Servant Leadership: Success Through Selflessness

Uplifting your team and strengthening their bond with the company

In the middle of the summer, things tend to move slower. And not just because of the heat. With vacation season in full swing, deals and projects take a bit longer. No sweat. We think the summer doldrums are an ideal opportunity to reflect on company culture, leadership, and how to thrive when things get hectic again.

All summer, we’ll be highlighting invaluable tips that are proven to give you an edge going forward. Here, we’ll look at the servant leadership philosophy, regarded as one of the most effective and respected techniques in business.

What is Servant Leadership?

Simply put, servant leadership asks us to shift the focus from commanding and directing to listening and facilitating. In other words: find out what your people need to supercharge their job performance and use that info to enhance their professional growth and commitment to the company’s mission.

The term was coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf in his essay, The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf was an AT&T executive who led its first management development programs. He went on to be a prolific writer, consultant, and teacher.

According to Greenleaf, a servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong—sharing power, putting the needs of others first, and helping people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Changing the Way We Think About Management

When you have a servant mentality, it’s not about you. “Removing self-interest and personal glory from your motivation on the job is the single most important thing you can do to inspire trust,” wrote management consultant and former executive, Carol Walker, in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

The first step in embracing this mindset is to stop thinking that your employees work for you, Walker says. Instead, she argues, “hold onto the idea that they work for the organization and for themselves.” Your role as servant is to facilitate the relationship between each employee and the organization, Walker said.

You must ask, what will it take for this employee to be successful in this relationship and what does the organization need to provide in order to hold up its end of the bargain? In the end, according to Walker, “people who become known for inclusiveness and smart decisions tend to develop influence far more consistently than those who believe they have all the answers.

Who are the Most Successful Servant Leaders?

 “I must know you to grow you.” That’s the famous catchphrase of former Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen CEO Cheryl Bachelder. She was ranked #1 on an INC Magazine list of the world’s top servant-leader CEOs.

When Bachelder became CEO in 2007, Popeyes shares were trading around $10 as the chain struggled to compete. By 2014, sales were up 25 percent, profits were up 40 percent, market share had grown from 14 percent to 21 percent, and the stock price was over $40. Her tenure ended when Popeyes was sold to Restaurant Brands International, the owner of Burger King and Tim Hortons, for $1.8 billion with shares trading at $79.

Bachelder credits her incredibly successful turnaround to a simple philosophy. “We needed to serve the people who have invested the most in Popeyes.” To do this, Bachelder and her team met with scores of restaurant operators. They listened and responded to the individual needs of franchisees rather than dictating top-down policy. Doing so dramatically improved overall quality and led to a domino effect of store owner reinvestment that drove further gains.

INC also recognized Sylvia Metayer, CEO of Sodexo Corporate Services Worldwide, which provides quality of life services to over 75 million people globally. “My main job is to support our employees,” Metayer said. “The world is changing very fast, she said, “We have to create career paths and support the training of our people so they’re ready for change.” She should know. Each year, Metayer’s group publishes a Global Workplace Trends report. It’s seen as a forecasting benchmark and it and employs many servant leadership principles to help companies build thriving workplaces.

How Do I Practice Servant Leadership?

Richard Murphy was an at-risk youth advocate, social entrepreneur, and legendary NYC-area servant leader. A Huffington Post profile of his incredible work includes a succinct summary of how Murphy put servant leadership into practice as New York City’s Commissioner for Youth Services as well as in an impressive array of nonprofit ventures benefiting kids. We think these tips serve as an awesome takeaway:

  • Scale ideas, not just programs and organizations.
  • The first job of leaders is to build and support other leaders.
  • Take chances on people.

We’ll leave you with a quote from the HuffPo piece by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Laozi:

“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.”

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