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Leading Up With Servant Leadership

Hopefully, most of us can point to a leader who profoundly impacted our personal or professional lives. And while it’s possible that leader inspired you with their words, probably it was the way they treated you—their attitudes and actions—which stuck out most.

I can think of several people like this who I’ve had the honor of working with. My friend Bill comes specifically to mind. He serves with me on the board for a local nonprofit and while he isn’t the board president, Bill is a trusted voice in the organization and someone who others, including myself, look up to. This nonprofit has walked through some challenging situations over the past few years and within it all Bill has been a level-headed presence. And while he’s great with words, what has stuck out to me the most is that Bill has always led by action: he’s the first to volunteer to do messy or tedious tasks, he’s generous with his time, and he treats everyone with kindness and respect. His heart for serving is evident in every action.

Bill exemplifies servant leadership. Servant leadership can work in organizations of every size and type, so we’re going to talk about the history and theory of servant leadership and how anyone, including those leading up, can use servant leadership to improve their workplace culture.

The Roots of Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf first coined the term servant leader in a 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” He spent his entire career at AT&T, from 1926 to 1964, eventually rising to Director of Management Development, where he helped the company develop and improve management processes and promoted women and people of color to higher positions.

After retiring from AT&T, Greenleaf dove into his second career as a consultant and writer, where he developed the idea of servant leadership across multiple essays in the 1970s. In these pieces Greenleaf submitted that the best leaders were servants first; people who focused on listening, persuasion, intuition, effective use of language, and measurable outcomes.

Greenleaf’s ideas weren’t as fleshed out as other contemporary leadership models, but further work from numerous researchers, thought leaders, and authors has helped codify servant leadership into a digestible model of leadership.

Qualities of a Servant Leader

James Sipe and Don Frick are two researchers who helped codify servant leadership theory. They identified seven characteristics of servant leaders that fall within Greenleaf’s original ideas:

  • Good Character: They act and speak with integrity and humility and make morally and ethically principled decisions. They serve the higher purpose of the organization.
  • Prioritizes People: A servant leader prioritizes the needs and goals of team members and is caring toward all.
  • Quality Communicator: A servant leader listens well and communicates clearly with others while inviting honest feedback.
  • Collaborator: A servant leader works with others to reach individual and organizational goals and prioritizes relational connection, diversity, inclusion, and positive conflict resolution in the workplace.
  • Foresight: Planning for the future is an important part of leadership, so servant leaders must anticipate future changes and needs, and have a strong future vision for the team and organization.
  • Systems Thinker: A servant leader is adaptable and effectively leads through organizational change. Strategic thinking enables the servant leader to navigate complex and dynamic environments.
  • Moral Authority: A servant leader establishes clear expectations, accepts and delegates responsibility, and fosters a culture of healthy accountability.

The Benefits of Servant Leadership

According to Greenleaf, the best way to measure the impact of servant leadership is to ask whether those being served by the leader are growing. He asks, “Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

Servant leadership facilitates growth in others. It is a qualitative approach where other leadership methods often focus on the power and authority of the leader and measure quantitative outcomes to gauge effectiveness. In turn, people who are empowered to do their work well and who have a voice ideally become servant leaders who create more servant leaders.

What Does It Mean to Lead Up?

Before we get into the intersection of servant leadership and leading up, we must understand that leaders aren’t just the people at the top of an organization or group. Leadership doesn’t always require a position or title. Sometimes it’s the members of the group who are the leaders.

Fundamentally, leadership is influence. We’re all able to influence; those who use their influence to positively impact peers and superiors are “leading up.” Michael Useem, in his book Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, was one of the first to write about this concept.

He promoted the idea that employees can impact decisions made at higher organizational levels by influencing their direct superiors. Useem calls leading up an “affirmative calling”—helping your boss and other leaders to accomplish what the organization needs.

Qualities of a Lead Up-Leader

Multiple authors purport varying key qualities of leading up leaders. To synthesize their ideas, lead-up-leaders:

  • Are emotionally intelligent,
  • Communicate effectively,
  • Actively listen,
  • Take responsibility for their work and the company’s success,
  • Pursue the best for their team and organization out of genuine care for others; and
  • Act and speak with integrity and humility.

Intersecting Servant Leadership & Leading Up

You’ve probably already noticed the similarities between many of the qualities of servant leadership and leading up. Even though people who want to “lead up” in their organizations may not have as much decision-making power as their supervisors, a lead up-leader can still adopt many of the servant leadership principles.

People who lead up with servant leadership have these key characteristics:

  • Prioritize People: I’ve said it over and over in this blog, but the servant leader puts the needs of others before their own. Someone leading up prioritizes the needs of the relational connection with their superior and peers.
  • Strong Character: This involves taking responsibility for one’s work and the team and organization’s success. Leading up with servant leadership also means treating others with respect and kindness.
  • Effective Communication: Servant leaders are listeners first, demonstrating support for superiors and peers by facilitating open, honest, and clear conversations.
  • Solution-Minded: In pursuit of success for the individual, team, and organization, the servant leader who leads up is a problem-solver who understands the organization’s systems, foresees roadblocks, and mitigates issues.
  • Goal-Oriented: Even if their superior can’t see it, the person leading up must be able to see and pursue the long and short-term goals of the team and organization. Leading
  • Humility: Often, the person leading up doesn’t get the credit, but they are willing to sacrifice accolades to serve the team and the greater success of the organization.

Put more succinctly, a servant leader who wants to lead up prioritizes the needs of others by actively listening to them, treating them with compassion and respect, and empowering them by removing roadblocks to success. Going into any “lead up” situation with these qualities in mind will lead to greater success for you, the team, and the organization.

For other workplace tips and industry best practices, check out our blog or our podcast on YouTube, the audio version, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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