“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-29, NIV).
I am by no means a leadership expert. No one has ever approached me and asked me to opine about my philosophy of leadership. Indeed, some may be surprised that I would even consider writing on this topic. So, why I am doing so? Because I’ve observed enough, studied enough, and most importantly, experienced enough during my life to form a leadership philosophy.
My leadership philosophy is derived from what, in my opinion, is the greatest definition of leadership ever espoused. That philosophy, spoken by Jesus Christ, and recounted in the above-referenced quote from the Book of Matthew, is basically this: if you want to lead, then serve. This philosophy, which has come to be colloquially referred to as “servant leadership,” has gained in popularity over the past 25-30 years. Thanks in large part to Robert Greenleaf’s ground-breaking book, “Servant Leadership,” many leaders in business, government, military, and churches are beginning to understand what Greenleaf meant when he said, “Good leaders must first become good servants.”
I have known (and do know) a lot of people who say they are servant leaders. Not only do they say it, but they truly believe it. Yet, their actions expose their words and their beliefs as empty, disingenuous, or simply ignorant. These self-proclaimed servant leaders display one or more of the following characteristics: they must always be right; they make sure to take credit for positive results; they deflect blame for negative results; they take interest in others only when they need something; they’re rarely if ever affirming; they’re controlling. The true servant leader displays none of these characteristics. Rather, the characteristics a servant leader displays, or at least aspires to display, directly oppose these characteristics.
What follows is a list of characteristics that I, through years of study, observation, and experience, believe are the major characteristics of a servant leader. This list is by no means exhaustive. This list is by no means novel. I am certain that a simple internet search would yield lists that include some or all of these characteristics. Nonetheless, the characteristics below are those that, in my opinion, are paramount.
To many, the entire principle of the leader as servant is dichotomous. Many people believe that a leader is served by others, not the other way around. That type of thinking is rooted in pride. If you want to be a true leader, you have to understand that it’s not about you. As a leader, you need to understand that you are there for the people you are leading. You are there to facilitate their success. You are there to help them further develop their skills and abilities. This understanding requires humility.
Yes, people will tolerate arrogance, but they also resent it. Contrarily, people respect, admire, appreciate, and respond to, humility.
To be quite honest, I continuously struggle with this particular characteristic. Being empathetic requires more than just telling the people you lead that you care. It requires showing them, too. Being empathetic requires talking with the people you lead. It requires getting to know them. It requires intentionally setting aside time, sometimes at the cost of instant productivity (both their and your own), to let them know you care.
People do respond to the callous, uncaring, or even apathetic leader. But they will likely do so begrudgingly, or purely from a sense of duty. People are much more willing to follow your lead, and do so graciously, when they believe that you sincerely care about them.
Most people have more potential than they think; and sometimes more than you think. They just need someone to believe in them. They just need someone to encourage them. I have witnessed confidence unleashed in many people simply by them being encouraged. Encouragement comes in many forms. For example, you can let the people you lead know that they’ve done a good job (however miniscule the task), that you believe in them, that you’ve got their back, or that you’re glad they’re on your team. But don’t do so insincerely, or with feigned praise. Smart people readily discern a phony.
Invest in the people you lead by encouraging them. More than likely, you’ll see a solid return on that investment. People will happily, willingly, and readily give you their best effort when you serve up some encouragement.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being around people who are persistently negative. They drain me. They sap me of energy. That is the last thing you want to do to the people you lead. Hopefully, you would rather energize and rejuvenate them. That’s what occurs when people are served by an optimistic leader. An optimistic leader cultivates and fosters a positive environment, even (or especially) when circumstances might appear pessimistic. It does not mean pretending things are always perfect, and that nothing ever goes wrong. That’s unrealistic. It does mean, however, facing challenges with a positive, optimistic outlook.
Pessimism promotes discontent, apathy, and low expectations. So instead, serve your people optimistically. Optimism promotes cooperation, passion, and positive expectations.
Being a leader can be tough; being a just leader even tougher. It means making tough, sometimes unpopular decisions. It means that you, as a leader, are not always going to be looked on favorably by your team. It means that you’re not always going to get 100% buy-in from your team. It means that every decision you make is not going to be a win-win. It sometimes means confronting those you lead, whether you like it or not.
As a leader, your decisions must be guided by justice – truth, principle, equity – and not by the desire to please or to avoid confrontation. Otherwise, you’re not a leader, let alone a servant leader. What you are is a people-pleasing follower.
Ronald Reagan once said, “Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere.” I know a lot of leaders to who readily accomplish the first two tasks. And they actually think they are accomplishing the third. But they’re not. They have to continuously interject themselves into the minutia. They pretend to empower people when, in fact, they are simply interfering and stagnating growth. There may be many reasons for this. One is that they have not yet distinguished between responsibility and control. Another is that they think nobody can possibly do anything better than they can. Yet another is that they just cannot bring themselves to yield control – of anything.
Control leads to frustration and stagnation. That is disservice, not service. The servant leader wants their people to grow, and that is precisely what empowerment leads to – growth.
During my adult life, I have been placed (sometimes by force) into various leadership positions. At times, I was ill-prepared for the responsibility. And so, I’ve made a conscious and concerted effort to study and observe many leaders and leadership philosophies. I believe the servant leadership philosophy works best.
Quite honestly, the servant leadership philosophy is one that, despite my best efforts, I do not consistently adhere. It is, nonetheless, a philosophy to which I persistently aspire. If you are, or find yourself, in a leadership position, I encourage you to make it your own. See for yourself that there is influence in being a servant.