Why Servant Leadership Wins

January 27, 2022 Bob Freytag

For the first ten years of my 20-year career in the Navy, I was a results-oriented leader. I couldn’t hang on to people. They felt I didn’t trust them. Not surprisingly, I also became an expert at exit interviewing and conducting new hire interviews.

Being a results-oriented leader also contributed to a chapter in my life called “Stepchildren.”

After coming home to an empty house one day and realizing that my first response was to start crafting an exit interview for my wife, I was determined to become more self-aware and learn how I affected others. Leadership is my passion and it dawned on me that if a results-oriented only style of leadership didn’t work in the Navy, it wasn’t likely to work elsewhere. I began searching for a leadership style that would act like a rising tide that lifted all boats.

I began a journey of introspection. Let me save you a lot of hard work by sharing what I learned.

A Brief Definition of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is the most powerful leadership philosophy (proof follows). Before I go further, let me explain the concept. Here’s my definition of servant leadership: identifying what needs you create in other people and doing what you can to help them meet those needs so they can succeed.  You tend to be more of a servant leader when you do things with others instead of doing things to others.

Servant leadership is about relationships AND results. What we’ve found is that results move at the speed of relationships, and relationships move at the speed of trust.

The servant leadership philosophy is built on our innate desire to be helpful. Most people wake up in the morning intending to be helpful. They're looking for the ways to help solve a problem. They’re not plotting the demise of others. As a matter of fact, if they're awake at night it’s because they're trying to discover how to be helpful and improve a situation.

When you help your people, you immediately boost their confidence. They feel that they are not alone. They feel that they are in partnership with you. A trusting relationship is a basic human need.  And it’s the heart of servant leadership.

Be a servant leader and you’ll be viewed as someone who cares. Someone who honors their commitments. Someone who’s trustworthy. That’s incredibly powerful because you’ll be an inspiring leader who wins the loyalty and affection of your people.

Being a servant leader does not mean you are trying to be nice or become everyone’s friend. It is important to understand the difference between niceness and kindness. When you are nice, you say "yes" too much in an attempt to win the favor and approval of others. When you are kind, you say "no" more often and create better accountability with yourself and others.

If you want to put servant leadership in analytical terms, it reduces the resistance to results. You serve the needs of others so they can achieve shared goals. They proceed confidently and enthusiastically. So it’s the most efficient way for you to accomplish your agenda.

No matter how you define servant leadership, it is helping people with the needs that you give them.

Servant Leaders Are Always Needed

Any challenging situation—Covid, political change, mergers-and-acquisitions, etc.— puts considerable stresses on an organizational system and can lower trust in the workforce. The decline in trust comes from leaders becoming transactional and doing things to people instead of working with their folks.  Servant leaders help organizations weather these storms far better than companies with results-only-oriented leaders. But here’s the catch: you can’t instantly create a culture of servant leadership. It will seem insincere, and it will be ineffective.

Times like these shine an unwanted spotlight on organizations that don’t have servant leaders. The Great Resignation, with its historic turnover and widespread psychological challenges, magnifies issues that were already in place. These pressures start to fracture relationships that are not built on a foundation of trust and respect.

Servant leadership should be your organization’s default leadership philosophy. Then when a challenge arises, everyone is more motivationally aligned. While other organizations struggle, you speed ahead.

The Three Behaviors of a Servant Leader

The skillset of a servant leader isn’t a difficult one, but the challenge is aligning the heart and head. This phrase is particularly important because people who aren’t fully aligned with the philosophy often make seemingly small compromises when under pressure. But reverting to the results-only leadership style corrodes trust. Being a servant leader is an all-or-nothing proposition, and while no one is perfect, it’s vital to try and be one.

Here are some of the critical behaviors a servant leader needs to demonstrate.

  • Address Your People’s Needs: When your people take on a task, goal or objective, they are going to have needs. First set expectations together. Ensure that you are aligned on the specific outcomes, standards, and timeframe of the work. Then discuss why the work is relevant or meaningful. At that point, you can talk about what needs they have to complete that work. This last step is crucial because it will reveal your opportunities to help.  When you take this four-step approach, you are practicing servant leadership. Yes, it does slow things down just a bit at the beginning but the alignment, ownership, and trust you build accelerates results. 

In essence, you are improving results and strengthening the relationship. When you work this way, you also create a faster learning process and enable quicker development for a person to become self-reliant at a task. You will help the person get to a point where it is safe and appropriate to delegate the work to them.

Servant leadership doesn’t mean micromanaging, which is to provide higher levels of direction on the things people truly know how to do. Give direction for more complex and difficult tasks. People will need a blend of support and direction depending on how much knowledge and skill they have and how they feel about that work. SLII® is the operational model for servant leadership in action. It makes it easy to diagnose the kind of support a person needs.

  • Partnering for Performance: Meet with your people to discuss their confidence and motivation as well as level of knowledge and skill on at least their three most important tasks. Ask them, do they know what is being asked of them; when it needs to be done by; why it’s important; and what they need to get it done. Your people experiencing this kind of caring interaction increases the person's desire to accomplish what’s being asked of them.

In more academic terms, this is called "motivational alignment." A leader’s job is to create an optimally motivating environment where people are willing to lean in and do what you’re asking them to do. And they’re more likely to lean in because they know that their needs are going to be met.

  • Influence Your People’s Choice: We are inherently motivated. Most people want to do a good job. In general, a leader doesn’t have to create motivation, because it’s already present. Your goal is to influence your people in ways that motivate them to willingly choose to pay attention and get involved in what you are asking them to do.

I’ve been working in the field of leadership for 40 years, and the question I hear most often is, “How do I motivate my workforce?” It is a revealing question. You don’t motivate a workforce. You align their motivation with your goals. This means making sure that your people know what they need to do, when it needs to be done by, and why it needs to be done. A servant leader asks, “What do you need so that you can do a great job by our deadline?” A servant leader makes it safe for people to answer the question, “What do you need to do the work?”

Becoming a servant leader is ditching old behaviors that are unproductive, like blaming, deflecting, micromanaging, and abandoning. The Great Resignation is providing ample evidence that these approaches and philosophies of leadership are toxic. If you want to help your people to be “pilfer proof,” then show them you care about their success and are willing to help them achieve it. 

Servant leadership has nothing to do with your title. Anyone can be one. Everyone can enjoy the many benefits that come from it. And now that you know how to be one, you can start being the helpful leader you have probably always intended to be and the leader your people want.

About the Author

Bob Freytag

Bob Freytag is a Senior Consulting Partner for The Ken Blanchard Companies® with more than 25 years of training and consulting experience in the military, government agencies, and a wide variety of private-sector industries. Bob supports organizations in creating a high-performance and values-aligned culture through leadership development, organizational development, and culture change process consulting.

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