Servant Leadership: Is it True, Is it Kind, Is it Necessary?

AJC Team Meeting Ethos slide – presented monthly
some team members not pictured due to client work or vacation

Servant leadership, as a term, was coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf, whose essay titled The Servant as Leader described that “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”

 The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.

Robert K. Greenleaf

Servant Leadership is one of AJC’s values. We are here to help our clients and each other grow and improve. Everything we do in our consulting delivery practice stems from our desire to help others. It is not about us, and we don’t want it to be. Honestly, it is rather refreshing to not have to worry about us looking good – it’s all about helping the client look good: to their customers, to their stakeholders, and to themselves.

The paradox about not worrying whether we look good, is that we end up feeling even better. A client told me the other day that our consulting team was “the glue holding (their) team together.” Glue doesn’t always look good – in fact, the most effective glue is not able to be seen at all! That’s exactly how we want to be – helping teams hold things together – and slowly but surely replacing ourselves with the client’s team as they develop new skills and experience the fun of accomplishing something amazing together.

In each AJC Monthly Team Meeting, we discuss one of our values. This means that each value is repeated frequently, though we seem to always have new examples of how we have lived the value recently with our clients. Last meeting, we discussed Servant Leadership. One of our Change Management team members described how she used the Servant Leadership analogy in a recent Communications Plan she created for a client. She wrote, “A fundamental component to improving the effectiveness of your communications is shifting to a mindset of “audience first” or servant leadership – this means ultimately approaching each opportunity to communicate by asking, how can I help you succeed?

A fundamental component to improving the effectiveness of your communications is shifting to a mindset of “audience first” or servant leadership – this means ultimately approaching each opportunity to communicate by asking, how can I help you succeed?

It is important to note that helping others succeed does not necessarily feel good in the moment. Helping others succeed sometimes means having uncomfortable conversations. We are fans of having these conversations in an empathetic way. This is pretty nebulous because it’s hard to quantify what “an empathetic way” really means. Here is a simple way to check if one is in an empathetic frame of mind when discussing uncomfortable topics.

Honestly ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it necessary?

If the answer to the first question is NO, then stop right there. If whatever you are about to say is not true, then there is no sense in saying it. This is especially applicable for emotional conversations, because if your emotion is “true” now, it may not be as strong after sleeping on it. That leads to the second question.

If something is both true and kind – go ahead and say it regardless of how “necessary” it is (think spontaneous compliments!). If it is not kind, however, or if the recipient would not perceive it as kind, then to move on to the third question.

If something is true, but not kind – the real heart of a Servant Leader is to ask whether it is necessary. Is this conversation necessary to help someone grow as a person? If so, then *not* saying it is actually the most unkind thing one can do. Not saying something that is necessary for someone else to grow is actually a disservice to others. It means that you don’t care about that person enough to want them to grow, and that is not true Servant Leadership.

Not saying something that is necessary for someone else to grow is actually a disservice to others. It means that you don’t care about that person enough to want them to grow, and that is not true Servant Leadership.

One more tip on the three questions, is to be prepared for the opportunity to hear something that may help you grow as a person as well. This could come out as an accusation, blame, or defensiveness if the other person is not quite ready to hear what you had to say! Be prepared for this and check your own defensive response (admittedly something I still need to work on!). Those types of negative responses can be taken as opportunities to become even better servant leaders for next time.

AJC Team Members are often in positions where we are viewed as leaders, and in those positions, we strive to serve others. Most of us wear many hats in our lives, and a key component to each one is how we serve those around us. We would not be here, would not be motivated, would not feel good if we were not serving others and helping them succeed. When we help others succeed as their best selves, they in turn feel good to spread that positive energy to others.

The first grade teacher at my children’s school calls this “ripples of kindness.” Guess what? First graders really get this concept!

We encourage everyone reading this to channel their inner first grader and practice servant leadership.