“The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first.” Robert K Greenleaf
Today’s workplace consists of two breeds of leaders: the leader who is in it for themselves, and the leader who is in it for others. It’s usually quite easy to spot the difference, and you don’t need to look that hard. The former, when arriving at the office, is greeted quietly and respectfully by their subordinates. The working atmosphere is subdued. Everybody is following orders. The leader sits down at their desk behind a closed door. There is a gentle knock. “Come in,” says the leader. The employee enters, struggling to contain their excitement. “I’ve secured an exclusive interview with a major news agency to discuss the findings of our latest research. Can I take an hour or two off to spend time in the studio?” The leader shuffles in their chair. “This is something the CEO should handle. Give me the studio’s address, and I’ll head on over there.” The dejected employee scribbles down the address and leaves the office.
The latter, when arriving at the office, is greeted warmly by their teammates. The atmosphere is electric. The workspace is buzzing. Energy levels are high. “Come and take a look at this,” a colleague calls out. The leader drops their bags and rushes over, beaming from ear to ear. “You guys are amazing,” the leader gushes, “This is incredible. I completely underestimated how brilliant you all are. I think we should all go out to celebrate.” Everybody high-fives each other. “Just one second,” says one of the teammates, “There’s a small snag, and we don’t know how to get around it.” The leader leans in. “Well, let’s all sit down and figure this out together. And then, when we’re done, we’re going to celebrate in style.”
These two leadership styles—traditional leadership and servant leadership—can best be depicted as a triangle. With traditional leadership, the triangle takes the form of a top-down hierarchical structure where the people who are lower down are serving the people above them. This chain of command has the CEO at the top, the executive team below them, followed by the employees, and then the customers. If you’re at the top of that triangle, there is little room for anybody else, and the closer you get to the top, the more you’re going to find individuals looking to amass more control and more power—essentially, protecting their interests above all else. With servant leadership, the triangle is turned on its head. The leaders place themselves at the bottom, serving the employees, who in turn serve the customers at the top—and that’s just the way they like it. With traditional leadership, the title of “leader” is one of rank, and those who follow that leader do it out of necessity—because that leader has authority over them. With servant leadership, people willingly choose to follow their leader—because they know that their leader is looking out for them, that they are going to protect them, coach them, support them, and inspire them to be better versions of themselves.
If we were to go back fifty thousand or so years and spend some time with our ancestors—the early homo sapiens—we would discover that it was quite a dangerous time to be alive. Everything was either trying to kill us or eat us, from the climate to sabre-tooth tigers. As time went on, we realised that there was strength (and safety) in numbers, and so we formed tribes. Within these tribes, there was a sense of mutual trust and cooperation. No matter who you were, the tribe had your back. Although modern-day humans have evolved into highly social beings, and the lurking sabre-tooth tigers are now nothing more than revered creatures from times of yore, relegated to encyclopaedias and storybooks, now our success is threatened by the economy, the stock market, competitors, and new technologies that might render us obsolete.
Within an organisation, people want to feel safe. Feeling safe brings out the best in people, and it is the leaders within an organisation that set the tone for how safe, how happy, how sad, how stressed, and how angry people feel while they are at work. A traditional leader will usually put their needs first, leaving those under them feeling insecure, less than motivated, unappreciated, and looking for ways to escape. Their people will be scared to bend the rules to salvage the relationship with an unhappy customer, and, if anything, they’re going to spend their time protecting themselves from the people around them. This fear-based culture only serves to weaken an organisation. The servant-leader, on the other hand, makes a conscious decision to put the people in the company first—and that includes the organisation’s customers. By sacrificing their personal comforts and doing what it takes to make their people feel safe and inspired, assuring them that they matter (and that the work they’re doing matters) remarkable things begin to happen. The servant-leader is the first to step out front, protecting their people from danger, while empowering them to have the courage to face the danger too. Feeling safe brings with it a spirit of togetherness, where people collaborate, combining their talents and strengths, and doing whatever it takes to tackle outside threats head-on.
Sixty percent of our lives will be spent working or preparing to work. How many people leave an organisation, not because of the work they do, but because of the people they serve? Self-serving, traditional leaders are detrimental to people all over the world. We all deserve a better brand of leadership. We need leaders who are prepared to serve first and lead second. When leaders go first, not only do their people do the same for them, they do it for each other.
Servant-leaders are good human beings. They genuinely care about people. They’re easy to spot in an organisation because they’re the ones listening more than they speak. They’re the ones helping others to succeed. They’re the ones bringing out the best in their people. They’re the ones acknowledging and praising their people when they win, and guiding and mentoring them when they fail. They are generous with their time, with their talent, and in reaching out to others.
Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela are all classic examples of servant-leaders. They served rather than commanded. They had a deep sense of responsibility for the people they led, which is why they chose the path of servant leadership. When you invest time and energy in other people, cultivating trust and empathy, and working tirelessly to develop and align every employee’s purpose with the company’s mission, you can rest assured that you are building an organisation that will not only survive into the future, but thrive.