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A Servant Leader Style

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Practical skills and techniques can be learned, practiced, and implemented to help an individual develop a servant leader style.

Skills and characteristics modeled by Michigan philanthropic leaders include:

  • Be an Active Listener
  • Practice Empathy
  • Be Helpful to Others
  • Build a Common Vision for the Future
  • Be Persuasive and Empower Others
  • Become a Steward of Your Cause
  • Commit to the Growth of People
  • Build Community; Nurture Relationships

These skills are interrelated and self-reinforcing. Once mastered, they become a way of thinking, a style of leadership, and an unconscious set of tools for bringing people together to solve problems and achieve goals.

Larry C. Spears wrote about servant leader traits in “On Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders.”


Be an Active Listener

Listening is a skill that can be learned and will become a habit through practice. An example of components of active listening are:

  • Pay attention (no multi-tasking)
  • Check your own inner dialogue; listen to what the other person is saying
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Provide a summarizing statement back to the person to ensure mutual understanding
  • Ask clarifying (not challenging) questions
  • Don’t change the topic; follow the train of thought of the speaker
  • Observe body language (also a skill that can be developed)

A number of resources are available online and through books that can provide additional ideas and techniques for developing active listening skills. The following are a few quick examples of resources available:

A corollary to active listening in servant leadership is the skill of being empathetic.

“The one thing I have learned – my eyes have been opened quite a bit in this job and this role – listen ten times more than you speak. That is such an important lesson to learn, and the more you listen the more you see. Your ears are a much better window into what is happening.” –Carolyn Bloodworth


Practice Empathy

Empathy is a necessary skill of servant leaders. The goal is to understand another person’s point of view and experience. Essential to the practice of empathy is the ability to listen; to understand your own prejudices and perspectives; and to set aside these prejudices and perspectives for the purpose of understanding.

A number of articles and books can be found that offer advice and exercises to help build empathy skills.  For example:

The key to empathy is as easy and as complex as viewing a situation from inside another person’s perspective and feeling what they are feeling.  While some natural ability is helpful, empathy is also a skill that can be learned.


Be Helpful to Others

Also a part of a cluster of behaviors including listening and empathy, the act of helping others begins by first recognizing a situation of need in another person or community, and then helping them to meet that need, face a challenge, or achieve a goal.

Simple ways one can incorporate helping others into their professional lives are:

  • Welcome a new person into a group and introduce them to others
  • Support a staff member in their pursuit of a goal, such as higher education
  • Work with a community based on their preferences and history without imposing external judgments or prescriptive behaviors


Build a Common Vision for the Future

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Some leaders have a natural ability to project a big vision for the future. One strategy to develop a big vision is to reflect on how things “should” be different in the area of particular interest. Constructing a specific, focused, and clearly defined vision is an important first step in enacting change. Another strategy is to become the champion of a vision developed by someone else. Under a philosophy of servant leadership, the individual who develops the vision is less important than the good created by its realization.

Balancing the big vision with reality is an acquired skill. Skills that would be helpful to understanding the reality are the ability to analyze data, evaluate reports, and the capacity to listen and empathize. Data-based decision making, paired with listening and empathy, can provide a solid understanding of the current situation.

The following steps can help the servant leader build a common vision for the future:

Identify the Situation
The ability to identify individual situations within a greater context – and have the desire to act to rectify those situations – are crucial components for building a common vision for the future. Envisioning a big goal such as covering the state of Michigan with community foundation service, or developing a system for the life-long support of volunteering, should also be supported by data and information about the current situation.

Verify the Need
In many communities, community data is available online through a local university. In Michigan, the Community Data & Research Lab at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy provides highly accessible information including the use of online mapping of various data indicators. Data-Driven Detroit, a former affiliated program of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, provides similar data collection and analysis.

Skills in data analysis can be developed through college-level courses and online training if this particular expertise is desired by the servant leader. Otherwise, after collecting the data, someone who is experienced in interpreting data should be asked to examine it for significant findings. Conferences and seminars where the significance of the data are discussed can also be a useful way to learn more.

Develop a Conceptual Framework
Servant leaders are often pressed to find solutions to problems that are persuasive to others, and then attract followers to the solution. This is both a curiosity and a creative challenge.

Being able to “conceptualize” is the ability to create clear new ideas. There are techniques that can be used, such as mind-mapping, which helps a person first identify all of the components of an idea. From those components, a conceptual framework can be developed. Developing techniques for asking questions in new ways also can help build conceptualization skills.

Here is a recommended resource:

Look Ahead – The Value of Foresight
Foresight includes the ability to learn from the past, have an understanding of the current situation, and to project how actions will affect the future. This sense of time requires being sensitive to the context of any situation. Too often new professionals, volunteers, and board members step into an initiative or organization without taking the time to understand its history, culture, or habits of operation. Without such context, they can be surprised when their predictions of reactions aren’t accurate. Without this sense of context – past, present, and projected future – a leader can fail.

The skills involved in developing foresight are simply the tasks of taking the time to read and understand the history of the endeavor, seeking the awareness of the current situation (see above), and then conceptualizing a new future based on this information.


Be Persuasive and Empower Others

Servant leaders lead by persuasion, not by raw authority. People want to follow their lead. Though persuasive skills can be manipulative or sincere, the servant leader does not try to manipulate others. They work to build consensus through logic, humor, and by engaging all stakeholders to reach a common agreement. By doing so, they strengthen relationships and build mutual esteem.

In the process of persuasion, the servant leader empowers others. As commitment to a common vision grows, each person on the team or group brings their individual talents to accomplish their shared goals.

Persuasion skills can be learned and practiced through public speaking, small group communication, group formation and facilitation, marketing and public relations, writing, and new forms of social media.

Persuasive leaders can have a variety of personal characteristics. Effective persuasion requires these key elements: energy, passion, information, clarity of thinking, active listening, empathy, engagement, and awareness.

Persuasive techniques can be learned in college classrooms or in community leadership development programs such as Toast Masters or Dale Carnegie Courses.


Become a Steward of Your Cause

Stewardship is focused on others and implies taking care of, and responsibility for, resources. In Michigan’s experience, the concept of stewardship was reflected in the respect shown for the philanthropic resources provided to achieve the objectives. This behavior isn’t so much learned as it is a decision to be responsible for other people and/or their resources. The focus is on the resource that is being shepherded – not on the shepherd.

“We need to come at this with great humility. This is not our money. We have to be very thoughtful and understanding of stewardship and what that means, and that’s a broad word. Everything from stewardship of: how best are we making the decisions around the limited resources? But also how we’re using the resources when we choose which hotel we stay at or where we’re having our dinners and things such as that.” –James McHale


Commit to the Growth of Individuals

Similarly, the commitment to empowering others isn’t so much a skill as it is a decision to assist other people whenever an opportunity presents itself. Mentoring younger or new professionals, budgeting for continuing professional education, allowing for job shadowing, or assisting others in gaining the skills and experiences needed to succeed – these are all good examples that exemplify a commitment to growing individuals.


Build Community – Nurture Relationships

Building a sense of community begins by establishing a set of strong relationships. There is, perhaps, no more important skill than building and nurturing professional relationships with those who are co-workers in your field.

These are some very practical skills and techniques that have been modeled by Michigan philanthropic leaders. They can be learned, practiced, and implemented. While many of these are small and very self-evident behaviors, together they become powerful leadership tools for making the world just a little bit better. The task, of course, isn’t simply knowing what to do – but deciding to actually do it!