Effective Leadership

Gaining Value from a Culture of Servant Leadership

By Javier Iglesias

What went through your mind when you realized the gravity of the Corona virus outbreak and its propensity for spreading globally?  Did you think of the potential implications for you, your family, your business, or your job?  Most of us didn’t.  However, as they say – every cloud has a silver lining.  The cloud of C-19 has given many of us an opportunity to reflect on what we value in life.  Things like family, friendships, relationships, the human touch and even ponder the fragility of our planet.  You know – the basic elements of life that we often overlook when we aren’t dealing with a global pandemic!

Opportunities abound in times of change, chaos and disruption.  While some people react or withdraw in fear, others seize the opportunity to learn and improve themselves.  This pandemic is one such opportunity for transformation and renewal.  Given the enormous social, civic and business impacts on people’s lives; I’ve been uplifted and encouraged in the examples I see of people helping others as well as leaders helping their people shine and grow.  What makes these people different from others?   Empathy and humility for starters.  And empathy and humility are two of the hallmark qualities of Servant Leadership.

Prior to joining The ExeQfind Group, I spent 26 years within Ingersoll Rand (IR) where I first learned about servant leadership.  You see, IR embraced the principles of servant leadership (among others) and my experience there gave me a rich background in which to make servant leadership a part of who I am as both a person and a professional.  The numerous examples of survival, renewal, re-engineering and innovating arising out of this pandemic has served to remind me of the immense benefits that can be gained from a culture of servant leadership.  I’d like to share some of those with you.

What is Servant Leadership?

The concept of Servant Leadership is timeless, although it was best defined by Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990).  Greenleaf was a passionate researcher of management, development and education and felt that the traditional power-centered authoritarian leadership style was problematic.  In his book, “The Power of Servant Leadership” he emphasized that human organizations are created to be far more than results or success or profits. Greenleaf believed that we exist to cooperate with others to achieve purposes far beyond ourselves, for the collective greater good.

The servant-leader is servant first.  They live by a people-first mindset and believe that when team members feel personally and professionally fulfilled, they’re more effective and more likely to consistently produce great work.  Due to a greater emphasis on employee satisfaction within a purpose driven collaborative culture, the servant leader tends to achieve higher levels of respect.

When I set out to write this piece, I decided to reach out to some of my former leaders, colleagues and subordinates at IR to get their perspectives on servant leadership and here is what they had to share with me.

Ingrid Joris, former VP and GM of HR Operational Services at IR – defines servant leadership as simply calling it “common sense leadership”.  Ingrid says, “a servant leader should always be mindful of what actions they can take to create the conditions for their people to become successful – not the other way around.” 

Kathy Cook, former VP of HR Global Processes & Analytics at IR describes servant leadership as flipping the organizational chart to put the leader on the bottom, serving their team and considering each team member as an individual.  She says servant leadership requires leaders to really think through enabling their employees to do their jobs well.  Enabling them by providing them with the right tools, removing barriers to success, training, coaching and effective communication.

Kathy served me up a great example that I’m happy to share here.  She described a situation in which her analytics team had a big deliverable due to the SVP of HR and the CFO which tracked the employee headcount over the years to identify where IR had growth. 

“We had a new analytics leader and I had been at the company for over 25 years.  So, he had the analytics skills, and I had the history.  It needed to be his project even though I started it before he joined us. He took it and dug in to the details, and my role became to coach him, help problem solve when there were large changes, get him connected to people around the world who could provide more detail and think through how to discuss it with our company’s leaders. He had to get it to the right people before and after leadership saw it to ensure people weren’t surprised (including us!).  The difference is that he owned it, with support from me, and did a fantastic job.”

Kathy shared another example with me, “A leader in one of my first businesses called me one day and said that whenever he called my team (which was co-located), he often heard a lot of laughter in the background and he wasn’t calling about mistakes but rather to learn more or ask for more help.  His observation was that we had a happy, engaged team and our team produced good business results.”

Servant leadership is but one of ten of the more common leadership styles and at any given time, you may find yourself benefiting from using several different styles depending on the dynamics of your situation.  One of the ways servant leadership stands apart from other styles is that it can be equally applied to both personal and professional dynamics.  Servant leadership in practice is about acting and both its uniqueness and effectiveness comes through in how the leader acts.  Servant leaders are humble and their humility is their strength. People with humility do not think less about themselves. They just think about themselves less.  If there was ever a time to put these values to effective use, it would certainly be now.

The pandemic challenges faced by organizations and working teams alike have created more opportunities to utilize the tenets of servant leadership to both grow stronger as well as achieve greater results.  During a recent call with another former colleague at IR in Brazil – Fabrizzio Del Grande, I asked Fabrizzio if he could relay some examples of how IR’s servant leadership culture was effective during this pandemic.  Fabrizzio explained that their people are now more mindful than ever before that servant leadership is both a personal and professional commitment.  He says their people are more actively empowering others, promoting accountability that allows others to grow and learn, modeling and inspiring a shared vision and achieving organizational goals through humility.

How Does One Become a Servant-Leader?

