Twenty years ago, I received a unique gift. This gift impacted my career by introducing me to a servant leadership model I’ve tried to emulate since.
I was living in Seattle and had taken off for Christmas Eve. It was a typical December afternoon in the Northwest — cold and rainy — and I was out on my front porch with my young daughter, sprinkling homemade magical glitter oats along the path for Santa’s reindeer that night. My little girl was loving the adventure, and so was I.
Amid our fun, I looked up as an unknown SUV pulled into our driveway. To my surprise and mild discomfort, my boss — our company’s CEO — got out of the car. After exchanging greetings, he knelt next to my daughter and asked, “What does your daddy want for Christmas?” Taylor said, “He wants a bike.” My boss smiled, opened the back of his SUV and pulled out a mountain bike with a bow on it.
He had called my wife in the weeks before (as he had with all of his direct reports) and asked her if there was a Christmas gift — something I really wanted — that he could get for me. To say I was grateful and impressed would be an understatement.
In the years since, I’ve duplicated his efforts with my own team and have received similar sentiments in return. As much as my team appreciated the experience, though, I found that I loved the style of leadership even more.
The term “servant leader” was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in a 1970 essay, and it describes leaders who seek to serve first, accepting that true leadership will be the result.
As the years have gone by, I’ve become convinced of this approach. I believe in the concept because I’ve experienced its effectiveness from both sides of the equation.
Looking to try the approach for yourself? Here are four quick ways to begin:
1. Learn something specific and important about every person you lead.
There’s a writing tip I love called “naming the dog.” Calling the dog Sparky instead of just “the dog” ends up mattering. Why? Because the specificity creates connotation, context and nuance — all important factors in writing well.
Specificity in servant leadership is also important. Knowing personalized details of those you lead, especially those who show personal motivation, can make a big difference.
For example, I work with someone who, when told to do something in a very specific way, creates a situation that nearly forces him to go the other direction. He’s important to our team, and knowing this about his character, I try very hard never to issue him any direction or feedback in a hyper-authoritative or declarative manner. To another person on my team who craves specific instruction, this approach would be frustrating. The key is to know those you lead specifically so you can serve them best.
2. Take action yourself, and let the credit go somewhere else.
Seth Godin’s book Poke the Box examines the need for starters in organizations — the people who take initiative, even when they don’t have an edict to do so. According to Godin, initiative is the birthplace and differentiator of today’s workplace leadership.
There are many reasons that people fail to start something new or act now, but one of the biggest is a desire for credit (or, conversely, to avoid blame). Godin’s solution? Give the credit away. Worry about taking action, and use the positive results as a gift for those you lead. It may seem counterintuitive, but this is the heart of servant leadership: As you help others succeed, you become more successful yourself.
3. Find a millennial in your organization to work alongside.
I work with a lot of people who are in the first or second jobs of their careers, and I’m learning so much from them. For example, many in this group prioritize the sharing of unique experiences over career advancement. It’s a part of the ethos these younger workers exude, and I find it inspiring.
When you get interested in your employees and what matters to them specifically, you open the door to leading them. When you take the approach of a servant leader with the millenial generation, they will respond.
4. Commit and believe.
Traditionalists might argue that leadership is all about issuing orders with clarity and fairness. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe it’s more about showing people what they’re capable of, mapping that to your company’s direction and then letting them go to work.
It might seem counterintuitive because it cedes some perceived control. But in the end, it produces greater results. It’s a philosophical investment, requiring a commitment and belief that the payoff will come. In my years of servant leadership, I’ve seen it pay off in spades.
In the end, the servant leader — the one who knows the troops on a deeper level — truly wins. As Greenleaf himself has said, “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?”