How to Become a Servant Leader

Calvin Stovall
January 2020
Camper in kayak on a lake looking back towards camera

I strongly believe that an organization is not defined by its products or its glitzy marketing. The people who work for the organization are its true assets.

A leader who takes care of their people will never have to worry about subpar customer service.

Research shows that employees drive 70 percent of a brand’s perception. I’m a huge proponent for putting employees first because without a team of engaged employees who enjoy coming to work every day, it’s virtually impossible to create a service-led culture. Motivational speaker and organizational consultant Simon Sinek has a great quote: “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first” (2014).

Many studies have indicated organizations that are servant-led perform better and yield higher returns. Do you believe there’s an undeniable link between customer experience and employee experience? Marriott International founder J.W. Marriott said, “Take care of associates and they’ll take care of your customers” (Marriott International, n.d.). Companies that lead in customer experience have 60 percent more engaged employees, and study after study has shown that investing in employee experience impacts the customer experience and can generate a higher return on investment (ROI) for the company.

Customer experience is the new battleground for competitive advantage. The successful organizations of the future will be those that create memorable experiences for their customers as opposed to simply completing transactions. People don’t talk about transactions; they talk about experiences.

How do companies like Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Chick-fil-A, Amazon, and Disney do it?

The only way to win in today’s competitive environment is by delivering a seamless customer experience and making an emotional connection with your customers. You and your employees are the only true sustainable differentiators. Without passionate leadership committed to wowing customers time and time again, you become just another business in a category of many — in other words, a commodity. Or you move like you mean it above and beyond the competition and become a category of one by creating raving fans and giving your customers a reason to keep returning to do business with you.

A direct correlation exists between how leaders treat their employees and how employees treat their customers. I’ve held several leadership roles in the past in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. I’ve witnessed some leaders treating their employees as the valuable assets they are. I’ve also seen some who treated their employees like cogs in a wheel and felt their employees were there to serve them. I’ve learned lessons from both types about especially what to do and what not to do, but the most valuable lessons came from those leaders who embraced a servant leadership philosophy. Servant leadership means different things to different people. The philosophy (or definition) closest to my heart is “putting the needs of others ahead of your own in service to a larger purpose” (Connors, 2016).

The primary difference between most leaders and servant leaders is simply motive. In each encounter, at work and in everyday life, servant leaders ask themselves the question “How can I serve others?”

As a servant leader, you are part of a grand master plan. You understand leadership is not about telling people what to do. Employees do not exist simply to serve your needs. You must shift your mindset. To become a servant leader, you have to think about leadership differently.

You are there to serve your employees. You are there to lead from your heart to inspire and equip your team for success. If you truly embrace that mindset, you’ll become a leader worth following. Here are some of the essential characteristics of a servant leader:

Vision

In Ken Blanchard’s book, The Servant Leader, he says, “Servant leadership begins with a clear and compelling vision of the future” (Blanchard & Hodges, 2003). What servant leaders do exceptionally well is connect and tap into the emotions of their employees. As a servant leader, when you provide a clear vision, everyone knows their role and feels like their part is important to achieving that vision.

As a servant leader, if there’s one responsibility you need to perfect it is emotionally connecting to your company’s vision and encouraging ownership among your team members. It’s imperative you communicate that vision to your team and unify them toward reaching a common goal. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. People want to know that their contributions make a difference. They want to be a part of the action! They want to know what’s going on. In short, people want to be connected to a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG; Collins & Porras, 2004). You must connect with your team and ensure that they’re in the game. People are more engaged when they have a clear direction, goals, and expectations.

Trust

The only way you can build a service-led culture is to create a strong sense of trust between you and your employees. A servant leader’s default is to start with trust. While other leaders may serve the bottom line or themselves and seek to control and micromanage, the servant leader seeks to unleash talent and creativity by extending trust, because the servant leader fundamentally believes deeply in others’ potential. A servant leader trusts their employees will consistently deliver high-quality work on time.

Trust and servant leadership are simple disciplines, but they are not easy. If you’ve been let down before, extending trust out of the gate can be difficult. But your team can’t create memorable customer experiences without it. Give your people the opportunity to rise. Stop weighing them down. Free yourself from micromanaging your team, and memorable customer experiences will happen.

Connection

Zappos is known for connecting with its customers and for responding to issues quickly. That’s likely because the company also has a great reputation for connecting with its employees. When employees feel connected to and valued by the company, they want to bring customers into the fold.

Here’s the challenge when it comes to connection: Because of the “soundbite culture” we live in today people don’t have conversations anymore. We live in a world of comments, text messages, and snap chats. Have you gone to a restaurant lately and just looked around? No one is talking to one another. Everyone is buried in their phones. Connectedness requires conversation. Come out of your corner office and talk to your employees. Amp up the dialogue!

How can you better connect with your employees? Communicate until you are talked out and then communicate some more. Seek to understand and demonstrate empathy. When your employees are facing challenges, how do you approach them? Do you empathize with their situations, or are you quick to jump to conclusions? Do you talk more than you listen? Can you set aside all distractions and be present? Leadership expert John Maxwell famously said, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” (The John Maxwell Company, 2013).

