A Question of Servant Leadership: by Morley Stone, PhD

January 22, 2023
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Leadership matters. Countless organizations espouse this, recruiters preach it, offices display the slogans…yet, it can be a challenge to move beyond the bumper sticker to understand the meaning behind this elusive phrase. My colleagues and I were extremely fortunate to have worked in the Air Force Research Laboratory, an environment designed to actively shape young individuals into seasoned leaders, many of whom went on to become some of the best leaders this country has ever produced. Since leaving that environment 5 years ago, this is some of what I’ve learned.

In numerous encounters, I have asked potential candidates and colleagues their leadership style, and a common refrain is “servant leader.” This always piques my interest, as I like to fashion my own style in this mold. But when asked what servant leadership means to them, often, I get a quizzical look and some memorized slogans…occasionally, a wide-eyed response indicates the person has yet to internalize the implications of this style.

My colleagues and I during our time with the Defense Department were Civil Servants. Standing back, that is a common yet curious title, and I don’t think many of our contemporaries spent much time pondering its implications. Not many job descriptors have “servant” right in the title.

The simplest litmus test I have found to describe the mindset of servant leadership is “Did you come to serve, or to be served?” It is amazing how that little heuristic can be applied as equally to the CEO as it can to the administrative assistant. The clearest tell-tale sign that a person wants to be in the latter “to be served” camp is the variation in how they treat people in the workplace. If their demeanor and tone changes when talking to the boss versus talking to the cleaning crew…beware! The mindset of servant leadership leads to a desire to serve, regardless of the person’s “rank” in the hierarchy.

In thirty years of trying to be a better servant, one thing has become absolutely clear – ego will defeat your intentions every time, no matter how noble those intentions are. In a small accountability group I am a part of, we talk about this as “death to self,” which is shorthand for killing your ego.

Killing your ego requires a level of self-awareness most people may not have but can cultivate. Servant leaders are self-aware of their surroundings, how others are feeling in a situation and how to interact with people to bring out the best in them while keeping the organization’s mission top of mind. Servant leaders also understand their own limitations and constantly seek to improve their interpersonal skills and surround themselves with colleagues that help offset their own shortcomings.

How are you doing in your daily desire to “die to self” so that others can be served first? This seemingly simple mindset and question has been foundational for the re-calibration of my viewpoint and how I approach leadership at work, and hopefully in all my relationships including family and friends. Whether at work or outside the office, this mindset allows patience and kindness to surface more in my daily interactions.

To answer the call of servant leadership, putting others first and self last establishes a work environment that truly allows others to thrive and correspondingly, the organization to prosper. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what leadership is all about?

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