The Importance of Leading with a Servant’s Heart

CEO Insights

Part of leadership’s focus is helping businesses thrive. But those who embrace leading with a servant’s heart will find it to be the magic that promotes innovation, ensures better customer care, and helps people become the best versions of themselves. This was a lesson I learned much earlier in life growing up on a family farm in a small town. Serving and giving was part of the family culture; everyone felt blessed, gave generously of both their time and talents no matter their income, and they always seemed happy and found ways to be involved in their communities.

Some of the more recognizable notables that I have read and researched were FedEx CEO Fred Smith, Chick-fil-A’s founder Truett Cathy, and Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher who believed that “when people are placed first, they’ll provide the high possible service, and profits will follow”.

So, what do all of these in small town farm communities, big businesses and so many more have in common that makes them great examples of servant leaders? They’re committed to giving and serving others, they are driven by non-negotiable values, and they have a passion for excellence. This is servant leadership.

What is Servant Leadership?

Moving years ahead from my days on the farm to owning a business in a larger city with more team members in several locations and complex technologies, what does servant leadership look like now? It is still the same formula, a commitment to giving, serving, being driven by non-negotiable values, and striving for excellence.

Being a servant leader means shouldering other people’s needs – making each person’s growth and development, both personally and professionally, a priority. A servant leader differs sharply from those who put being a leader first and who uses power, authority, and material possessions as tools for leading.

Yes, organizations need revenue to stay in business. Increased revenue and efficiency are also a nice byproduct of shifting to a servant leadership way of thinking, but as a servant leader there are non-negotiables when it comes to morals and ethical values. A decision is either right or wrong whether there is $10 or $1M involved. The amount of money shouldn’t compromise the decision.  It is a very simple decision for servant leaders, you just do the right thing.

Characteristics of Servant Leaders

Reflection on my list of characteristics servant leaders possess or seek to develop.

1. People First

I have struggled with using the word “employees” over the years.  Employer versus employee has always made me feel the employee is subservient.  I prefer terminology like “team members” or “partners”. No matter which title your business uses, what’s important to remember is that employees are people first. The goal is to build a community where people’s talents and contributions are valued, whatever their position in the company. Every single team member regardless of job or title is equally important to the team’s success.

2. Hire Character for Culture 

As servant leaders you are more concerned with what makes up the person than what experience they have, their talent, education, or what they can do. You want to know what motivates them, inspires them, their passion, and evaluate if they’re givers or takers. Also, you want to understand what happiness and success looks like to them. If they have the passion and desire, you can help team members improve their knowledge and skills once they’re on the job. Improving or changing someone’s natural character is something that is seldom accomplished. This is a reason we dedicate so much time in what we call our “culture interview” of potential team members. It only takes one or two bad apples to start turning your culture rotten.

3. Finding Fulfillment

Asking, “How can I help?” not “Here’s what I expect” sounds so much more refreshing and inviting. It creates more of a partnership in a less dictatorial way. If you focus more on control not people, it will be challenging to create an inviting culture and desired outcomes will be less favorable. By phrasing words to those under your leadership on how you can help them achieve what “we” care about, you’re emphasizing how vital they are to your organization’s success. The result is a team mentality that encourages growth and helps your team develop and stretch their performance possibilities.

4. Humility

One that seems so easy, but few can do is leading with a servant’s heart and being able to humbly say, “I made a mistake,” “I could have done better,” or “I own this.” As a servant leader you should always be open to feedback, willing to change, and not be afraid to correct and learn from errors. I’ve found it important to manage my emotions and remain consistent in my actions. During challenging times, it is especially important for me to stay consistent with the leadership principles that I believe in. I am always amazed how those who have leadership roles start yelling and using vulgar language to show off their authoritative role during bad times or crises. Putting fear into team members is not a winning formula. Especially during predicaments, it’s important to inspire to get the best from your team. It is amazing what kindness and humility can accomplish.

5. Inspiring Possibilities

Encouraging team members to dream, inspiring them to think beyond daily realities, and helping them imagine how what they can contribute to the organization’s WIG’s (Wildly Important Goals) will create a better future for themselves and others. Some athletic coaches are great at stretching team members beyond what they think is possible. They can help others see, think, and dream beyond what seems impossible to become possible. One of the most important things servant leaders can do is help team members find purpose and enjoyment in their work.

