When you think about a leader, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it someone who takes control? Someone who makes all the rules? Someone you can look up to?
If you subscribe to the philosophy of servant leadership, however, your answer will probably be different. Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy where the main goal of the leader is to serve.
According to Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term in a 1970 essay, “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.”
In this week’s Conversations from the Corner Office, we talk with ID Plans CRO Seth Garber, who is a huge proponent of the concept of servant leadership. He shares his thoughts on what it means to be a servant leader and how this leadership style can be implemented in the workplace.
SG: For a long time, I’ve studied the concept of servant leadership. From my perspective, it comes down to thinking about where, as a leader, do I fit in the organizational chart? In order to fulfill my obligations as a leader, I am at the bottom of the org chart. Think of it like an inverted pyramid. In order to drive success, the organization needs a driving force, but the people on the front lines need to be supported. My whole purpose is to support my team in being effective in their roles. If they feel supported throughout their day-to-day work and the company backs them, then we’re doing our job in helping them progress in their career.
SG: When I started my career in sales as an independent contributor, I generally had more of the “alpha mindset.” That is, “I own everything. I go in to win every day. I follow up. I own my prospects.” I took deep ownership. Now that my career has shifted from an independent contributor role to a supporter role, I had to realize that in order to help people in sales or service roles, there was no way to scale if I felt like I had to do everything. I had to decide what kind of leader I wanted to be – out in front, or giving orders from behind? It’s worked really well for me, although I fully understand it doesn’t work well for everyone.
SG: Before you talk about implementation, you have to think about the culture of your organization. Is it supportive of this kind of mindset? Here at ID Plans, we are, but that’s not the case everywhere. Next, you’ll need to think about your team. As a divisional leader, for me, I focus on how to support my team and show results and growth. From there, other leaders can adopt and take best practices. The idea is to lead by example and support by example.
SG: In order to drive buy-in, servant leadership has to be something you truly believe in. A lot of people might say they do, but their actions don’t demonstrate it. Being transparent is also important in getting people on board. I try to be as transparent as possible in how I make decisions.
SG: It starts with developing trust. If someone has been working under a micromanager and then a leader comes in with a servant mindset, it can come across as disingenuous. You need to spend a lot of time with your people. Talk about business. Get to know them and understand what drives them. People are motivated by a lot of things and one of the guiding factors of the servant leadership mindset is understanding your people and what’s important to them in business and in life. [Related content – Are you ready to get fired up?]
SG: Well, there are times when you might have a team member who isn’t hitting their goals, and you’ll have to have conversations with them on what can be done to improve his or her performance. If you’ve built trust and your team members realize you’re on their side, those conversations will go a lot smoother.
SG: Some cultures just aren’t conducive to it. Let’s take a startup. They may not need servant leadership – they might need an intense driver who makes all the decisions. Or a company that has a highly aggressive growth and profit strategy where supporting team members isn’t the priority. What I know is that I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to implement servant leadership and I truly believe in its power. It hasn’t failed me yet!
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