Are You a Servant Leader and Don’t Know It?

Over the years, I’ve talked with thousands of people about servant leadership. Every so often somebody will come up to me after a speech and say to me, “You know, Ken, the style of leadership you just talked about is exactly the way I’ve been leading people for years—I just didn’t know there was a name for it! I’m a servant leader!”

Are you one of those people who think they might be a servant leader but aren’t sure? Let’s find out.

What Is Servant Leadership?

Robert Greenleaf first coined the term servant leadership in 1970 and published widely on the concept for the next twenty years. Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela are examples of great leaders who practiced this philosophy. If you think you couldn’t be in that kind of company, read on!

When some people hear the phrase servant leadership, they are confused. They think it means managers should be working for their people, who would make all the decisions. If that’s what servant leadership is all about, it doesn’t sound like leadership to them at all. It sounds more like the inmates running the prison, or trying to please everyone.

The problem is that these folks don’t think you can lead and serve at the same time. But you can, if you understand that servant leadership has two parts: vision/direction and implementation. In the visionary role, the traditional hierarchical pyramid is in place. Leaders are responsible for communicating what the organization stands for and what it wants to accomplish. While these leaders should involve experienced people in shaping direction, the ultimate responsibility cannot be delegated to others. This visionary role is the leadership aspect of servant leadership.

Implementation is where the servant aspect of servant leadership comes into play. Once people are clear on where they are going, the role of an organizational leader shifts to a service mindset for implementation. If you are a servant leader, you now philosophically turn the traditional pyramid upside-down and you work for your people. Your purpose is to help them accomplish established goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

Sound familiar yet?

Two Examples of Servant Leadership

To me, servant leadership is the only way to guarantee great relationships and great results. That became even more clear when I realized that the two leadership approaches I am best known for around the world—The One Minute Manager® and SLII®—are both examples of servant leadership in action.

If you’re familiar with the book The One Minute Manager, you may remember that his First Secret is One Minute Goals. All good performance starts with clear goals—part of the leadership aspect of servant leadership. Once people are clear on goals, an effective One Minute Manager wanders around, trying to catch people doing something right and deliver the Second Secret: One Minute Praisings. If someone is not performing as well as agreed upon, a One Minute Re-Direct—the Third Secret—is appropriate. When an effective One Minute Manager delivers praisings and re-directs, they are engaging in the servant aspect of servant leadership—working for their people to help them accomplish their goals.

SLII® also has three keys that lead to great relationships and great results: goal setting, diagnosis, and matching. Once clear goals are set, an effective SLII® leader works situationally with each direct report to diagnose that person’s development level (competence and commitment) on each specific task or goal. Then the two work together to determine the leadership style (amount of directive and supportive behavior) that matches the direct report’s development level so that the person can accomplish their goals. The key here is for managers to remember they must use different strokes for different folks and also different strokes for the same folks, depending on the goal and the person’s development level.

Why are the concepts of The One Minute Manager and SLII® so widely used around the world? Because they exemplify servant leadership in action. Both concepts recognize that the leadership aspect of servant leadership—vision/direction—is the responsibility of the traditional hierarchy, and the servant aspect of servant leadership—implementation—is all about turning the hierarchy upside down and helping people achieve their goals. If you think about how many people have learned and put into practice the leadership lessons from The One Minute Manager or from SLII® training, it’s easy to envision innumerable servant leaders serving people all over the world—and many of them still unfamiliar with the term.

Are You a Servant Leader?

If you’re still on the fence about your status, here’s a quick and fun way to determine whether you have been unconsciously practicing some of a servant leader’s qualities and behaviors.

You might be a servant leader—IF you…

  • listen more than you talk
  • think more about other people’s success than your own
  • know all the brains aren’t in your office
  • ask others for feedback on a regular basis
  • empower others to make decisions without you
  • love to catch people doing things right
  • share information about yourself with others
  • love to celebrate success
  • empathize when things get tough
  • consider mistakes to be learning opportunities
  • wouldn’t ask your people to do something you wouldn’t do yourself

If you had a few “aha” moments while reading this blog post, it’s likely you are already a servant leader or well on your way to becoming one. Welcome! As you can see, servant leadership is not just another management technique. I call it an “inside-out job” because it is a way of life for people with servant hearts. In organizations run by servant leaders, servant leadership becomes a mandate, not a choice—and the byproducts are better leadership, engaged employees, raving fan customers, and a high performing organization. In other words, servant leadership is the best way to get both great relationships and great results.

Want to learn more about our people-centered approach to leadership? Download a free 60-page summary of Leading at a Higher Level. It’s available for free on The Ken Blanchard Companies’ website and it contains the best thinking from the founding associates and consulting partners of our company.

Use this link to access the summary.

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