To Lead Is To Serve
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
By Gonzalo Cordova
I invite you to think about your two favorite definitions of what it means to lead. Most likely they include service at their core in one way or another. The concept of service at the heart of leadership is not new. Plenty of old and new research support it. Contemporary authors, such as Simon Sinek and Adam Grant, continue to provide practical insights about the principles of servant leadership. However, in despite of this knowledge, we all struggle to be effective servant leaders at a certain degree. I believe our challenge is rooted on us losing our focus on service instead of us not appreciating its value. Thus, these are some proven practices to keep effective servant leadership in mind at all times.
Take time to establish a personal connection with the people you lead. It is easy to
spend the day jumping from one meeting to another while ignoring the fact that
our effectiveness as servant leaders depends on how well we know the individuals
we lead, both as professionals and as people. Find out what drives people at work
and outside of work, their needs, their dreams, their struggles. Only when we invest
the time to get to know others, we will be able to serve them by making decisions
that positively impact them at a professional and personal levels.
Listen to Understand
We all have fallen into the trap of listening to answer instead of listening to
understand. Our fast pace world leaves little room for reflection, so we need to be
intentional about listening to understand into our daily communications. A best
practice is to repeat aloud the information we received to ensure its accuracy and
then pause. The person providing the information usually takes advantage of the
pause to add information, correct any misunderstanding, or confirm that our
understanding of the message is correct. Ensuring we understand what we heard
from others allows us to capture their reality as they experience it. Our ability to
serve others as leaders is magnified when we take into account their realities
instead of relying on our perception of their worlds.
People follow voluntarily the ones they trust. Trust has to be earned through
actions that benefit the people we lead independently of the benefit that we get as
their leaders. Extreme cases of servant leadership are displayed when leaders make
decisions that are good for the ones under their lead even though the leader faces
negative consequences. This is hard to practice when we have been wired by
multiple channels to win, to be first, to seek our own benefit. I acknowledge leaders
cannot perpetually lead without any personal wins, but I believe we can find win-
win solutions more often than not if we search deep enough. The next time that
you make a decision as a leader, check your motives and ensure the benefit of
others is equally weighed with your own.
Think of the last time you wished your leader could understand the practical
challenges you are facing to address his or her ask. Most likely, your leader had
good intentions when assigning the task, but well-intended asks tend to become
more complex in practice. As leaders, we can try to avoid the scenario described
above and serve the ones we lead by making decisions with empathy. To do this,
acknowledge that empathetic decisions require extra effort on our part. Next, ask
more questions, role play the execution of your asks, consult with other leaders,
check with the people you lead for unintended consequences of your decisions. In
short, go out of your way to make decisions from the perspective of the ones we
Serve Where You Are
You can start serving others where you are, regardless of your title, number of
direct reports, experience, and background. This mindset will support any
leadership journey, so it is never a waste of efforts and time. Start small or big, but
start making a contribution to the well-being of others now.
While there are additional ways to practice servant leadership, the ones discussed above will allow for a solid foundation. Thus, let me be bold and end by asking you to apply what you just read. Be intentional about servant leadership while pursuing your own goals. You will enjoy the magnified sense of satisfaction from enabling others to succeed…No better way to lead than to serve!