Over the years there has been much research on leadership styles, behavioral analysis, and office culture. What professional hasn’t taken a personality test at some point in his or her career? If you’re anything like I am, you find these exercises interesting in the moment, but you rarely put them into practice. That said, I have found that, over time, those development exercises actually do influence the leader you become. My communication skills have become more effective as I have learned through personality exercises how different personality types assimilate information. In addition, I’ve learned the settings that I thrive in, as well as those in which my employees thrive, enabling me to focus on creating an environment that works for everyone.

The key to benefiting from these trainings isn’t to try to force your leadership style into what’s being presented but to learn which leadership style best suits your natural abilities and to focus on improving those areas. Those of us who find ourselves strong mentors, teachers, and collaborators may discover that the values of a servant leader are what drive us in our careers.

While the concept of servant leadership has been around since it was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, its popularity has grown in recent years. Many well-known companies claim they have a servant-leader culture because they focus on developing their employees.

Howard Behar, former Starbucks president, continues to share an inspirational message of promoting servant leadership values at events around the world. He also published a popular book, It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks, that explains this culture at Starbucks. At Kentucky Trailer, a self-proclaimed servant-leader company, leadership is “based upon the simple yet profound principle that, to lead effectively, we must first serve, and that meeting the legitimate needs of others is the essence of what it means to serve.” And servant leadership is so ingrained in the culture of TD Industries that its employees complete Basic Servant Leadership training.

What are a few values of servant leaders? In essence, you’re a leader who focuses on developing and growing those around you. This isn’t to say you ignore your own career, but you understand the importance of leading those around you in their career development. You’ll find you benefit just as much as those you help to grow.

  1. It Isn’t about a Task List: A strong servant leader doesn’t dictate tasks but instead inspires growth through increased responsibilities and collaborative work environments. The servant leader will spend time with an employee, foster understanding of how the employee’s responsibilities affect the team, collaboratively determine areas of improvement, brainstorm new processes, and evaluate the value of older ones. Of course, tasks need to be accomplished. By establishing an understanding of the big picture, a servant leader builds a team that’s engaged and growing.
  2. It Isn’t about the Pecking Order: A servant leader understands that a career isn’t about titles or hierarchies but about knowledge and value added. When your priority is to climb the corporate ladder, you’ll often end up neglecting some of the things that will help your climb, such as building relationships, expanding knowledge, or developing a team. Many times this focus on titles results in an internal, individual mindset that isn’t beneficial to the company as a whole. Thus, it ultimately isn’t beneficial to the individual either.

  3. A servant leader will demonstrate an external, team focus. A focus on helping others in their career growth shows an ability to build a team, not an individual, thus building a better company. Your personal career growth will follow naturally as you demonstrate you know how to lead.

  4. It’s about People: A servant leader builds relationships and values the person, not the position. Be genuine. Build community. We all expect others to be open and honest with us, so why would we interact differently as a leader? My greatest career advancements came because I was intentional in my conversations with my managers—open and professional about what was on my mind—and I engaged with my leaders on a direct level, not as a subordinate. I have been fortunate to work with leaders who value a servant-leader mind-set. Over the years, as I transitioned into leadership positions, I realized this isn’t a benefit only to the subordinate but to the leader as well. If you are genuine about developing a mentoring relationship with your employees, they will respond accordingly. As Pat Summit, former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach, stated, “You win in life with people.”
  5. It’s about Serving: Of course it’s about serving, but many of us have a distorted idea of what this means. A servant leader isn’t getting coffee for his or her employees or picking up their dry cleaning. In addition, being a servant leader doesn’t mean you avoid confrontation or the communication of difficult messages. It simply means that, as you lead your employees in their careers and responsibilities, your guiding principle is: What can I do to help you achieve great things? The good servant leader takes it a step further and says: What can we do so that we achieve great things? In serving others, you’re creating a winning environment for everyone.

As I reflect on the ups and downs of my career, I realize that not only do I strive to be a servant leader but also that I need to work for one. It took some disappointing experiences, but I now see that I am much more engaged, eager, and proactive when I’m in an environment that’s building community. I can assure you that I’m not alone in that sentiment. Community is built through servant leadership, and employees are engaged and committed when there’s community. Remember, serving isn’t mutually exclusive to leading. If serving is below you, leadership is beyond you.


The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at www.imanet.org/tools-and-resources/leadership-academy.

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