Far too often we conflate the idea of a leader with someone who orders others around. Leadership suggests a hierarchy, and the person at the top of that hierarchy gets to decide what gets done and how. Everyone answers to them, and they reap the benefits of being in charge. But what if I told you that leadership isn’t all about being the boss? What if I told you that the best, most effective leaders aren’t “boss” material at all? In fact, they are quite the opposite: They exist to support, encourage, and serve their team members. This is called servant leadership.
True leadership isn’t centered on wielding power to grow a business. The thing about power is that it polarizes—some have it and some don’t, and a business model based around power leaves no room for progress and ideas to flow freely. But a model of servant leadership does.
Robert K. Greenleaf
coined the term and concept, and set out this definition of the servant leader in stark contrast to others:
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
With this in mind, here are four traits one can embody to lead by service instead of with power:
Empathy first. Compassion for others is the hallmark of a servant leader. Above all else, they care about uplifting those around them—yes, even the people “below” them. Servant leaders do not let the so-called social ladder influence how they interact with others. They put no stock in maintaining a reputation, other than a consistent desire to do good. Servant leaders always seek to learn what they can do to help others instead of viewing others as stepping stones for their own careers.
A good listener. To truly care for and help others, you must dedicate time and attention to understanding them. Servant leaders actively listen to those around them, and show everyone the same amount of respect. They encourage the participation of employees and others, openly seeking their input. Servant leaders then evaluates the input from those around them to ensure everyone is heard and equally valued.
Accountability. A true leader looks inward as well as outward where improvement and growth are concerned. Though they are leaders, they don’t see themselves as above reproach. Part of respecting the humanity of everyone involved in their business and community means understanding that they too can make mistakes. If you can’t honestly assess the good you’re doing (or not doing), then you have no business directing anyone else.
Commitment to growth. Overall, servant leaders want to see the people and communities around them thrive. They themselves are still a work in progress and must stay humble and down to earth in order to consistently serve. Though they may be leaders, they are committed to doing the best in every situation—nothing is too small or too lowly if it contributes to a greater purpose. If you care about how something makes you look, then you aren’t truly committed to serving.
Shifting your focus as a leader to be one who serves others will only seem like a downgrade if you have too much pride. Selfishness, ultimately, leads nowhere. True progress is achieved most swiftly when leaders see the big picture and care most about making the world a better place. It’s not an easy path to follow in business, but it’s more than worth it.