As an antidote to the negative consequences of personality-based leadership theories, new generations of leadership, learning, and talent development professionals are rediscovering servant leadership. That’s great news for those of us who believe that simply focusing on acting like a leader is a poor substitute for developing the character and behaviours of someone who truly believes that people lead best when they serve first.
As the Head of Learning & Organisational Development at The Ken Blanchard Companies in the Asia Pacific region, most of Maria Pressentin's professional career has been spent studying leadership from every angle. Having taught servant leadership for several years, Pressentin found herself continually returning to three key servant leadership principles—standing back, authenticity, and humility. Her hope is that these principles will help you not only in your own leadership studies but also as you consider servant leadership for your organisation.
Standing back means serving with a mindset of observing an individual’s needs. The servant leader becomes involved only when they can clearly see a way to add value to the process for the other person. The leader sees themselves as coach or facilitator of an environment or a project. They watch and respond as needed. From this mindset flows a host of skills to be developed and applied such as listening, asking questions, providing feedback, and many others. We have captured a comprehensive list of these skills by asking L&D professionals in our workshops what servant leadership looks like to them. Use this link to see what skills L&D professionals identified most often.
Authenticity as a servant leadership characteristic is often misunderstood. It’s not about leaders saying what they mean without a filter—it’s about them knowing who they are as both a leader and a person, and being comfortable in both roles.
In her work with clients, Pressentin calls this leadership principle “being grounded.” Authentic servant leaders speak respectfully, when it’s appropriate. They are aware of their core values and don’t have a need to boast. They openly appreciate others for their merits in a genuine and meaningful manner. When a leader acknowledges their team members’ successes and supports them in realigning their goals after failures, it promotes learning and growth. A servant leader demonstrates authentic leadership through behaviours that are based on their values. They have a clear, centred sense of self and communicate in a way that serves others.
Some might say that leaders with humility know how much they don’t know. When they work with people who have more expertise than they do, they are confidently humble. They may even ask “Could you teach me? Could you help me? Could you facilitate my learning?” They are also proactive in asking their direct reports for feedback on their leadership style; e.g., “How do you feel about the way I’ve been working with you and leading the team?”
The humble servant leader is confident in their own capabilities and personality. They believe in serving others through continuous self-improvement, communicating openly, and proactively seeking feedback.
All Three Principles Are Interrelated
In practice, these three principles are interrelated. When a leader is authentic, they are also humble. Because they are humble, they are confident in standing back. They are centred, grounded, and comfortable with their values, who they are, and how they present themselves. This is the place from which they will always make their best decisions and be of the most service to others.
Robert Greenleaf, the universally recognised father of servant leadership, wrote forty years ago that servant leadership begins “…with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. A servant leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of the people and communities to which they belong.”
If this serving spirit is in your heart, Pressentin encourage you to consider how standing back, authenticity, and humility can help you and your organisation along the journey.
About the author:
Maria Pressentin is the Head of Learning & Organisational Development for Asia Pacific at The Ken Blanchard Companies. Maria is an award-winning coach and leadership development professional, as recognised by the HRD World Congress and has served for four years as the vice president of the International Coach Federation, Singapore. Maria holds Master’s degrees in Strategic Management and Organisational Research