Serving First as a Servant Leader: Part I

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“Yet while there are servant leaders who are thought of as nice and easygoing, and there are those who are undoubtedly loved by their colleagues and employees, servant leadership is not about being nice and loved.  It is… a way of being that combines personal characteristics with self-discipline and the unwavering commitment to creating a workplace of efficacy and productivity.  It allows you to grow and to find more meaning in your life and work, just as you are helping others grow.”

                                                                                                       James A. Autry, The Servant Leader

The Need to be Authentic

Some people believe servant leadership is about being nice. However, if you seek to influence or lead others, regardless of your place in the organizational chart, you know leadership is often far from pleasant. Sometimes you have to communicate difficult news, give a peer tough feedback, deliver a mediocre performance review to a direct report, or recommend a long-term employee be let go because of consistent poor performance.  


Leadership often requires you to have the courage, discipline and fortitude to do the right thing — and  it requires you to remain true to your own moral compass of what the right thing is. The right thing is often focused on the greater good, the success of the organization. When the organization succeeds, people succeed, people’s livelihoods are sustained, and the benefits ripple out to their families and communities.


Know Yourself

The ancient sages of Greece had the aphorism “know thyself” inscribed on the temple at Delphi. Plato said, “the essence of knowledge is self-knowledge.” Indeed, the two-word imperative predates the Greeks, and appears throughout all history, in Eastern and Western cultures. When asked what the most difficult thing is to do, Thales, one of the Greek sages, replied, “to know thyself.” When asked what was the easiest, he said “to give advice.” As people often say, “take my advice, I’m not using it.”


The task of being an authentic servant leader requires you to know yourself — your history, your life stories and how they shaped your development as a leader. It means knowing your character, what you stand for and your values — and it’s a life-long process. It is the exploration of your creative expression in life. It is your life’s work and the hardest work you will ever do.


Practice Self-Control

Now there are leaders who believe being authentic is being unrestrained about any or all emotions they are experiencing. To them, being “real” is “telling it like it is,” and they want the people around them to accept them as they are. “What you see is what you get.” Unwilling to do the necessary and personal work on themselves, they allow themselves to express angry, rude and demeaning behaviors that can have devastating effects on the people around them. Yet there are many leaders who have had the insight that they need to work on actively managing their emotions, and when they slip, they have owned their behaviors and apologized to those affected. That is transparency with positive results. Such leaders are role models of the hard work and discipline it takes to transform oneself, one’s character. 


Wonder just how transparent you must be with those you lead? Visit our blog next week for Part 2 of Serving First as a Servant Leader.


Jeanne McGuire

Senior Trainer and Consultant, Servant Leadership Institute