“The business of business is people. Yesterday, today, and forever. We decided that our internal customers, our employees, came first. The synergy in our opinion is simple: Honour, respect, care for, protect, and reward your employees regardless of title or position, and in turn they will treat each other and their external customers in a warm, caring, and hospitable way.” – Herb Kelleher. Co-Founder & CEO of Southwest Airlines
You’ve probably heard the phrase “servant leadership” thrown around a lot in the business world. But what does it really mean, and more importantly, how can it propel your business to new heights?
Servant leadership, as coined by Robert Greenleaf, is centred around serving others rather than wielding authority. At its core, servant leadership is a philosophy that puts the needs of others, your team, first. It’s about empowering, supporting, and nurturing the people who work for you, so they can grow, develop, and contribute their best to your business. It’s about creating an environment where everyone can thrive and succeed, not just the person at the top. We often forget that while we pay employees to do their job, their best is volunteered.
Sounds simple right? But I’ve got to be honest, it’s not always easy to put this philosophy into practice, especially when you’re under pressure to deliver results and keep the wheels of your business turning. That’s why I’m going to break down the key principles of servant leadership and show you how to apply them in your own small business with real-world examples.
The Mindset Shift: From Boss to Servant Leader
The first step in becoming a servant leader is shifting your mindset from being the boss who calls the shots to being a leader who serves and supports your team. This requires letting go of your ego, embracing humility, and recognizing that your success as a business owner is directly tied to the success of your team. Instead of focusing on your own needs and desires, find out what your team needs and wants.
The Power of Empathy and Active Listening
A key aspect of servant leadership is developing empathy for your team members. This means understanding their feelings, motivations, and challenges, and using that knowledge to guide your actions and decisions. Practise active listening: give your full attention to your team members when they speak, ask open-ended questions, and refrain from interrupting or imposing your own opinions. By doing this, you’ll create stronger connections and foster an atmosphere of trust and respect.
The Importance of Building Trust and Fostering Collaboration
Trust is the foundation of servant leadership. To build trust, be open and transparent with your team, admit your mistakes, and follow through on your commitments. Encourage collaboration and teamwork by breaking down silos and fostering a culture of open communication. This will not only enhance your team’s performance but also create a more enjoyable work environment.
The Art of Coaching and Developing Your Team
As a servant leader, your role is to help your team members grow and reach their full potential. Invest in their professional development through internal and external coaching, courses, and providing opportunities for growth. Give regular, constructive feedback, and be willing to have difficult conversations when necessary. Invest in your team’s growth, and you’ll grow your business too.
The Secret to Empowering Decision-Making and Accountability
Empower your team members to make decisions and take ownership of their work. This means giving them the autonomy and authority to make choices within their areas of responsibility, while also holding them accountable for the outcomes. By doing this, you’ll create a culture of accountability and foster a sense of ownership and pride in their work.
The Balance Between Results and Relationships
As a servant leader, you need to strike the right balance between driving results and nurturing relationships. While achieving your business goals is crucial, it’s important not to lose sight of the people who make those results possible. Prioritise the well-being of your team and maintain an open, supportive environment where everyone can contribute their best.
Servant leadership is best understood when we examine real-world examples of its application. Let’s delve into a few instances that illustrate typical actions of servant leaders:
- Servant leaders routinely reach out to their team members to identify any obstacles or challenges they may be facing. Rather than placing blame for missed deadlines or inadequate deliverables, they engage in open conversations, asking specific questions about potential roadblocks, collaboration issues, software challenges, or bottlenecks. Don’t wait for them to come to you, proactively ask them how you can help.
- Servant leaders understand the importance of celebrating employee successes and creating a culture of appreciation. Imagine a company that goes the extra mile to recognise and uplift their employees. Have a celebration platform (eg. a dedicated slack channel) where employee achievements can be acknowledged by the entire team. This practice not only boosts morale and employee engagement but also sends a powerful message that employees’ hard work and dedication are not only noticed but valued by their leaders and peers alike.
- Birthdays or special occasions should also be celebrated, they are an opportunity to show employees how much they are valued as individuals. Use these occasions to list all the reasons why the person was a fantastic colleague and highlight their achievements throughout the year. Additionally, make sure these acknowledgments are documented and make them a part of your routine performance reviews. It’s a heartwarming gesture that adds a personal touch and makes employees feel truly appreciated.
- Servant leaders also communicate transparently. Don’t leave your employees in the dark when it comes to organisational changes or announcements. For example, when you introduce new policies, servant leaders go the extra mile to schedule meetings or send detailed emails explaining the rationale behind these changes, their implementation plans, and how they will impact the employees. This level of transparency fosters trust, reduces uncertainty, and helps employees understand the context and implications of the decisions made.
There are many companies that have implemented servant leadership to great success. PepsiCo, Starbucks, and Microsoft among them. Another prominent example that has embraced servant leadership principles and experienced significant growth is The Motley Fool. The company’s co-founders, David and Tom Gardner, believed in creating a culture that nurtured and empowered employees. They recognised that by putting the needs of their employees first, they would foster a sense of ownership, commitment, and innovation. In fact, David Gardner has repeatedly acknowledged that their company culture “is a defining element of our success.” By prioritising employee development, trust, and collaboration, The Motley Fool has been able to cultivate and retain a high-performing team that is passionate about their work and dedicated to serving customers.
Their success serves as an inspiration for small businesses looking to adopt servant leadership principles and unleash the full potential of their teams.
While it does take a lot of effort to implement a culture of servant leadership, the resulting benefits speak for themselves. Follow these steps and see for yourself the power of servant leadership in action.