Paul was 24 years old. He was shy and the youngest member of his workgroup. During lunch with his coworkers, the conversation turned to the recent promotion of his current supervisor, Charles. They speculated about who would replace him.
There was a major concern that a coworker, Terry, was lobbying hard for the position. Terry got along with no one. He was hoping to get the job, “So people will do what I want them to do.”
While the group was lamenting about that possibility, Paul asked why no one there was vying for the position. One by one, they all had their reasons why they didn’t want it. Paul shook his head and said, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
Two weeks later—much to his surprise—Paul was called into Charles’ office and offered the job. He was shocked. While most of the group was under 30, one member was in his mid-40s. Paul thought, “I can’t tell my dad what to do.”
After sleeping on the offer overnight, Paul accepted, on the condition they train him to be a leader. Charles agreed. Paul aggressively sought training at work. He also read voraciously about leadership—for the rest of his life. Paul learned that leadership was not about telling people what to do. He learned to be a leader who shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform at the highest level possible. He later heard these principles described with the term Servant Leadership.
Here are seven things servant leaders do, and why they are important:
- They sell, they don’t tell. The servant leader persuades others with inspiration, not force. The phrase, “Because I’m the boss,” never leaves their lips. That approach may get you what you want in the short term, but it won’t inspire others. A title doesn’t make you a leader. The ability to have an impact, to influence, and to inspire does.
- They value diverse opinions. The servant leader listens to others. They recognize that everyone has something unique to offer. They want to hear different points of view. They believe in the old expression, “Everyone is an expert within five feet of their workstation.” In meetings, they solicit input from the more reserved team members, who are often silenced by the more outgoing team members.
- They are humble. Servant leaders understand the importance of being humble and grateful. They know that without everyone’s effort, they simply won’t succeed. They make sure they consistently thank their team members, individually and collectively. A servant leader makes a conscious effort to walk around and catch people doing things right.
- They create a culture of trust. Servant leaders keep their work. They do what they say they will do, and they’re dedicated to doing the right thing. When the team fails, they accept the blame. When the team succeeds, they focus the credit on the team. They feel the tension between the needs of the bigger organization and the needs of the team and they seek balanced solutions. When decisions flow down from higher authorities, that may not make sense to the team, they explain the politics and the big picture. They don’t expect blind obedience.
- They see themselves as part of the team. The servant leader knows their team is their most important asset. The team helps them succeed. When the situation dictates, they roll up their sleeves and help get the job done. If some of the team is working on the weekend to save schedule, they show up to support the team.
- They develop other leaders. The servant leader doesn’t hoard knowledge in fear that they might be replaced. They know the best way to lead is to create other leaders. They don’t want to be the bottleneck to the team’s success. They allow their team members to present to senior leadership, to give them exposure.
- They think long term. Servant leaders focus on both the immediate task at hand and the important but not urgent activities needed for a healthy organization. They spend a great deal of their time sharing what they learn and helping others through things like career counseling, suggesting contacts, and recommending new ways of doing things.
Paul had a long, successful career as a leader. He inspired loyalty from the people he led. He mentored many employees that were his direct reports. Employees from other organizations were referred to him.
One time, Paul’s project team was given the challenge to accelerate a prototype product delivery. Paul did not immediately commit his team to do the impossible. He presented the challenge to the team and the team concluded it could, with a lot of overtime, meet the delivery. But the documentation would take one more week. Paul reported this to his manager, Bob, who agreed with this approach.
While the team was celebrating the successful accelerated delivery, Bob showed up and announced that they needed to complete the documentation in two days. Paul was furious about the bait-and-switch. When Bob left, Paul told his team not to kill themselves to meet the accelerated deadline. They had already gone above and beyond. He said he would take the blame.
The next morning he received an email from the head of his team. “We’re going to meet the new deadline. We are not doing it for Bob—we are doing it for you.”
Paul reluctantly let them push to meet the new deadline. As bad as he felt about Bob’s behavior, he felt good about his relationship with his team.
At the end of the day, we all want to succeed and be recognized. Being a servant leader is a great way to work toward creating a positive and productive workplace.
About the Author
Walt Grassl is a speaker, author, and performer. He hosts the radio show, “Stand Up and Speak Up,” on the RockStar Worldwide network. Walt has performed standup comedy at the Hollywood Improv and the Flamingo in Las Vegas and is studying improv at the Groundlings School in Hollywood. For more information on bringing Walt Grassl to your next event, please visit www.WaltGrassl.com.
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