I have an important question for you: Are you here to serve or to be served?
Your answer to this question is the first step on your journey to becoming a servant leader. Why? Because self-serving leaders think leadership is all about them—but servant leaders know that leadership is about others. It’s about serving first and leading second.
It’s important to understand that there is not only a mindset but also a skill set involved in servant leadership. Telling people you are a servant leader is a good start—but your attitudes about leading (mindset) and your leadership behaviors (skill set) are what will make that statement ring true. When theory becomes practice—when you bring together the servant leader’s mindset for vision and skill set for implementation—only then can you, your team, and your organization realize the endless benefits of servant leadership.
The Mindset of a Servant Leader
In 2018, The Ken Blanchard Companies polled 130 leadership development professionals across North America and asked them to list the characteristics that people look for in a servant leader. Topping the list of these mindset traits was empathy, followed by selflessness and humility. The list also mentions authenticity, caring, collaboration, compassion, honesty, open-mindedness, patience, and self-awareness numerous times. These elements comprise the mindset of servant leaders who think less about themselves and more about the development and well-being of their direct reports.
Here’s a follow-up question: Do you think your direct reports would see you as a servant leader or as a self-serving leader? Take a look at these eleven servant leader statements and answer yes, no, or somewhat based on what you think people would say.
- My direct reports would say I am empathetic.
- My direct reports would say I am selfless.
- My direct reports would say I am humble.
- My direct reports would say I am authentic.
- My direct reports would say I am caring.
- My direct reports would say I am collaborative.
- My direct reports would say I am compassionate.
- My direct reports would say I am honest.
- My direct reports would say I am open-minded.
- My direct reports would say I am patient.
- My direct reports would say I am self-aware.
Take your time to reflect on each statement before you answer—it’s important to be realistic as you assess yourself in this way. Vulnerability in recognizing the areas you need to work on is the first step toward developing the mindset of a servant leader.
So how did you do? Don’t worry if you got less than a perfect score. Even people who are admired as exemplary servant leaders sometimes fall short in a few areas.
The Skill Set of a Servant Leader
Now think about your performance as a leader in terms of your skill set—your day-to-day actions and behaviors. If you are less than confident in your skill set, consider brushing up on the top three skills of a servant leader, as listed by the industry leaders we polled:
Other behaviors that make up the skill set of a servant leader include self-leadership, building trust, and day-to-day coaching. You can teach, practice, and master these and many other servant leadership skills while you continue to strengthen your servant leadership mindset.
Two Examples of Servant Leadership Skills in Action
People sometimes ask me how servant leadership fits in with the concepts trained by our company. What’s interesting is that most of the training programs we offer are, in fact, rooted in servant leadership. This became clear when I realized that the two leadership approaches my colleagues and I are best known for around the world—The-One Minute Manager® and SLII®—are both examples of the skill set required to put servant leadership into action. Let me explain.
In The One-Minute Manager, Spencer Johnson and I wrote about a one-minute goal setting. All good performance starts with clear goals, which is clearly part of the leadership aspect of servant leadership. Once people are clear on goals, one-minute managers wander around catching people doing something right so they can give a one-minute praising. If they see someone who is offtrack, they give that person a One-Minute Redirect. This is the servant aspect of servant leadership, where leaders work for their people to help them achieve their goals.
SLII® also has three skills that involve both aspects of servant leadership: goal setting, diagnosis, and matching. Once clear goals are set, an SLII® leader works side by side with each direct report to diagnose the person’s development level on each specific goal. Together, they determine the appropriate leadership style that matches that development level. In this way, the SLII® leader helps each person move through the four stages of development to accomplish each goal.
We all know top-down leadership is a thing of the past. Today’s servant leaders take the time to listen to their direct reports, seek out their opinions, develop them, and cheer them on. Servant leaders have the mindset and the skill set necessary to work side by side with their team members to create high performing organizations. Simply put, I believe servant leadership is the only way to achieve both great relationships and great results.