How To Be a Servant Leader

Dwight Eisenhower said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” I’ve been asked to on leadership roles in many organizations. Wait a second, have I been manipulated? No. It brings me tremendous joy to spot the talents and interests within others and provide a forum for them to bring their ideas to life. I’ve practiced servant leadership before I even knew the term. It’s a wonderful way to build engagement, motivation, and buy-in.


Servant leaders aim to help their organizations and people thrive. They aim to earn authority rather than depend upon the power that comes from their position on the organizational chart. When the passions of the individuals match the needs of the broader organization, it’s magic. The person is self-motivated, often well informed, and they achieve great things! Often there isn’t a perfect fit. You are still responsible for meeting the goals of the organization. How do you marry the needs of the organization with the passions of the individual?

Look for the overlap. Does the person understand the noble purpose their role fills? How can you make their work heroic in their eyes? Is the person in the right role? They may not know what role would be best for them. Listen for their enthusiasm and think creatively about how that can serve the organization’s needs and goals.

You’ve found someone with passion, ideas, and self-motivation. Now it’s your job to make sure you don’t mess that up! The quickest way to drain their motivation is to micromanage them. How can you help them feel like a heroic pirate instead of a confined naval officer? Align project metrics and check points to organizational goals to provide structure and guidance, and then give them the freedom to create and surprise you. If you act as their mentor and thought partner to bring their vision to life, they’ll be your strongest supporter.

What if in order to thrive the organization needs something completely different than the passions expressed by the individuals? How can you build support for your idea while being a servant leader?

Dave Barry said “When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that person is crazy.” It’s unusual to magically wake up with a fully baked idea. Run your idea and plans by key stakeholders, get their feedback, and incorporate it. When you’re facing an immediate crisis, it can feel like you don’t have time to do this. This is a crucial step. It builds support and helps identify potential flaws.

Communicate your vision repeatedly and check to make sure it’s understood. A surprising bible quote is relevant here, “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” Does your organization feel you are blind? Do they understand what led to this idea and why is it exactly what’s needed to move the organization forward? What other systems or leaders can be used to communicate your message more effectively?

Do they trust your vision is achievable? Share success stories of other organizations facing similar situations. Consider framing it as a hero’s journey, love story, etc. Emphasis you are all in this together and build a sense of camaraderie. Lay out the general direction and the first concrete steps, even if this is just a set of meetings, so they don’t feel they are walking completely in the dark. Be realistic and upfront about the time and energy commitment. Let them know of available resources, including you, so they feel supported.

Effective servant leaders create such a compelling vision of what it’s like to work for the organization and create such opportunity for individual growth, that people are excited to work for them. If you’d like to build more of this energy within your organization, I’d love to explore this with you. As a leadership coach, I will help you use your innate gifts to strengthen your leadership skills and develop a style that’s adaptable to a wide range of leadership challenges.

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