What does servant leadership really mean?
For those who have just begun to study it, the concept of servant leadership may be a bit confusing. Some folks imagine leaders working for their people, who are the ones calling the shots—in other words, soft management. They think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two parts to servant leadership:
- A visionary/direction, or strategic, role—the leadership part
- An implementation, or operational, role—the servant part
The traditional hierarchical pyramid is effective for the leadership aspect of servant leadership. Although leaders should involve experienced people in shaping the vision and direction of an organization, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated to others.
Once people are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to a service mindset for the task of implementation—the servant aspect of servant leadership. This is when servant leaders philosophically turn the traditional pyramid upside down. When that happens, the customer contact people are at the top of the organization, serving the customers, and the “top” management is at the bottom, serving the people who serve the customers. This creates a very different environment for implementation. When leaders serve their people, the leader’s purpose is to help the people accomplish the established goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.
What if you are a new manager who wants to be a servant leader? How do you go about setting goals and communicating with the people who report to you?
The four conversations aspiring servant leaders need to master
If you are a first-time manager, my suggestion is for you to practice and master four types of conversations. These conversations can make all the difference when you need to effectively communicate your thoughts and intentions while working with your team on goals and projects. The four conversations are:
- Goal setting
- Wrapping up
The first three are based on the Three Secrets of The One Minute Manager. The fourth, Wrapping Up, is about bringing a project or goal to a positive conclusion.
1. Goal setting conversations
All good performance starts with clear goals, which set people up for success, growth, and development. The goals should be written in a way that illustrates what a good job looks like, documents the milestones to mark progress, and stretches the person beyond their current performance. Vague goals can lead to problems, but clearly written goals give people a chance to succeed.
Goal setting works best when the parties set the goals together. As a new manager, you’ll want to facilitate goal setting so that both you and your direct report come away from the conversation with goals you agree on. It’s important to ensure that the goals are both clear and compelling: Clear—with next steps spelled out, deadlines defined, and progress tracking methods determined. Compelling—where you and your direct report are driven toward goal achievement and you both understand the importance and relevance of the goal to the department and organization.
2. Praising conversations
Praising conversations reinforce good behaviors and support stronger future relationships. I see praising as servant leadership in action. It is a powerful catalyst for reinforcing the behaviors managers want to see from their direct reports—and it confirms the behaviors that lead to success in achieving the goals. I’ve often said that if I had to choose one leadership lesson to teach out of everything I have ever taught, it would be the importance of catching people doing things right and praising them.
It’s important that you have the praising conversation as soon as possible after you witness the desired behavior. The praising must be specific, letting the person know what they did right, how good it makes you feel, and how the behavior helped them and the department. After the praising, you should pause and let the feedback sink in so the person has time to feel good about what you said. Then simply encourage the person to keep up the behavior. By modeling the praising conversation for your direct reports, you are teaching them to recognize their own successes and to begin praising themselves.
3. Redirecting conversations
There are times when even a great performer will slip up. This is when you must have a redirecting conversation. This conversation guides people back toward their goals by helping them recognize when specific behaviors are out of alignment with the goal, why their actions matter, and how much you want them to succeed. With a redirecting conversation, it’s important for you as a manager to be immediate and incremental, honest, kind, and goal-focused, without blame or judgment.
Redirecting is about reclarifying an agreed-upon goal and confirming where and how behavior and performance fell short. Describe the mistake and the problems that resulted, and then pause to let the feedback sink in. Next, tell direct report that you know they are better than the mistake and that you value them as a person.
4. Wrapping up conversations
Wrapping up conversations should occur at the end of projects or goals to celebrate results, acknowledge learning, keep people energized, inspire engagement , and promote development by honoring the work that’s been done.
During these discussions, begin by congratulating the person and celebrating the achievement. Recognize what’s been learned and address anything that may be lingering. These conversations also promote reflection on both sides. If something could be handled differently next time, tell the truth and invite discussion. And if an apology is needed that has not been expressed, be sure to include it. Then inquire about personal development, listen to hear what wisdom was gained, and finish by celebrating a job well done.
The final word on key conversations for aspiring servant leaders
If you are a first-time manager who aspires to be a servant leader, I encourage you to incorporate these four conversations into your work life. I think you’ll find that frequent, high quality conversations with your people are a great way to sustain your relationships and strengthen your team as you work together to achieve great results.