"The servant-leader is servant first... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first." – Robert Greenleaf
Whenever I hear the phrase "servant leadership," I think of Nelson Mandela, or Madiba, as he's affectionately called in South Africa. He was one of the greatest statesmen in history, yet, by all accounts, he was a servant leader and a man who embraced simplicity.
Humility is one of the hallmarks of a servant leader: they don't like bragging. Zelda la Grange, Madiba's personal assistant of 19 years, wrote in her 2014 book that Mandela didn't enjoy functions where people made long speeches. And he especially disliked it if the speeches sang his praises!
She also said that he regularly introduced his entire delegation to the dignitaries who he was visiting: "Later he also insisted on inviting the presidential plane’s crew to banquets, even if this meant he had to request the head of state/government himself to allow them to attend. He never treated any of his staff as just the hired help."
There are anecdotes of Madiba throwing plans off course to greet children and to walk through crowds. He went out of his way to meet serving staff at banquets and to shake hands with chauffeurs. Paying close attention to people and making them feel important were at the core of his values. So, being mindful of people is clearly an important characteristic of servant leaders.
Nelson Mandela was also known for his ability to spot a need. When seeing someone who needed help, he insisted on him or his staff assisting them or, at the very least, finding aid for them.
Authenticity is another servant leader quality that was apparent in Mandela. He was accepting of many kinds of people. But, at the same time, he was able to let it be known if someone's behavior, such as arriving late, had displeased him – even if it were a head of state!
You can't be a servant leader without integrity. Madiba, for instance, was almost obsessive about honesty. He once threatened to get rid of his whole security contingent when one of his bodyguards took expensive toiletries from Mandela's hotel suite. He let go of the issue only when the culprit returned the items.
Servant leaders are described as people who have a sense of stewardship over the people and companies or organizations they are responsible for. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "stewardship" as, "the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care."
I think it's one of the most accurate ways to describe Nelson Mandela: a man who carefully and responsibly managed the people and the country entrusted to his care.
In our #MTtalk Twitter chat on Friday, August 18, one of the participants shared a phrase that hit home. @WonderPix said, "Improve the 'we-go' by reducing the ego." @MurrayAshley also mentioned ego when she said that, to improve your leadership qualities, "You can't be ego- or 'own-agenda' driven."
The hero leader's ego got in the way of the "we-go" so much that the organization lost many talented folk. People didn't want to be around him and merely tolerated him, at best.
However, @yehiadief reminded us that some of the effects that servant leaders have are increased creativity and the creation of more servant leaders in the company or organization.
The interesting thing is that people love Kobus Neethling. At conferences, everybody wants to be around him, to talk to him, and to experience how he makes them feel: motivated, creative and filled with potential. And, of course, he has already inspired many others to fulfill the calling of servant leadership.
Here are all the questions that we asked during the chat, and some of your responses:
Q1. What does "servant leadership" mean to you?
@MaryEllenGrom: Walking the talk. Practicing what you preach. Earning trust and respect at all times.
@harrisonia: Servant leadership is remembering the "struggle" and normal grind of those who are not in a position of authority.
Q2. How is it possible for a leader to also serve?
@manavlalotra: If someone doesn't know what serving is all about, he wouldn't be able to appreciate a true sense of leadership – it's the foundation.
@maat333: It is not only possible, it's part of the core of a real leader. No just for the "service", but all people involved.
@ShereesePubHlth: One could argue; you're not an effective leader unless you serve.
Q3. What are some of the characteristics of servant leaders?
@JKatzaman: Servant leaders are experts in active listening. It's not about them but the team and everyone's success.
@Yolande_MT: Servant leaders don't care about the credit. They care about making things better.
Q4. What do servant leaders do that is different from other leaders?
@MicheleDD_MT: They lead first from an ethic of caring for others’ needs. Growth mindset. They consider needs of all stakeholders. Inclusive.
@GThakore: They dare to do what others don't.
Q5. What are some common misconceptions about servant leadership?
A number of participants mentioned the misconception that servant leadership is weak.
@adaolasunmade: That "servant" implies slavery and subservience.
This was an interesting thought from @shamikv: Should we call this Servant Leadership or Service Leadership? Maybe it will help remove misconceptions.
Q6. What personal or corporate beliefs block people from considering servant leadership?
@Jikster2009: The belief that if they are their authentic selves they will be seen as vulnerable. Also companies who drive the wrong behaviours.
@wordsmithswrite: "Leaders" who are offended at the idea of "serving" only showcase their swollen egos. Well-rounded people lead better.
Q7. What effect do servant leaders have on the people around them?
@Midgie MT: Engagement, commitment, performance, job satisfaction and overall company performance & client satisfaction.
@SaifuRizvi: Self motivation, sense of responsibility and habit to take ownership of the work.
@BrainBlenderTec: It creates an ecosystem where people become part of something instead of just adding to it.
Q8. How does the leader benefit from being a servant leader?
We were lucky enough to have a contribution from @KobusNeethInst: Servant leadership enhances your people's creativity and it's a major component in developing mature and wise emotions.
@GilchristGeorge: Their job is easier as everyone shares the load as they create collaborative cultures with dispositions for continuous growth.
Q9. What is the most valuable lesson you've learned from working with or observing a servant leader?
@GaryGruber: Be willing to roll up your sleeves and do any job that anyone else is doing, even if it requires getting sweaty & dirty.
@LorenMargolis: The powerful role that empathy plays in servantleadership. Judge less, support more via coaching questions.
Q10. In what ways can you develop a "servant leadership" approach?
@SnowinRI: By practicing behavioral consistency in your actions. Never having to look over your shoulder to check if anyone's watching.
@TwinkleTutoring: Two characteristics have cropped up that are SO important - a secure sense of self and transparency. That will be hard for many!
One of the characteristics of servant leaders is the ability to forgive others. Why do you think it's important to let go of past issues? Please cast your vote in our poll here.
In our next #MTtalk, on Friday, September 1, our topic is "The Art of Letting Go." To share your thoughts and ideas, please join us at 1 p.m. EDT/ 5 p.m. GMT/ 10:30 p.m. IST.
To participate in our chat about the art of letting go, type #MTtalk in the Twitter search function. Then, click on “All Tweets” and you’ll be able to follow the live chat feed. To join the conversation, simply include #MTtalk in your tweet and it will show up in the chat feed.
In the meantime, here are some resources that will help you to learn more about the art of letting go:
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