Each day successful organizations and their people transform ideas, skills and company resources into benefits for those who matter most to their futures. Nurtured one by one, strong relationships throughout a business community — from research laboratories to retail floors, from break rooms to board rooms — can form a company’s biggest competitive advantage.
As communicators, we recognize that personal connections with employees, customers and stakeholders offer opportunities to create value by serving others. That’s how businesses thrive. That’s also why guiding leaders and their teams in discovering the true essence of service can be a business communicator’s greatest calling.
No matter the size of an enterprise or the marketplace it may strive to conquer, a business must tend to its relationships as treasured assets.
Familiar analogies found in military and spiritual traditions offer clues to the meaning of service. In maritime doctrine, “the captain goes down with the ship.” “Officers eat last” is ingrained in the Marine Corps’ code of honorable conduct. Pious leaders who lead lives of sacrifice are revered in religious teachings.
But are such noble aspirations compatible with a typical executive’s daily grind?
Robert K. Greenleaf, an engineer and AT&T manager, also pondered this dichotomy. In a series of essays beginning in 1970 with “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf offered an alternative approach — servant leadership — for managers struggling to motivate their teams within hierarchal systems.
The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, an educational organization founded by the author, provides this concise explanation:
“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
Privilege of Leadership
Greenleaf’s proposition was simple: Power doesn’t make a leader; putting others first does. Leadership is a privilege granted by others to an individual who acknowledges their value and dignity by easing their burden or imparting joy. To excel at the task, the individual must be self-motivated to pursue a servant mission.
Decades after the initial work of Greenleaf, scholars have identified 10 characteristics of a servant-leader. For business communicators managing stakeholder relations, it is important to consider how the servant approach results in growth for both the benefactor and the beneficiary.
Ten Characteristics of Servant-Leaders
1. Active Listening. Giving someone your full attention requires self-discipline and a desire to seek complete understanding. For instance, in an emotionally charged customer dispute, a servant-leader who patiently yields portions of the conversation can defuse the crisis, earn trust and, in return, see a greater willingness to reach a fair outcome.
2. Empathy. Nurturing diverse workforces demonstrates an organization’s servant mission. In accepting the unique experiences and viewpoints of their employees, servant-leaders encourage collaborations in which many different ideas can be shared to creatively solve problems.
3. Healing. When mistakes at work occur, relationships can erode as reputations suffer. A servant-leader who asks questions in the spirit of restoring trust is more likely to gain the cooperation and respect of his or her teammates.
Dallas-based Parkland Hospital knows about restoring its community. After all, in 1963, this was where the stricken President John F. Kennedy was rushed and later died. When Parkland needed to rebuild its facility in 2009, it partnered with a coalition that included engineering company CH2MHILL. Together, as client and suppliers, the group relied on the principles of servant leadership to successfully manage the six-year, $1.3 billion project. When a small subcontractor fell behind on its schedule, Parkland paid $15,000 to CH2MHILL to pitch in. Parkland’s head of facilities planning, Lou Saksen, later recounted to The Greenleaf Center: “The outcome is that this small sub-contractor will be better going forward. They will now have in-house capability to do what CH2MHill taught them. We gave them access to this great resource. Now they are our biggest fans.”
4. Awareness. The fast pace of business doesn’t always leave time for self-reflection. However, servant-leaders can experience personal growth by understanding the consequences of their decisions and deeds. In contrast, domineering managers refuse to appreciate other people’s opinions and deny responsibility for the full impact of their own choices.
5. Persuasion. Authoritarian managers intimidate others into agreeing with them. They flaunt their tenure (“That’s the way it’s always been”) or other professional privileges (“I’m a member of such-and-such exclusive group, therefore I know better”) to make those around them feel unworthy of expressing ideas. Servant-leaders instead rely on their emotional intelligence and rhetorical skills to discover people’s needs and compatible solutions.
6. Conceptualization. Confident servant-leaders allow themselves and their institutions to dream big. That’s because they are also trained to operationalize abstract concepts. Being a visionary isn’t solely about being a prolific producer of ideas. Leaders focused on delivering business value are unafraid to dive into the messiness of problem solving.
The Toro Company
In Spanish, its brand name conjures up a mighty beast. But outdoor equipment and tools maker The Toro Company wasn’t feeling bullish about its future in 1981. Founded in 1914, the company in Bloomington, Minn., was on the brink of bankruptcy, stuck with excess inventory due to unusually dry weather. CEO Ken Melrose implemented a recovery plan in which the Toro employee became the hero. “We believe the single most important factor that influences our success as a company is the Toro employee,” said Melrose. When payroll needed to be trimmed, he started with top executives’ bonuses and salaries. To foster long-term commitment and a personal stake in Toro’s future, he awarded stock options to employees at all levels. Everyone’s name badge was burnished with a new title: Owner. Toro emerged from bankruptcy and today maintains its servant-leadership approach as a business. In 2017, it posted record revenue of $267.7 million.
7. Foresight. In a 2018 Wall Street Journal commentary, CEOs Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase disavowed short-term thinking as a scourge that afflicts our economy. Although servant-leaders know that specific components of their performance are linked to agreed timelines and outputs (e.g., quarterly earnings, cash flow and liquidity), they do not limit their vision to these narrow definitions. Astute students of history and keen observers of the present, servant-leaders balance evidence with insight to offer stakeholders more certainty about the future.
8. Stewardship. The movement to integrate environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in financial reporting captures the holistic impact of servant leadership. Business chiefs, employees and trustees of institutions are guardians of society — meaning that certain assets are shared by all and must be protected (e.g., natural resources, human rights, rule of law).
9. Commitment to the Growth of People. Leaders who are guided by the ethics of servant leadership acknowledge that human ingenuity, not technology, is the chief value driver at their organizations. Software giant SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., is often cited as a successful servant-led enterprise, with an annual employee turnover rate of 3–4 percent in an industry where 20 percent can be typical. “We’re a knowledge company,” said SAS CEO Jim Goodnight, commenting on his approach to talent management. “Everything we do comes out of the heads of people who work there.” In 2017, SAS celebrated its 20th year on Fortune magazine’s annual list of Best Places to Work For.
10. Building Community. It’s not scale that gives meaning to a servant-minded group; it’s the group’s shared values, purpose and culture. Greenleaf believed deeply in face-to-face interactions among people who demonstrate unconditional caring — what he called “unlimited liability” for business leaders. Such expressions don’t have to be grand gestures. For instance, both veterans and newer team members can benefit from mutual mentoring in an exchange of their unique areas of expertise. This fosters an environment of trust and collaboration where everyone gains from continual learning.
Conventional business thinking often focuses on changing the behavior of our intended audiences. Instead, the change should start with our own actions and their external impact. Simply ask: How do your business communications specifically remove a barrier in understanding or add value to someone else’s goal?
That same clarity of purpose inspired Greenleaf as a servant-leader until he passed away in 1990, and it is charmingly captured on his epitaph: “Potentially a good plumber; ruined by a sophisticated education.”