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How Servant Leadership Can Transform Your Business

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It may seem counterintuitive to focus on being of service instead of being served as an owner, but servant leadership can have a powerful impact on your business.

Some leaders think their job is to catch employees doing something wrong and correct them. But a growing number of successful leaders are embracing “servant leadership.” Instead of focusing on being at the top, these leaders serve their people first. When they do, the staff operates at peak performance, and so does the business. Think this might be for you? Read on to learn these basic principles of servant leadership.

The term “servant leadership” was first used in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf. While many companies hold power at the top, Greenleaf turned the pyramid upside down. He put other people’s needs first—employees, customers and the community. In doing so, he empowered employees who were then more inclined to contribute to the success of the business.

One study looking at the Jason’s Deli restaurant chain reports that stores headed by servant leaders experienced higher performance, lower turnover and better customer service.

Elements of a Servant Leader

Larry Spears, past CEO of the Greenleaf Center, outlines these principles of servant leadership [Link 3] that you can incorporate into your small business:

  • Listening – Commit to listening intently to customers, employees and the community. What’s good for them is good for business. Servant leaders reflect on what they hear and use this information to make better decisions.
  • Empathy – Servant leaders want to understand what others are thinking and feeling. Upon reflection, they might assume an employee is well intentioned and give them the benefit of the doubt. This behavior creates goodwill and trust.
  • Awareness – Become more aware of others and the issues they face. This also includes being more self-aware of what drives you. Awareness helps leaders see issues from many perspectives. For example, after learning his workers were getting injured at a higher than average rate, Tesla founder Elon Musk worked on the production line himself so he could better understand the risks and challenges his employees faced.
  • Persuasion – Seek to persuade rather than order. Rather than relying on their authority, servant leaders are good at building consensus around an issue. Then everyone on the team is working toward the same goal. Answer the “what’s in it for me” question for employees.
  • Conceptualization – Visualize the big picture. It’s easy for small business owners to get caught up in the day-to-day. Servant leaders, however, recognize the demands of today but don’t lose sight of what’s ahead. To accomplish this, they free up time by delegating tasks to trusted employees.
  • Commitment to the growth of people – Servant leaders put a high value on their staff’s personal and professional growth. Some companies do this by sponsoring development opportunities, encouraging employee involvement in decision making, or taking a personal interest in getting ideas from others.
  • Building community – Servant leaders recognize that strong communities support a strong customer base. It starts with supporting employees and grows from there. Examples might include sponsorship of community events, allowing employees to volunteer during work hours, or in-kind support of local organizations.

Servant leadership is firmly rooted in doing the right thing for employees. But it turns out your business can benefit too. Start by incorporating one or two of these principles into your small business.  

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