Developing a Servant Leadership Strategy

I first heard the term “servant leadership” in high school. Since then, I’ve seen and heard it referenced over and over again in books, presentations and casual business conversations. One of my initial aversions to the term was that while it sounded nice, the connection to results was soft or overlooked entirely. In other words, it felt like a “nice guys finish last” strategy. After all, leaders are expected to deliver results or they won’t last long.

The more I’ve studied business and leadership effectiveness, the more I’ve learned that servant leadership is a supportive, inclusive and empowering style of leading others. In short, it puts the needs of others above the needs of self, but without sacrificing the underlying needs of the organization.

Many leaders want to grow in servant leadership. I know, because they tell me so. But sentiment isn’t enough. What we all need is a strategy. These four items are a good place to start.

Who Will You Serve?

Without a subject, servant leadership is simply a sentiment and not an action. Did you know that as an organizational leader, your serving audience goes much further than just your team? In fact, that might not be the best place to start. Do a quick analysis of all the groups who are depending on your leadership. Which is most critical at the moment? Some may include:

  • Customers
  • Frontline employees
  • Team members
  • Owners
  • Investors
  • Board members
  • The local community

Obviously, if you are just getting started, you can’t serve all members equally at the same time. Pick the top 2-3 you must focus on first.

What are the Core Needs?

How well do you understand the specific needs of the group you intend to serve? It’s so important that Stephen Covey focused his entire fifth habit “Seek to understand” explaining how to do it. Unfortunately, most leaders are busy and biased. Even when they have time to do a formal analysis, it’s easy to ascribe the needs of others to our (often limited) understanding of their situation.

For instance, if you are trying to better serve your customers, do you realize there is a categorically different need between a brand new potential customer seeking information and a loyal customer who has just received his first poor experience? Investors who bought when the company’s stock was high likely have different needs (and expectations) than those who bought when the stock was low. And don’t forget, needs change over time.

For your servant leadership strategy to truly work, you will need to differentiate the core needs within your group and conduct a thoughtful needs analysis.

How Will We Measure the Outcomes?

Peter Drucker is frequently credited with the quote, “What gets measured gets managed.” It’s impossible to measure an unspecific metric. Core needs need measurable metrics.

Here is a quick example. If you work in fast food, you’ve probably identified that one of your customers’ core needs is to receive their food quickly. One of your formal targets could be average wait time.

Embody the Values and Commitments as a Leadership Team

Ultimately, you won’t be able to accomplish a servant leadership strategy on your own, even if you are the CEO. You’ll need a team that shares the same values and commitments. It’s even better if you create the strategy together.

At the end of the day, servant leadership isn’t just talk. It’s action. It’s easy to say we believe in servant leadership. But until we have a strategy, we’ll never actually serve the people we need to lead.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, coach, facilitator and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective.