All Leadership Is Servant Leadership

5 minute read

When I find myself having similar conversations with multiple clients, it’s a cue that the topic is something many people struggle with or are curious about, so it makes sense to discuss it here. Today’s topic is a great example. I’ve noticed that new ‘leaders’ commonly aren’t told that, in addition to all of their other new job responsibilities, there are some unwritten ones at the bottom of their to-do list. These ‘back burner’ tasks aren’t intuitive ones, because they relate to our efforts to care for those we hope to enroll in following us. This is an especially frequent occurrence among professionals who move into leadership roles early in their careers, particularly if they are working in an organization that does not have strong foundational leadership development practices.

As we’ve discussed before, leadership is the willingness of those we would lead to move in the direction that we’re trying to take the organization. This definition is supported by the psychological theory that all motivation is essentially intrinsic—whatever we do, we do it because we believe it will get us what we want or it will honor a value that’s critical to us.

Thus, if wannabe leaders are to be successful, they have to care enough to learn what those motivators are for each of the people on their team. It’s corny but extremely true: before they care how much you know, they need to know how much you care. Genuine care between leaders and followers is best demonstrated by the leader’s willingness, or dare we say insistence upon, periodically discussing with their would-be followers the congruence between the direction of the organization and the follower’s desired direction of growth. Or, in cases where we sense the early stages of disengagement on the part of a follower, discussing the growing incongruence between those two things.

But I believe leadership is much more than understanding your subordinates’ personal motivations. In 1977, leadership educator Robert Greenleaf wrote an incredibly influential book entitled Servant Leadership, the main premise of which is that leaders’ main goal should be to serve. I was introduced to this philosophy early in my career, and it has had a profound impact on my development, from manager to leader, executive, and coach.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably seen my motto, Today demands a new kind of leader.™ Specifically, today’s workplace requires what I call a 21st Century Leader, and servant leadership is a cornerstone of that philosophy as well as my coaching practice.

In a widely-read piece in Harvard Business Review, world-famous executive coach extraordinaire Marshall Goldsmith breaks down how it’s not about you as the leader, it’s about those you would lead. If I might be so bold, I think that statement is worth clarifying: It’s about those you would lead, if in fact what you truly seek IS to lead. This is an important distinction, because the more I think about what it means to lead through serving, and the more I talk to clients about the strict definition of a leader (e.g., one who has followers, one who has a vision and collects others to follow it, etc.), the more I realize that all leadership IS servant leadership. If we’re not serving others, both individually and collectively as an organization, then what we’re doing is not leadership. At best it’s merely management, and poor management or even manipulation at worst.

Another leadership model I frequently use that’s relevant here is The Leadership Gap. In this model, unlike as in the English language as a rule, the term ‘gap’ has a positive connotation; it’s something desirable. The Leadership Gap is the perception by those we would lead that we as the leader are out in front of them, pointing the way and clearing a path for them. It’s the follower’s perception that the leader is both competent in management and powerful enough to help the follower to develop their own leadership skills, to provide answers and direction, to remove obstacles, and to give resources. Being a leader is being a champion for those you lead.

Ultimately, even more important than competence and power is the perception that the leader above all simply cares about the follower. To that end, I think Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it most eloquently:

Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

–’The Drum Major Instinct’ delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church,
Atlanta, Georgia, February 4, 1968  

For next week: Make a list of your direct reports, and answer the following questions about them to the best of your knowledge:

  • What is important to this person? Think about values, people, rewards, and interests.
  • Why do they work for THIS company, as opposed to another one?
  • What dream or goal are they pursuing?

Then set up a time to go have coffee or lunch with each person one-on-one. Have a conversation that is NOT about their daily job duties. Instead, spend that time checking in with them, and connecting with them as individuals. Was there someone on your team for whom you couldn’t answer the questions? Start with him or her first.

After each lunch or coffee date, revise your answers as necessary, then use this knowledge to strengthen your relationships and support their paths to success. I guarantee you’ll see a positive return on your investments.