Best Practice

Servant Leadership is Key to Unleashing Your Organization’s Talent

By Bill “Roto” Reuter

(April 2020) – Much has been said and written on the value of leadership. The debates continue on the most effective styles and approaches for leaders to be most effective. I believe servant leadership attributes are key to being an effective leader, regardless of organization or culture.

I have coached and facilitated many types of organizations, large and small, and employing servant leadership has been a critical element of their ultimate success. Servant leaders know they are not above the team, but instead that they are a part of the team. Leadership, at its core, is a servant activity.

Servant Leadership in Context

One of my favortite Zig Ziglar quotes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” embodies the servant leader’s mindset. During my 28-year Navy career and since, I’ve been fortunate to be led and mentored by some incredible servant leaders who acknowledged and embraced John Maxwell’s “Law of Addition: Leaders add value by serving others.” Leaders who respected this law earned the buy-in and investment of those they led. These examples led to transforming my view on leadership and its critical role in organizational health and success.

This is why, when I describe my role as a leader, I say, “I was responsible for 1,200 people” rather than “in charge of.” I provided Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” to all of the leadership teams for which I have been responsible over the last 25 years. I facilitated lunch-and-learns with our leaders during my tenure, resulting in not only better leadership across the organization, but also enhanced alignment on our approaches to leading, which had an immensely positive impact on culture and execution.

“Why you lead and the way you lead are important. They define YOU, your leadership, and ultimately your contribution.”

– John C. Maxwell

How to Be a Servant Leader

The most immature leaders derive their “currency” or “influence” from position alone while, in fact, it is the cheapest currency there is in leading people. We all know that just because someone is “the boss,” that alone doesn’t make that person a leader.

As a leader, you should ask yourself the question, “Why do people follow me?” The answers can provide clarity on just what kind of leader you are. Does your team follow you based on your position or because you exemplify attributes beyond merely “being in charge”?

Do the people on your team feel you value and invest in them holistically beyond job performance and their contribution to the bottom line? I emphasize how they feel because their perception of you, not your intent, is their reality.

Servant leaders are humble enough to “check in” with their subordinates to provide fertile ground to receive frank feedback that helps ensure they’re on track. In Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling’s book The 4 Disciplines of Execution, one such discipline is to “Act on the lead measures.” Measuring and focusing on the important lead measures of trust, alignment and clarity are crucial.

You inspire trust through servant leadership, giving you more leverage and traction with your team. You foster alignment and clarity when you build cohesive teams through servant leadership. These attributes are nearly impossible to develop without a servant-oriented investment in your team.

Your individual performance may be measured by the lagging metrics of revenue, return on sales or other factors, but the lead metrics are rooted in things that are more challenging to master. It’s about remembering it is your team that will get you there. Inexperienced leaders are quick to lead before knowing anything about their people and their challenges, strengths and roles. Mature leaders listen, learn and then lead.

Beyond the Tangible Value

Leaders the likes of Dan Cathy (Chick-Fil-A), Jim Sinegal (founder of Costco) and Sam Walton (Walmart) have documented and demonstrated the values of servant leadership. They have results to show that they are both tangible and not so tangible.

The tangible elements of profit, “success” and recognition are one thing. The not-so-visible elements are another, and they include quality of relationships, the development of more servant leaders and the quality of life of those for whom you are responsible. This is a value that adds not only to a high-performing organization, but to the legacy that is left in the process.

We often see on the walls of various organizations, “People are our most important asset.” This investment and its return are the calling of a servant leader.

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