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What is 'Servant Leadership'?

Dwight Eisenhower

In coaching military veterans, the term “servant leadership” comes up frequently. Some tell me, “I want to serve others, beyond my time in the military,” or, “As a leader, I believe it is my duty to look out for the needs of others more than my own.”

“Servant Leadership” is also a commonly used term in corporate training and professional development programs. Is the military definition of servant leadership the same understanding as the private sector interpretation?

What is Servant Leadership?
Traditionally, leadership is understood as the power of one individual who controls, manipulates or directs others as organized by a hierarchy. The Wikipedia definition of servant leadership as that of a mindset or philosophy:
“… the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership turns the power pyramid upside down; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, resulting in higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees.”

In the business world, servant leaders are known to be those individuals who put the team first, who collaborate, mentor, and give of themselves for the pure and unselfish betterment of others. They are often regarded as selfless, humble, and generous. Many of our high-profile corporate leaders are assigned the value of “having a servant’s heart.” While they might seek growth, fame, attention, and access, they do so because it empowers them to help others, not themselves.

Military Servant Leadership is Valuable for the Private Sector
In a 2009 Harvard Business Review article, the author highlights unique aspects of military service that align with that of a servant mentality: “military leadership is based on a concept of duty, service, and self-sacrifice; we take an oath to that effect.” He goes on to advise corporate leaders to recognize and place high value on the military culture’s training towards generosity and self-sacrifice, “Tie selflessness with the adaptive capacity, innovation, and flexibility demanded by dangerous contexts, and one can see the value of military leadership as a model for leaders in the private sector.”

The civilian workplace is certainly filled with competition, threats, challenges and competing personal agendas. It is also packed with leaders who care, empathize with, and serve their constituents and followers wholeheartedly. Before assuming that you leave your servants heart at the door when you take of your military uniform, learn more about a potential employer’s values and track record for team building, leadership, collaboration and their desire to serve their employees, customers and community.

Are You a Servant Leader?
If the understanding of servant leadership presented here feels consistent with your beliefs around how we should live, work and interact with others, then you likely have a servant leader’s heart. Finding a job where you can be generous, other-focused, humble and compassionate for those around you will be critical to building and sustaining a meaningful career.

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