Although the term was coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf, servant-leadership continues to be a popular topic. It is a form of leadership that many aspire to, but at the same time, it is often ill-defined and frequently the actions of leaders who claim to be servant leaders fall short of the mark. Servant-leadership is about a leader recognizing that first and foremost that they serve their team and that service pushes them to lead. Greenleaf posed these questions to see if a leader is acting as a servant-leader: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
Being a servant-leader means doing the work that is required to help others succeed. It does not mean taking control with authority. As Lao Tzu said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
When you have a position of authority you have an incredible opportunity to show up as a servant-leader and the words you say can either support or undermine this..
Here are four phrases that I have heard from leaders repeatedly throughout my career that undermines servant-leadership.
The way to look at this is… Servant-leaders do not need to have all the answers, and they certainly do not want to define the other's perspective. Leaders that use this phrase want to shape the views of others to their own rather than expanding the views of others. There is very rarely a “right” way to look at an issue.
A servant-leader approaches the idea with curiosity to understand how others see things. They may express their own view by saying, “The way I see it is…” or “Another way you might look at it would be…” Or, even better, they can ask, “How else could you look at this?” Or “What would happen if you looked at it from the perspective of…”
I am losing sleep over this. In today’s high paced work environments, many people feel stress and anxiety over work that needs to be done. Leaders often feel this most acutely. The problem with this phrase is that the leader stating a problem they have and are — indirectly — asking others to solve it for them. This is a leader asking to be served rather than serving.
A servant-leader sees challenges that are not being addressed and tries to understand what the team needs to be able to address it. They say things like, “I have not seen much progress on X what is happening there and how can I help?” or “It seems like X is not currently a priority, is there something holding us back that I can help unlock?” If the servant-leader has a need they set up the time to talk and make sure that they are doing the work to get their need met and not putting on another.
You need to… I have to admit, I have fallen into this trap. A deadline is passed, I have not seen the output a team member committed to. I found them and said, “You need to get this done. This is your top priority and I need you to drop everything and do it.” It was effective in the moment, but in the long run, it probably did more harm than good. As a leader, it is tempting to use authority to get what we want and telling people what they need to do is often the easy path.
Servant-leadership is not about taking the easy way, it is about bettering those around you and helping them grow. As a leader, there are things that will have to happen and your job is to support your team in that work and to understand the root of the issue: did they not understand why this was important? were they not able to do it? or did something come up? Try starting from a place of caring curiosity, “I noticed you missed the deadline, what happened? What would help you get back on track?”
It is my pleasure to lead you. On the surface, this may sound ok, but being a servant-leader is about focussing on the served. Talking about what leading separates leaders from followers and divides the team. Leaders are only leaders if people have chosen to follow them. I once received feedback from a team member after a meeting with a partner. She told me how one of her past managers would always introduce himself as a team member rather than the leader of the team and that always made her feel more supported. That has stuck with me and I try to live by that standard. A leader cannot make a choice that they are leading people.
A servant-leader is always trying to remain connected to the team and is never putting themselves in the front. They are supporting and serving. It is better to say, “It is my pleasure to be part of this team” or “It is my pleasure to be able to serve this team.” If you choose to say that it is your pleasure to serve the team, make sure you are really serving. There is nothing worse than talking about your service while not providing it.
To be a servant-leader starts with an intent to serve that in turn leads to your thoughts and then your words. Thoughts and words lead to actions, and if those are all aligned you will be a servant-leader with integrity. No one can see your intentions or know your thoughts except through your words and actions. Make sure your words are those of a servant-leader and that your actions follow.