I especially admire leaders who bring out the best in both their people and their organizations. In my experience, the leaders who excel at this possess the ability to look past their own needs.
But this isn’t quite enough of a description to fully convey what makes one leader extraordinary and others merely good. To accomplish that, I’d like to turn to the concept of servant leadership and especially insights from The Servant Leadership Behavior Scale developed by Sen Sendjaya and Brian Cooper.
According to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, the term means “a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” I would add “and that unlocks the full potential inherent in an organization,” for that’s exactly what this sort of leader accomplishes.
The Behavior Scale I mentioned measures six dimensions of servant leadership, three of which I’d like to highlight here. The following descriptions are from this research paper...
Voluntary subordination: A willingness to take up opportunities to serve others whenever there is a legitimate need, regardless of the nature of the service, the person served or the mood of the servant leader.
Authentic self: A consistent display of humility, integrity, accountability, security and vulnerability.
Covenantal relationship: Engaging with and accepting others for who they are, not for how they make servant leaders feel
I’ve highlighted these three because they share several common elements.
1. They necessitate the ability to set aside your ego. This does not mean that you abandon your ego or your drive to succeed. It means that helping others becomes a higher priority than taking credit or being treated in a deferential manner.
2. What others get out of your efforts becomes more important than what you get out of it. Think of a leader who volunteers at a soup kitchen without telling anyone who they are. Such a leader isn’t looking for credit or to prove something; s/he is looking to help others. Likewise if your organization thrives, are you willing to give the credit to others?
3. The growth of others equals success. You win when others grow. You focus your efforts on people you genuinely wish to empower, and you relish their accomplishments.
What is it like when you are in the presence of someone who "shows up" the way I have described? What are the possibilities? What happens?
This sort of open, authentic, and vulnerable approach creates the greatest possible space to unleash potential. Vulnerability is especially important - and not fully understood - because by saying “I can’t do this” a leader creates a space that someone else is invited to fill.
This sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it is a rare skill.
Too often, servant leadership gets harder with the passage of time and the accumulation of success. Executives get caught up in their own value. They get comfortable being at the top of the ladder. They perceive that their skills are what power their company.
That’s a recipe for shutting down talent, rather than bringing it out.
Truth be told, I haven’t outlined the above qualities to teach you something new. My purpose is simply to remind you of what you already know: the best way to lead is to bring out the best in others.
Demmie Hicks is a “thinking partner” to both established and up-and-coming business leaders. She is the founder of DBH Consulting.