Understanding Servant Leadership

I’m spending a lot of time lately thinking and writing about servant leadership. Although much has been said and written about the topic, I still run into people who don’t quite understand the concept. They tend to think it is about the inmates running the prison, or a leader who tries to please everyone, or some religious movement. But I’ve found servant leadership to be the most effective way to inspire great performance and to create great human satisfaction.

If you take a look at the companies that embrace servant leadership, you’ll notice one thing they have in common—they are all leaders in their field. I’m talking about companies like Southwest Airlines, Chick-fil-A, Disney, Nordstrom, Wegmans, and Synovus, to name a few.  Leaders in these companies understand the two parts of servant leadership:

  • The visionary/direction, or strategic, role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership; and
  • The implementation, or operational, role—the servant aspect of servant leadership.

All good leadership starts with a visionary role that establishes a compelling vision that tells you who you are (your purpose), where you’re going (your picture of the future), and what will guide your journey (your values). In other words, leadership starts with a sense of direction.

Once leaders have shared the vision and people are clear on where they are going, their role shifts to a service mindset for the task of implementation—the second aspect of servant leadership. In this role, the leader does all they can to help their team members accomplish goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

I have a great example of this.  My daughter, Debbie, who is now our company’s VP of Marketing, worked at Nordstrom when she was in college. After she was there a week or so, she came to me and said, “Dad, I have a strange boss.”  When I asked what was strange about him, she said, “At least two or three times a day he comes to me and asks if there is anything he can do to help me.  He acts like he works for me.”  And I said, “That’s exactly what he does. He sounds like a servant leader.”

Nordstrom understands that their number one customer is their people—that’s why Debbie’s boss was acting as if he worked for Debbie. He was giving her the responsibility to serve their number two customer—people who shop in the store. Servant leaders know if they take care of their people and empower them, their people will go out of their way to take care of the customers.

At Nordstrom, the vision is clear—they want to create a memorable experience for their customers so they will keep coming back. Leaders and employees alike understand their role in implementing this vision. That is why they are comfortable with going to great lengths to keep customers happy.

One of my favorite stories about Nordstrom came from a friend of mine who wanted to buy some perfume for his wife. He approached the counter and asked for the perfume.  The woman behind the counter said, “I’m sorry, we don’t sell that particular brand—but I know another store here in the mall that does. How long will you be in the store?”  My friend said he would be there about 45 minutes, so she told him she would take care of it and to come back. She left the store, purchased the product, gift-wrapped it, and had it ready for him when he returned. She charged the same amount of money she spent at the other store. So even though Nordstrom didn’t make any money on that sale, they created a loyal customer who—along with his friends—would tell that story for years. And how do you think the salesperson felt about herself that day?  I’ll bet she was proud to be able to serve her customer so well.

I hope these stories help you understand how servant leaders create an environment that gives their companies a competitive edge. Remember, the key to being a servant leader is to start with a clear vision, then shift into the service mindset with your team to help them perform at their highest levels. You’ll improve engagement and morale, build a loyal customer base, and create a secure future for your company.

Why Praising Progress Works

The main idea of The New One Minute Manager is to help people reach their full potential. In the book, Spencer Johnson and I describe the Three Secrets: One Minute Goals, One Minute Praisings, and One Minute Re-Directs. I believe the most powerful of the three is One Minute Praisings.

For a One Minute Praising to be effective, you must praise the person as soon as you can and tell them in specific terms what they did right. Let them know how good you feel about what they did and encourage them to do more of the same.

As a manager, the most important thing you can do is to catch people doing something right. And when someone is just beginning to learn a task, it’s important to catch them doing something approximately right so you can help them move to the desired result.

One of my favorite examples of this is a parent teaching a child to speak. Suppose you want to teach your toddler son how to ask for a drink of water. Of course his first attempt isn’t going to be a full sentence. If you waited for him to say “Give me a glass of water, please” before you gave him a drink, that wouldn’t turn out too well. So you start by pointing to a glass of water and saying, “water, water.” After several weeks or months, all of a sudden one day your son says, “waller.” You are so excited you hug and kiss him, give him a drink of water, and get Grandma on the phone so the child can say, “waller, waller.” It wasn’t the exact way to say water—but it was close, so you praised his progress. Eventually, you only accept the word water and then you start working on please. By setting up achievable targets along the way and praising progress, you help the learner move toward the end goal.

In the workplace, unfortunately, many managers wait until people do something exactly right before praising them. The problem with this is that some people never become high performers because their managers concentrate on catching them doing things wrong, keeping an eye only on the desired performance instead of praising progress along the way.

This happens with new employees all the time. Their manager welcomes them aboard, takes them around to meet everybody, and then leaves them alone. Not only does the manager not catch the new person doing something approximately right, they periodically zap them just to keep them moving. I call this the leave-alone-zap management style. You leave a person alone, expecting good performance from them. When you don’t get it, you zap them. What do you think that does to a person’s performance and engagement?

If you set clear goals and catch your people doing things right, you’ll create a work environment where people are engaged and fully committed to doing a good job. It only takes a few minutes to praise someone for a job well done. It will be the most important minute of your day.