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What Defines a Servant Leader?


If you view individual profiles on social media, especially the platforms that focus on business, you will frequently see the term “servant leader” in the headline. It’s become a fashionable term, but often people don’t understand what it really means.

There have always been great leaders that meet this definition, long before the term was invented. It’s easy to identify a true servant leader, just as it’s clear that others who try to identify with the term fail to reflect the defining qualities.

Traditional leadership is a top-down transactional process made up of a hierarchy of managers, each with a team of employees who are assigned work. The managers provide oversight to ensure that assignments are completed. In exchange for this work, the employees receive a paycheck – thus the transactional nature of the process. Unfortunately, this approach tends to promote an isolated, authoritarian style of leadership, where management dictates the work to be done. The employees have no input into the decision-making process, and meaningful dialogue is discouraged.

The sad fact is that the authoritarian style of leadership is alive and well, even though it leads to employee dissatisfaction. Many managers are unaware of the impact this style of management has on their teams.

Transactional employment is less effective now - the days of simply working for a paycheck have passed for skilled workers. They have no incentive to put up with a manager that micromanages and doesn’t appear to care for the employees. It’s been said that, “People don’t quit jobs, they quit managers.”

The concept of a servant leader was born from the recognition that the modern workforce has changed, and that a different style of leadership is needed. It’s become such a popular term that even the most authoritarian managers would apply it to themselves.

I don’t remember most of my bad leaders, but I’ve maintained a good relationship and keep in touch with the great ones even though we may have moved on to other roles. I was able to leverage my relationship with some senior executives to get their insight on what makes an effective servant leader.

Chuck Fagan, the CEO of PSCU in St. Petersburg, Florida, has a great definition of servant leadership: “Too often, a company will build silos around functional areas, which discourages communication between teams. We try to avoid that, and as a leader, I want to build bridges and create common goals within our business. I think it’s important for a leader to build relationships. That way, when I have to insert myself into discussions, the team sees it as helping them to be successful, not as a failure because the CEO had to get involved. It’s important that everyone understands how they fit into the big picture and share in the company’s success.”

Sometimes, a company may abandon the concept of servant leadership when faced with the need to make difficult decisions due to rapid growth.

I asked Gary Jeter, an Executive VP and CTO for TruStone Financial Credit Union in Plymouth, Minnesota, how a business should handle growth and why some seem to fail. He said, “The question of balancing servant leadership with growing the business implies that it is an “or” and not an “and”. I would argue that sustainable and long-term growth requires passionate service to both your customer and employees. Short-term success requires dedicated employees who have the right tools, environment and skills to deliver to customers. Companies fail at it when they only focus on and reward results. Somewhere along the way they lose sight that their people are the ones who are actually delivering the results. ‘How’ the results are delivered is equally important.”

Companies with successful servant leaders also tend to build strong ties with the community. Tim Love is the CEO of Alltrust Insurance in Clearwater, Florida. He is also active on the boards of a number of charitable organizations in the Tampa Bay area. For Tim, supporting the community is as much a part of the big picture as running the business. He told me, “A servant leader understands that the big picture is really a series of small, incremental steps that help people achieve their goals. The goals could be part of a business plan, or it could be empowering young people through community activities. My job as a leader is to figure out how people can fulfill their roles better, more enjoyably, and to have the freedom to be creative and take initiative. That’s really only possible if leadership has communicated a clear understanding of the mission, strategy, and tactics to succeed both as individuals and as an organization.”

All of the leaders I spoke with had an unselfish, passionate desire to continue to grow as leaders. They enjoy getting to know the people within their organizations personally, and are willing to provide a hand up when an employee is struggling.

There are many other great examples of servant leaders in companies of all shapes and sizes. If you have the privilege of working alongside one of them, take the opportunity to observe and learn. You’ll find they are always willing to share their experiences, and you will become a better leader – and a better person – as a result.

This article was originally published in HDI, our partner publication.