What is servant leadership?

by Sam on April 15, 2009

Analysis: In two different Gospel books of the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth gave His followers the same leadership lesson. In Mark 10:42-44 it’s reported this way:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as 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 slave of all.” (NIV)

This counsel from the most influential leader who ever lived spawned a radical philosophy of influence. Books have been written about it, workshops have been conducted on it, and institutes have been established to further it. The notion of servant leadership has caused executives, supervisors, and even parents to rethink the way they “exercise authority.”

So what’s this leadership style all about and why is it such a good thing? After all, the notion of servanthood carries a distinctly negative connotation in the brave new world of the 21st Century.

Even advocates of the idea seek to rename it. A former client of mine tried “leadership through service.” But the quote from Mark exposes that this entirely misses the point, which is that leaders are to sacrifice their needs in favor of the needs of followers in order to win their hearts. It’s putting yourself in second place in order to put those you lead in first place. At the close of the workday servant leaders do not wonder “What did my people do for me today?” but rather “What did I do for my people?”

Answer: Servant leadership is meant to get people to want to follow you. Jesus declares that becoming subservient makes that happen. Here’s what leaders who fulfill His prescription do with their hands, mouth, and feet.

You act as a servant leader when you…

  1. Display exemplary behavior. When I taught leadership to second year MBA’s I would ask, “Why is it important to do the right thing?” It was discouraging to rarely hear the answer, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” This question anchored a module on business ethics, but it goes beyond that issue. Doing the right thing also means showing to followers in your behavior the very behavior you expect from them. For example, are you as honest with them as you insist that they are with you?
  2. Listen to them and to their ideas. A major complaint that children have of parents is, “They don’t listen to me.” Children and employees, alike, feel trivialized and invalidated by a leader not interested in their thoughts. Reference the April 1, 2009 archives to see in detail how you can turn relationships around dramatically with your ears.
  3. Learn and meet their expectations. In my MBA course another revealing question was, “What would happen if you asked your direct reports what they need from you as a leader to help them succeed?” Not a popular question! A typical student response was, “That would be a sign of weakness! You’re the leader, and you should know how to supervise them.” A question for you: How would you feel if your boss asked for your expectations with a genuine intent of fulfilling them? An executive—not in my MBA class—once answered, “I’d think I’d died and gone to heaven.” A
  4. Keep them informed. “No one tells you anything around here!” Sound familiar? Don’t let that be the mantra where you lead. The scarcest resource in any workplace is good information. Most bad decisions can be traced to bad or missing data. Your job is to keep your people equipped with the best information on the planet.
  5. Manage by wandering around. Author and speaker Tom Peters says it is more important for leaders to be visible than being on planes, in meetings or poring over paperwork. His idea of MBWA enables you to show an interest in people and their work, lets you reveal your human side, gives you occasion to encourage them, affords the chance to ask them questions, and may even give your employees an opening to teach you something.
  6. Involve them in decisions that affect them. Express your desire to let others influence their future. “I’ve been asked to _____. What should I be looking at as I make that decision?” “What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of_____?” “I’m preparing to _____.What might I be missing in taking that action?”
  7. Give them more important work to do. Make others feel and be more important in these ways: Trust someone with a decision you once made (“What should we do?”) Turn over a complete operation to someone (“You’re in charge.”) Send someone to a meeting to represent you (“Speak for us.”) These strategies might also help you get out of the weeds that you are stuck in and elevate you to a more strategic role—where you belong!
  8. Keep getting smaller so they can get bigger. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins identifies Level Five leadership as the pinnacle of executive capability. He defines it as a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. The word humility signifies a lowliness and submissiveness that elevates people around you. For many, this prescription is a hard part of servant leadership to swallow, but it is also the most impactful. You’ll know you’ve achieved it when those at succeeding hierarchical levels call you a “real person.”
  9. Help them grow. In a major way, #7 and #8 above cause people to grow. Another key source of development on the job is training, coaching, and mentoring. Test yourself on these dimensions of employee growth with your answer to this question: Are my people significantly more valuable to their team, to other teams, to customers, to themselves, and to me than they were a year ago?
  10. Be their champion. Provide all the resources your people need to perform at the highest levels. Represent their interests to higher ups. Go to bat for them; defend them; protect them. Showcase them to other decision makers who may be in a position to advance their careers.
  11. Praise them. William James once said, “The deepest craving in human nature is the desire to be appreciated.” You’ll serve the people you influence by recognizing this need and meeting it. A simple “Thank you” is often all it takes. A
  12. Dignify them. Remember their names and important things about them. Act as though “rank has no privilege” by not sticking your executive perks in their faces. Treat their families with respect at every opportunity. Promote from within when you can. Pay them competitive wages.

Finally: How do you fare as a servant leader? Which of these leadership behaviors will jump start your influence?


To lead the people, walk behind them.

~Lao Tzu


Each answer marked with an A is the subject of a soon-to-appear Ask in the form of a solution tool. Feel free to contact Sam now to learn how that tool might be applied to your team.

Action (yours)
Do you have an Ask for Sam about leadership, team building or communications? Email that question to him at sam@asksamdeep.com. He will respond to you either by email or telephone. Please include your telephone number with your Ask.

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