As the CEO and president of Asset Living, the fifth-largest apartment manager in the United States, I often think about what my role actually means. Employing over 4,500 employees nationwide, I recognize that I’m quite literally in the business of people. Traditionally, we are taught that our direct reports and subordinates all work to ostensibly serve us, but this line of thinking is fundamentally flawed.
My employees aren’t working for me; conversely, as a senior leader, I am actually working for them. Frankly, if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have a job. Robert K. Greenleaf first coined servant leadership back in the 1970s—since then, the concept has steadily gained traction among modern-day corporations.
At the center of servant leadership is the core belief that focusing on your staff’s growth and wellbeing is not only beneficial for company morale, but also ultimately good for business. Happy employees tend to be more productive, motivated and growth-oriented—all elements that propel a business towards long-term success.
So, what are some distinct aspects of servant leadership?
- Servant leaders focus primarily on the overall communities’ wellbeing and long-term growth.
- Servant leaders put the needs of others ahead of their own.
- Servant leaders aren’t all-knowing and don’t claim to be; instead, they regularly rely on their teams for guidance and subject-matter expertise.
- Servant leaders hire people smarter, better, and different than them.
- Servant leaders recognize that in most cases, humaneness comes first and business second because without the people, there would be no business.
While a CEO or founder plays a pivotal role in establishing servant leadership at an institutional level, it’s absolutely critical that leaders across the company embody this style too. In fact, Greenleaf argues that servant leadership is more of a “lifestyle” as opposed to an organizational technique that can be implemented in one swift go. Keeping this in mind, here are some actionable steps you can take to cultivate a culture of servant leadership at your company.
Related: How to Build a Winning Team
Be an Active Listener
An effective leader listens first and talks last. This tactic is particularly helpful in meetings or brainstorms because seldom will a team member contradict your initial proposal if you happen to share your thoughts first. As an entrepreneur, you want to cultivate original thinking instead of perpetuating groupthink; the latter will ultimately render lackluster results for your business. Oftentimes, the most important question a leader can ask is “What’s your recommendation?” When it comes to problem solving or strategic planning, the people you employ will likely have more intimate knowledge or subject-matter expertise to come up with a solution or original idea.
Do Coach; Don’t Manage
A servant leader is unlike a boss. They don’t just tell someone what to do or delegate: They coach and empower. Instead of simply offering advice, they consistently share personal experiences (of successes or failures). Servant leaders are transparent and tell you what they did when they were in your shoes. They are gracious enough to let you know what they would have done differently if given the chance to do it over again. Ultimately, when it comes to coaching, I’ve seen better results when I share my mistakes rather than my successes. In the end, vulnerability displays transparency and makes trust a cornerstone of your organization.
Ask For Feedback
As your company grows, and with it your list of responsibilities, it’s easy to lose sight of your own development. No matter how senior you are, the pursuit of personal growth should continue. Just as you provide feedback for your direct reports and colleagues, they should do the same for you. As CEO, I regularly undergo executive reviews, which help identify areas I can continue to hone. In fact, I’m currently undergoing media training (a growth area of mine) so that I can better communicate aspects of my business to reporters, interviewers, and the general public.
Lead by Example
The last tip reinforces the notion that servant leadership is more of a lifestyle choice for your business. Whether you’re in or out of the office—in a board meeting or at a client dinner—how you carry yourself matters. Are you democratic in your approach to decision-making? Are you kind, compassionate, and attentive or are you autocratic, controlling, and egotistical? As a leader, your every move is carefully observed. Demonstrate the kind of attitude and behavior you want others to have when faced with a problem or crisis. Lead with gratitude, empathy, and calmness. Prioritize the collective before the individual in speech and action. By consistently focusing on the “we” rather than the “me,” you will not only forge success for your company, but also promote better quality of life for all staff.