Servant leadership has, in my estimation, become one of those terms. You know what I mean, a concept that is so utterly overused and so universally accepted that it borderlines on the meaningless.
A Moment on Servant Leadership
Ask a manager or supervisor what servant leadership is and you’ll get a variety of answers that all float around the idea of “serving” their direct reports. Ask that same manager or supervisor if they are a servant leader and they’ll probably say “yes” and ramble off a way or two they “serve” their employees.
In reality, I’m unsure that I’ve met more than perhaps one or two true servant leaders in my life (and I do leadership development, so I’ve met LOTS of leaders). I’ve surely met leaders who sometimes choose to serve those around them, but that’s not how I define servant leadership.
To me, a servant leader prioritizes the needs and desires of those around themselves above their own, at all times and in all circumstances.
A Moment on Career Development
If you’re like me, you “fell” into your career.
Oh, we made some intentional decisions along the way, but there were a lot of circumstances that got us where we are that honestly had little to do with us.
For example, I was a high school teacher for a number of years and loved it, but the pay and benefits were so low my wife and I weren’t making it financially. Sure, I chose to make a career shift, but having a poorly funded and supported education system isn’t a circumstance that I created.
It’s a common story, especially today, to have circumstances drive someone into a career field. Often times it isn’t until a few years in that we stop, look around, and ask “how did I get here?”
I think true career development starts right there, in that moment of reflection.
When we reflect on how we arrived in our careers, we naturally then begin the process of thinking about (maybe even planning) our next steps. Do we change careers? Go deeper into our field as an expert? Go for management?
Career development is simply the plans and steps we take to move our career from “Point A to Point B,” and you get to decide what those points really are.
A Line in the Sand
Career development usually begins with the question “what do I want?” We think about what makes us happy, what fulfills us, etc. We look inward, think about ourselves, and make decisions accordingly.
We allow ourselves to put ourselves first; be selfish.
You see the conflict coming a mile away though since that doesn’t jive with a servant leadership mindset
Everything that follows here is to try to convince whoever keeps reading that we can, if we choose, develop our careers as true servant leaders— people who prioritize the needs and desires of those around themselves above their own, at all times and in all circumstances.
But let me be clear, this just isn’t for everyone.
That’s the big lie about servant leadership, by the way. It’s pitched as something that every leader can aspire to, but to make that realistic we’ve watered down what a servant leader is to the point where “caring about your direct reports” is about as high as the bar ever gets.
But true servant leadership is so much more than that; it’s about putting others first, even when you are planning your own career.
And that just isn’t for everyone.
But some of you are excited because this resonates with something deep in your bones, something that hints at purpose beyond a corporate mission statement.
So let’s keep going!
Four Simple Steps to Servant Leadership
At the risk of oversimplifying things, developing your career with servant leadership at the heart is simply meeting the needs around you for the benefit of others. It’s one of those simple but hard things, as you’ll see soon.
To give us a roadmap, I have four simple steps you can use to start this journey yourself.
1. Get to know yourself.
In order to serve those around you, you first need to know the needs and roles you are best at meeting. What are your strengths? Weaknesses? Passions? Interests?
Have you ever met someone who causes more harm than good in a particular role? Frankly, you don’t want to become that person.
To do this, there are a plethora of options. I’d suggest you do them all:
- Take some personality tests. (Haters are gonna hate on these, and yet they’ll still be around when the haters are long gone.)
- Ask the people around you about your strengths and weaknesses. (Don’t say anything while they talk; just take notes.)
- Review your past few performance reviews if you do them in your place of work.
- Go out for some alone time and ask yourself what your strengths really are (no music or distractions).
This isn’t about figuring out what’s best for you; it’s figuring out how you can be best for others. That mindset shift makes a huge difference.
2. Identify the need(s) around you.
Now that you know yourself a tad bit better, look around yourself and ask, “What are the needs around me that I’m equipped to meet?”
Write them down, all of them.
The needs around you should be a bit daunting, especially if you don’t limit yourself to just “work needs.” Many of your coworkers are hurting and have needs. Your community has needs that are going unmet too. Then, of course, there are needs in the workflow, things that aren’t getting done.
3. Fill a need.
This is the most important step because it’s a “fork in the road” step. It’s one of those things that if you do it, you will probably keep going, but if you make up excuses here, you’re likely done for.
Meet a need on your list.
Just pick one, and meet it.
4. Prepare yourself to meet more needs.
Step 3 doesn’t ever stop, just keep doing it.
But we also know that some of the needs on your list you aren’t capable of meeting yet; they are too big, too complicated, or too (fill in the blank).
So, while meeting the needs around you that you can, go ahead and begin preparing yourself to meet some of the bigger needs on your list. Does your workplace need better leadership and communication? Well, start taking classes on leadership and communication. Does your city need better ways of meeting the needs of the homeless? Well, start going to City Council meetings and learning how city government works.
Start choosing (here it comes) ways to develop you and your career in order to meet the needs of those around you. Be the person they need, not the person you want.
Bits of My Story
I first heard about servant leadership when I was around 20. I was attending a large church and had joined a leadership study. I don’t remember much about the study (or how I’d even arrived there), but I do remember they spent a lot of time looking at the life and example of Jesus and using his example to model true servant leadership.
More than a decade later, I’m more confident than ever they got it right.
In the years since then, I’ve spent most of my time trying to figure out what I want. I looked inward toward my passions and talents in order to find a place right for me.
I suppose some things are easier said than done.
Then there came a time in which pursuing my passion in education could no longer meet the needs of my family. And so, I made a decision to meet the needs of my family ahead of my own needs for joy and fulfillment.
Perhaps making such a decision for family doesn’t sound all that crazy, but for me, it was no small thing. It was my “fork in the road.” Since then, I’ve held my career less as a way to bring me fulfillment and purpose and more as a way to use my time for others.
In the book of Philippians, Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ch. 2 v. 3-4, NIV). The author goes on to write that our attitudes should be like Christ Jesus who humbled himself, even to the point of dying on a cross.
What’s In It For Me?
In training, we often discuss the WIIFM of a training. It stands for “What’s In It for Me?” and we use to ask ourselves what the trainees will get out of a session - essentially, what is their WIIFM?
But here’s the thing: when it comes to true servant leadership, there is nothing in it for you.
Oh sure, I could talk about how fulfilling it is to serve others or how you are so likely to be recognized for your service to others. That may be true; but honestly, serving others is often more frustrating than fulfilling and you’re more likely to be walked all over than recognized for your service. (Jesus was crucified, remember?)
This is why a path of service isn’t for everyone. In order to be able to truly pursue service, we must first surrender, or give up, a lot of the wants and desires we have.
For me, this is an extension of my faith, and only possible through my faith. In the book of Galatians, Paul again writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, ESV).
For me, the God who gave himself up for me lives in me, and therefore I now live to give my life to others.
It means that when I make big decisions about my career, my future, for the sake of others, I can also trust that my God is holding the pieces of my life and will work them out for good in the end.
That frees me up in the "now" to meet the needs of those around me.