemented a corporate rebrand to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen that brought the company back to profitability and the original homegrown values.
Bachelder attributes the turnaround to listening to the franchise owners and focusing on their success as the main priority of the corporation.
“We put every decision we made through the filter of how well it served the franchise owner. Then, over the course of the next several years we checked performance against the measures of what makes franchise owners successful. Together, we’ve created this high-performing company.”
Her book Dare to Serve shares the servant leadership strategies she applied to Popeyes and her long career in corporate America. Cheryl’s lessons show that servant leadership can not only change a business’ culture but influence its bottom line.
2. Dan Price: Founder and CEO of Gravity Payments
Dan Price cofounded Gravity Payments as a 19-year-old to help small businesses earn more on credit card transactions. In 2015, he garnered a celebrity-like status for raising the minimum wage of his employees to $70,000.
Since then, Gravity Payments has tripled its revenue. In addition, Price’s philosophies have earned him 100,000+ social media followers, most notably on LinkedIn, where he shares wisdom on leadership, business, and how to treat employees better.
Where did this revolution of employee relations come from? It all started with a conversation Price had with one of his employees. By listening to his people, Price was able to adjust his business philosophy and focus on the holistic health of his employees. The conversation led to more productivity, public will, and business success.
3. Ari Weinzweig: CEO of Zingerman’s
How does a small Midwest deli become globally recognized for its business practices? Ari Weinzweig cofounded Zingerman’s Deli in 1982 and quickly expanded Zingerman’s brand to incorporate a collection of businesses including a coffee roaster, bakery, catering company, creamery, full-service restaurant, and more.
Although Zingerman’s cult foodie status grew because of the tastiness of its pastries, it also built notoriety because of Weinzweig’s leadership philosophy. Weinzweig used servant leadership to flip the traditional service industry model on its head. As CEO, Weinzweig sees his primary customers as the leaders of the separate business entities. In turn, the leaders of each Zingerman’s business view the service managers as their primary customers. This focus goes all the way to the employee at the service counter. Weinzweig explains why this style of leadership works:
“Why? Because the front-line staff are nearly always the people who are dealing with paying customers and/or making the products we sell. And we want to make sure their energy is freed to give the best possible service to customers coming in the front door, over the phone or via email. Why? Because, quite simply; the better the service we give to those front-line customers, the better the organization is going to perform.”
Weinzweig is an example of how servant leadership can be applied in even the most common of businesses and can help you differentiate in the market. Because of Zingerman’s success, Weinzweig has built ZingTrain, a training platform that shares its business models of success with fellow business leaders.
How Can You Be a Servant Leader?
Even if listening and serving others doesn’t come naturally, creating servant leadership habits will make you a well-rounded leader and person. Here’s how you can start becoming a servant leader in your business.
- Listen, observe, and ask questions: This may seem simple but there’s a difference between asking “How was your weekend?” and listening to the needs of your employees. To listen effectively takes observation skills. You’ll need to see past generic answers of “I’m doing fine” or “The project is going okay” because typically, your employees are going to be more guarded in how they respond to you. This is why spending 1-on-1 time with your team members is so critical. It will create the space to ask questions safely and listen.
- Review your routines: If you want to incorporate servant leadership in your business repertoire, review your routines and how they impact others. Are you doing something every day that benefits your team, or is your schedule full of bettering yourself? You may have to sacrifice exercise or email time to find ways to show genuine care for your team. Send a daily Slack message with an encouraging quote, schedule a weekly team lunch where you pick up the tab, or greet every team member when they enter the office.
- Promote others: Get the spotlight off of you and put it on others. Promote your team members and their accomplishments. Have a manager co-lead the next staff meeting with you, create a digital board where your team can celebrate wins, or start your version of the “employee of the month.” More importantly, identify potential leaders within your team, give them responsibility, and compensate them for it.
- Clean a bathroom: When was the last time you cleaned a bathroom? Sometimes doing the seemingly menial tasks within your organization will help ground you as a leader and communicate to your team that no job is more important than the other. No matter how successful your business becomes, don’t forget the things that got you there and the importance of every person within your team.
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