The idea behind servant leadership is simple enough: as a leader, you should serve those that you lead. It’s not just about calling the shots and giving orders; it’s about centering your employees and making sure that you are building a sense of community. Putting your employees’ needs first helps them grow as people and have better experiences at work. Employees that are centered this way, in turn, engage better and more healthily with customers, which is ultimately good for the company.
But the principle on its own is not going to change anything in your workplace, and implementing this theory can be easier said than done. So, what does servant leadership actually look like? Let’s take a look at a few examples to get a better idea.
A common example of great servant leadership in action comes from FedEx. Founder and CEO Frederick Smith has described his leadership philosophy of People-Service-Profit. Smith believes that people, the employees, need to be placed first. “When people are placed first they will provide the highest possible service, and profits will follow.” This principle has clearly been successful for FedEx, as the company name continues to be practically synonymous with transportation many decades later.
Creating a healthy environment and relationship with their employees doesn’t just happen on principle, either. There are many processes and policies in place at FedEx that work to uphold this workplace philosophy, including:
- An annual employee satisfaction survey
- A leadership evaluation process
- Regular employee communication
- Open Door program for dealing with employee questions or complaints
Starbucks is another great example of servant leadership, particularly under the direction of Howard Behar who served as president from 1995 until 2003. It was under Behar’s guidance that Starbucks went from an entrepreneurial project to the coffee giant that it is today, and having worked with successful companies in the past, Behar’s fundamental philosophy of success is clear: “how you treat people is how they’ll treat you customers.”
For Starbucks and for Behar, centering employees meant listening sincerely. Calling open forums to speak with baristas about anything that might be relevant to the company would become Starbuck’s path to success, but when Behar first called an open forum, nobody would speak up. Policies are not enough, after all, and building a culture of trust and sincerity is an indispensable prerequisite. “Culture if a funny thing,” Behar says. “If you want to change it, it’s not about talking about it. It’s about living it.”
A final and great example of servant leadership comes from Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40. As Garry explains in this podcast, the most powerful three words he has ever used as a leader are, “I don’t know.” Ultimately, to Garry, servant leadership is about sincerity and vulnerability. By leaving ego at the door, you build the foundation for trust and communication, which become essential in a company’s successful culture.
Garry talks about four fundamental pillars to make this happen: care, candor, accountability, and responsibility. By caring for employees, creating a safe space for honesty, clarifying what is expected of everybody on the team, and building the trust to ensure that we’re “going to do what we have to do,” Garry has been able to develop a culture at WD-40 that employees are excited to walk into each and every day.
The specifics of what servant leadership might look like will depend on each industry and each company, but if there’s one thing that should be clear after these examples is that putting people first leads to successful business. Whether that’s open forums, being candid with employees, or developing rigorous programs to center employee thoughts and concerns, treating your employees right is one of the best business decisions you can make. So, what about you? Are you ready to be a servant leader?
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