6. Finding their Greatness

An effective leader should be committed to developing and growing the people you lead and helping them find the Greatness God has instilled in each of them. Helping team members flourish and thrive builds trust and provides a road to success, so they can grow into better versions of themselves. Servant leaders should find ways to give team members access to training and education so they can pursue excellence. Company recognition of team members for their relentless efforts and sharing examples of team members in serving others is a natural way for servant leaders to highlight team members.

7. Listen

Listen so you know and understand each team members’ views, strengths, feelings, and aspirations. This can improve emotional well-being, allow you to build more meaningful relationships, and help you gain a deeper insight into the organization’s overall health. Being empathetic yet firm is sometimes needed. Being in the moment and truly listening with both your heart and mind, without judgment or criticism and avoiding framing your response until the other team member finishes speaking, will show that you truly care about the team member and what they have to say.

8. Goals

It is important to have team leads understand each team member’s goals and then work with them to find where their personal goals and organizational goals overlap. Team leads should inspire team members to become emotionally invested in these shared vision and goals to maximize individual motivations to help reach those goals. If possible, create financial bonuses tied to accomplishing overall company goals and celebrate the accomplishment once goals are met.

9. Using Persuasion

As I mentioned earlier, there are leaders that still exist who believe anger, fear, and threats are the way to get people to do their job. I call it the dictatorial approach. Using persuasion and compassion allows you to gain respect, buy-in and commitment from team members rather than fear-driven compliance. Looking for consensus and negotiating teams’ desires and interests will give team members the feeling of being heard and will result in stronger commitment to the welfare of others and the organization’s success.

10. Having Insight

Insight is part of one’s ability to develop healthy relationships with others, leading with a servant’s heart and using people skills to understand situations, people, and motives. Always pay attention to intuition and those “aha moments,” or what I call spiritual moments. They allow us to learn valuable new information about team members. Getting to know the things that bring joy to team members and looking for opportunities to accentuate and share in those highlights is such a blessing.

11. Empowerment

Empowering team members is another lifelong lesson from the farm. My Dad’s early leadership of showing trust in me to operate machines and farming gave me a sense of pride and responsibility. Creating safe environments and a culture that encourages confident decisions will always pay dividends. This gives team members the desire and ability to take risks and achieve more significant outcomes. As a servant leader you don’t worry about who gets credit. It is amazing how much can get accomplished when you don’t care who gets the credit. It is what we call the Farmers Mentality. When there is a challenge, everyone rolls up their sleeves gets the work done and doesn’t worry about titles or egos.

Trusting and empowering others within the organization fosters accountability, creativity, and intuitiveness. The result is that it inspires team members to do their best to serve the needs of others, not because they must, but because they want to support the team.

12. Resolving Issues

Having the ability to resolve issues and conflicts and help people overcome their personal and business relationship problems are great attributes of servant leadership. These challenges could be mentally, physically, socially, emotionally, or spiritually, but they are all important. It is essential to show team members you care about them as a person. Don’t hesitate to take time to write a handwritten note or call them with thoughts, praise, prayers, or on specific occasions to show them how special they are. Teach others how to pay good deeds forward. As a servant leader, they are all family. Businesses that instill a healthy, healing workplace environment are respected by employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and other stakeholders who find joy in associating with them.

13. Community

Servant leaders lead by example giving back time, talents, and financially to their communities, churches, clubs, youth activities, and so much more. They show their teams how rewarding it is to give and how you can’t outgive what will come back to you in blessings.

Heart-Led Leaders Produce Better Results

Humble heart-led leaders succeed by creating work environments where people feel comfortable, safe, and free to speak openly. Leaders who support team members through their stresses, personal and career challenges will win hearts and achieve extraordinary results. Team members will become highly motivated to give their all when they know they are treated like a person rather than just a number to help an organization reach their goals.

When you genuinely care about the people you lead and focus on giving and serving your accomplishments will be measured in more than financial achievements, but in happiness of both your team members and you as a leader. Replacing greed and ego with humility and servanthood brings so much more success, pleasure, and fulfillment to organizations and to life.

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