The biggest investment you can make in your people is your time. Remember, your most important role as a servant leader is to grow and develop your team. Don’t underestimate the opportunity you’ve been given to influence and change their lives for the better. Be intentional about the amount of time you devote to coaching and developing your employees. Be deliberate in seeking to understand who they are, where they are, and how you can contribute to their growth.

Humility

Just as you’re responsible for growing and developing your team members, you must be humble enough to recognize you have areas in need of development as well. Humility is a character trait that every servant leader should value and develop. Humility extends what ego withholds — trust.

Being a servant leader doesn’t mean you devalue your own strengths; you just acknowledge the areas where you might need help. Stay agile. Remain open-minded to new opportunities, new situations, and new people, and embrace an open heart with a willingness to learn.

Servant leaders revel in the accomplishments and potential of others. With humility comes a willingness to celebrate the achievements of others. Servant leaders allow, enable, and empower others to shine. They not only enjoy watching others succeed, but they also do what they can to put the spotlight on others’ victories. Again, this is because servant leaders recognize that there is enough success to go around for everyone.

If you really want your team to be fully engaged, you must be fully engaged with them. It’s you who makes the difference. Your daily behavior and your energy create energy in others. It’s that simple. I believe people emulate and mirror what they see. It’s important that your team sees you in this light because you set the pace and the tone of your work environment. Either you’re in the game or you’re in the way.

Empowerment

Servant leaders empower their employees to use common sense and good judgment. Of course, you have to have written rules and procedures, but you can’t write a rule for every single scenario your employees are going to run into. You can tell in any given situation when a rule should be bent or broken. You’re not out there every day. Your teams are dealing with customers (campers and camp parents) daily. You’re not breeding robots, so trust and empower them to make the right call.

Employees at Nordstrom department store are given just one rule in their employee handbooks: “Use good judgment in all situations” (Lutz, 2014). Instead of being bogged down with corporate guidance, empowered employees know they are trusted and valued. That translates to their interactions with customers and is a large reason why the “Nordstrom Way” of doing customer service is well respected in the retail industry.

Appreciation

Make sure you celebrate your team’s successes — even the small ones. Show appreciation and respect for your employees, peers, and coworkers. View your team as your internal customers. Like your external customers, team members just want to be recognized and feel appreciated. Saying, “I just assumed you knew how much I appreciate what you do” is not going to motivate anyone to higher levels of performance. Not expressing gratitude and appreciation to others is the same as making them disappear. As servant leaders, we must accept and acknowledge that nothing significant can ever be achieved unless people feel appreciated. People who feel ignored just aren’t going to put forth the effort it takes to sustain greatness.

Make your employees raving fans! You know what happens when you take care of your own team like that? It’s infectious. They feel important, loved, and needed, and all of that translates to the customer. If everyone in your company knows the feeling of being blown away, then they will live to blow the minds, hearts, and souls of your customers. Creating this sort of service-led culture is not only profitable, but it creates an incredibly exciting environment in which every team member takes care of the company like it was their own.

In a recent article, author and speaker Ken Blanchard explained, “servant leadership is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It can take eight to 10 years to shift a corporate culture to this type of leadership, and it’s something you have to work on every day” (Bolin, 2019).

However, the result is well worth the effort. There is nothing like waking up each day knowing that you are making a difference in the lives of your customers, partners, and employees. There is no limit to what you can accomplish as a servant leader. While there are many ways to connect, empower, and show appreciation when you’re in the people business, the formula is quite simple: serve others, enjoy what you do, and work and live with passion.

REFERENCES

  • Blanchard, K. & Hodges, P. (2003). The servant leader.
  • Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
  • Bolin, A. (2019). Servant leadership — Not a sprint, a marathon. TribalNet Magazine. Retrieved from tribalhub.com/magazine/Spring-2019/index_50.html#page=46
  • Collins J. & Porras, J. (2004, June). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  • Connors, C. D. (2016, October 15). What it means to serve others — The mark of a servant leader. Medium. Retrieved from medium.com/the-mission/what-it-means-to-serve-others-the-mark-of-a-servant-leader-22eed3ff3fc0
  • The John Maxwell Company. (2013, July 23). Caring for your corporate family. Retrieved from johnmaxwell.com/blog/caring-for-your-corporate-family/
  • Lutz, A. (2014, October 13). Nordstrom’s employee handbook has only one rule. Business Insider. Retrieved from businessinsider.com/nordstroms-employee-handbook-2014-10
  • Marriott International. (n.d.). Core values & heritage. Retrieved from marriott.com/culture-and-values/core-values.mi
  • Sinek, S. (2014, April 16). Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.
  • Twitter. Retrieved from twitter.com/simonsinek/status/456545886143643649

Calvin Stovall has more than 25 years of experience in the hospitality and nonprofit services industries. Calvin shares real-life, hands-on practical customer experience and leadership principles that can be easily applied to business challenges today. He has previously served as marketing and brand strategist for the fund- raising arm, ALSAC, for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, as well as vice president of brand marketing with Hilton Worldwide.

Photo courtesy of Camp Gray; Reedsburg, Wisconsin.