Greenleaf wrote that the most difficult steps any developing servant-leader must take is to begin the personal journey toward wholeness and self-discovery.  Why?  Because “The Servant as Leader” is a paradox that needs to be developed in one’s mind first, and then in others.  This process shifts a huge paradigm that exists in the minds of most people.  Being Servant-First is the biggest strength.  When Greenleaf refers to wholeness, it means to consider oneself first (self-discovery) and then others as a whole person.

Stephen R. Covey states this concept well in his book “The 8th Habit” when he wrote, “a person who discovers his inner voice can harness the real human potential.  By finding the inner voice it means fulfilling your innate potential.  In order to find the inner voice, all four elements of a person (Body, Mind, Heart and Spirit) should work coherently.  When one finds their inner voice they can then inspire others to find theirs.”

Success Factors for Developing as a Servant Leader

Greenleaf’s multitude of essays and writings provide a set of ten characteristics (success factors) considered critical to the development of servant leadership.  These success factors are timeless and universal and can especially be applied during this ongoing pandemic.

  • Listening

When you commit to listening intently to understand what your people are saying, you’ll serve them better as a leader.  Give people your full attention, be aware of their body language and do not interrupt them before they’ve finished speaking to you.  Give them feedback on what was said.

  • Empathy

An astute servant leader strives to understand other’s intent and their perspective.  To be empathetic, it’s important to temporarily suspend your viewpoint and consider their perspectives and situations with an open mind. 

  • Healing

This relates to the emotional health of people and involves extending both physical and mental support.  Make sure your people have the knowledge, support and necessary resources to be effective within a healthy work environment, then take the necessary steps to help them be happy and engaged in their work.

  • Self-Awareness

This is a critical characteristic of successful people.  Being self-aware is the ability to look at yourself, think deeply about your emotions and behavior and consider how they affect the people around you and how those interactions align with your values.  Learn to manage your emotions so you can consider how your actions and behavior may affect others.  Becoming more self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses and asking others for feedback on them as well as managing your emotions are both critical elements of being self-aware.

  • Persuasion

Servant leaders are consensus builders and therefore use persuasion versus authority to encourage people to take action.  The topic of persuasive communication is comprised of many tools and models to assist one in being more persuasive without negatively impacting relationships or taking advantage of anyone.  Persuasion is generally more effective when people perceive you as being a subject matter expert and are therefore more likely to be receptive to your efforts to persuade or inspire.

  • Conceptualization

Conceptualization is about your ability to look beyond the surface perspective to see the big picture.

  • Foresight

The characteristic of foresight is about your ability to leverage learnings from past experiences to allow you to predict what’s likely to happen in the future.  More experienced leaders have learned to trust their intuition.  When instinct tells you something is off, listen to your instinct.

  • Stewardship

As a leader you have a responsibility for what happens in your organization.  Stewardship is about taking that responsibility for your team’s actions and performance and as a leader, holding yourself accountable for the role your people play in your organization.  A good steward leads by example through demonstrating the values and behaviors desired in others.  A good steward also has the confidence to stand up to people when their actions aren’t in alignment with the team.

  • Commitment to the Growth of People

An effective servant leader is committed to do everything within their power to nurture the personal and professional growth of every member of their team.

  • Building Community

This last characteristic can be particularly challenging during our ongoing pandemic.  Traditionally this characteristic relates to providing opportunities for people to interact with one another throughout the organization and would apply to things like after hours social activities, team lunches, informal interactions in the workplace and non-work-related conversations.  Nevertheless, people are adapting to building community through greater use of video applications like Teams and Zoom and when permitted social distancing protocols both at work and in social situations. 

True servant leaders draw strength from their humility and confidence in their knowledge, skills and capability.  They are aware of what their strengths and weaknesses are, and their humility prevents them from overreaching where their ego may lead them astray.  If you can relate to any of the points or characteristics I’ve outlined here, then perhaps you are ready to begin the journey of becoming a servant leader yourself?

About the Author: 

Javier Iglesias is a Managing Director with The ExeQfind Group and is both a strategic advisor and coach to clients and candidates alike.  Javier’s career foundation evolved to successful HR and Operations leadership roles with Ingersoll Rand and Hussmann coupled with extensive professional development from Cornell University, Thunderbird School of Global Management, Tecnologico de Monterrey and IPADE.  Javier has extensive experience in talent management in multicultural business settings and has held leadership roles throughout the US, Mexico and Brazil.  Javier resides with his wife and family in St. Louis, MO and can be reached for comment at:  jiglesias@exeqfindgroup.com and 314.348.1150. 

About The ExeQfind Group:

ExeQFind Group

The ExeQfind Group is the executive search practice and a sister practice to the professional recruitment firm – The QualiFind Group, Inc..  ExeQfind search consultants deliver standout managerial and leadership talent to client organizations wherever they operate.  We have extensive experience supporting the talent needs of multinational organizations undergoing organizational turnarounds, expansions, topgrading and startups.  We serve client employers from around the world that are operating within the US, Canada and Latin America through our membership in the global alliance of IRC Global Executive Search Partners.

Forbes magazine has ranked The ExeQfind Group as one of the Top Executive Search Firms in North America.