How to be an Effective Servant Leader

Servant leadership might have some buzz these days, but it is not the latest business fad — it is a state of mind and a lifelong journey.

By Stuart John, Product Director at BCG Digital Ventures

When you think of leadership you might equate it with the “command and control” approach of sharing information on a need-to-know basis, being the go to authority on everything because you’re the lead, driving the efficiency of the team by repeatedly reminding everyone of the launch date, and ultimately taking full and deserved credit for all of the team’s hard work.

And yet, you see other teams that seem to operate more autonomously. Who make decisions together and move forward quickly, achieving incredible results in the same timelines. Who have fun at work and never seem to stay past 6pm, and by the way, it’s their first project together. Look closer and you may just see a “servant leader” in action.

Servant leadership is a more effective style of leadership than the command control approach mentioned above. This authentic, open communication style of leadership has proven effective in many large organizations, particularly in the nonprofit sector. It can truly deliver positive results for all — if you’re willing to flip the leadership model on its head and put the needs of others first. This kind of leadership can look like effortless magic to the uninitiated, but it’s actually very disciplined.

What Does it Mean to be a Servant Leader?

The founder of the modern servant leadership movement, Robert K. Greenleaf, first coined the term in his 1970 essay aptly titled, “The Servant as Leader.” According to Greenleaf, the distinguishing quality of a servant leader is ensuring that the highest priority needs of others are being served. In 2000, Larry Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, expanded on this definition, listing attributes such as: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. Over time, many other voices have joined the conversation, adding the additional traits of trustworthiness, humility, caring, competence, and being visionary, empowering, and relational. All admirable qualities, I’m sure you would agree.

To me, being a servant leader stems from a desire to help others “level up” and unlock new talents. To align their values with their work, and drive meaningful outcomes with measurable impact. Regardless of functional discipline, you must go beyond the traditional transactional model of “leadership” and actually live the values and behaviors you want to see in your team. You must also get comfortable with letting go of control.

Being an effective servant leader requires an uncomfortable sharing of power and authority. But, how do I advance my own career if I’m always looking out for others? You might find yourself asking. It can certainly be a little scary to let go of the steering wheel at first. Early on in my career when I was learning the principles as a new manager, I’ll admit to the occasional moments of panic when the team started scheduling decision-making meetings without me.

However, as I began to implement this leadership style, I found myself both relieved and excited when I saw my teams embrace their new condition of autonomy and openness. Any apprehension I may have initially felt was replaced by pride when I realized that the decisions the team made on their own were the right ones, and I was no longer creating a bottleneck by needing to be involved in everything. As teams evolve, I monitor their progress by how empowered and autonomous they have become.

Building a Team of Servant Leaders

So, how do we build the highest-performing teams within seemingly ever-shrinking time and budget constraints? We do it by putting people first. When staffing and onboarding a new team, I often ask myself: How can I help people meet their aspirations and stretch them to grow, both as individuals and as a team?

The true mark of servant leadership comes when everyone feels they are operating “one level up,” whether that be in terms of responsibility or through the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Some may be looking to advance in their career, while others may be working on specific areas for development, or simply the mastery of new tools or techniques. Whatever the case may be, my objective is to facilitate opportunities that will help them achieve their goals.

Building a culture that provides pathways for growth is fundamental to the role of a leader. By doing so, you will naturally inspire the attitude of servant leadership within your team. Think about it this way: If being a servant leader is an effective way to manage, imagine just how much more effective you can be by building a team of servant leaders. As a new team is forming and norming, I actively look to elevate those who contribute to the temporary community we are building through their service to others.

It’s important to note that the larger organization around a team also needs to support this way of working. At BCG Digital Ventures, we place a high value on our people and their methods, and understand the integrity and the quality of the results this approach delivers. You don’t have to look far to find examples of companies that failed to build a culture of servant leadership — or to see the effects this failure has had on those companies’ leadership, the morale of their staff, and the trust of shareholders and customers.

Creating a culture of safety and trust is key to building a culture of servant leadership. This is done by making the space where everyone feels comfortable voicing their concerns — and by dealing with those concerns in an effective manner. To maintain this culture over time, you must continue to monitor the health of your team. This is an ongoing job that will require your attention and investment over time, both with your team as a whole and with one-on-one with the individuals within it.

But how can you do all this when you have to push the team to hit their milestones?

On a recent venture, we decided to give everyone Friday afternoons off as we were heading into our final phase. With launch dates looming, this may seem counterintuitive, but the commitment and motivation of the team to deliver a compelling product on time was abundantly clear and we chose to trust that they could get the job done. Not only did this motivate the team to deliver the product on time — they actually delivered more features than initially planned. The product has now gone on to win several awards.

Servant Leadership is a Journey not a Destination

Servant leadership might have some buzz these days, but it is not the latest business fad — it is a state of mind and a lifelong journey. While this journey will not always be easy (and will often not show immediate results) the rewards are well worth the effort. The reputation that grows within your team and company from excellent performance will be a gravitational force that attracts future leaders, increasing responsibilities and opportunities over time.

The bottom line is this: Any organization that adopts this style of leadership will find that genuine, exemplary treatment of colleagues and staff yields many tangible and intangible benefits in terms of performance, morale, and loyalty.

So, if you are a leader or an aspiring leader, ask yourself one question: How can I serve those on my team? The answer, I think you will find, is by making it a priority to promote positive transformation in the people and culture around you. If it doesn’t flow naturally, take small actions to test and learn your way into it. Try it. Good things will follow.

To learn more about BCGDV, follow us on Twitter @BCGDV and visit our website.

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BCG Digital Ventures - Part of BCG X

BCG Digital Ventures - Part of BCG X

BCG Digital Ventures, part of BCG X, builds and scales innovative businesses with the world’s most influential companies.