Real leadership is serving others – and not serving yourself

What are the objectives of a leader? What legacy does a leader want to leave?

By David Reyero

There is a crisis of leadership: an example is given in a study made by the Davos Economic Forum in which 86% of respondents said the world lacks the leaders needed to tackle today’s challenges.

There are many causes but one of the most important is that people do not believe that today’s leaders are sufficiently oriented towards the common good – rather than their personal or group interests.

The best remedy for this evil is servant leadership. This term was coined in the 1970s by Robert K. Greenleaf for a philosophy based on concepts previously described by Confucius with the phrase: "The superior man thinks always of virtue; the common man thinks of comfort."

Servant leadership enables companies to be sustainable

This approach begins with a genuine desire to serve others. Based on this attitude, a leader builds his or her own style and takes the steps necessary to consciously lead others.

A combination of powerful and synergistic elements defines the 10 main characteristics of servant leadership:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Caring for others
  4. Self-knowledge
  5. Persuasiveness
  6. Ambition (big dreams)
  7. A profound analysis of problems and solutions
  8. Trust in others
  9. Commitment to the development of the team
  10. Community building

Of the many benefits of this approach for the corporate world, I highlight the following:

  • Credibility: Others perceive that you are not mainly motivated by your personal agenda and this is one of the foundations of leadership.
  • Innovation: The influence of bottom-up decisions are enhanced as they serve as incubators for a natural and creative collective involvement in the search for new solutions.
  • More talent at work: In this context, people feel wanted and valued and this makes them want to give their best. Collaboration, support and honest feedback are encouraged. These are essential ingredients to activate the magic of talent.
  • Happiness at work: A humanistic business culture combines ambition for greatness, results and credibility with an appreciation of employees. This generates a genuinely happy environment – with realism and without internal marketing or false smiles.
  • Work commitment: People are attracted to this type of work environment because it meets their basic and higher needs.
  • Superior performance: The results are more sales, greater profitability and improved customer loyalty. 

In short: this is a leadership style that enables companies to be sustainable.

  1. 1. In the 20th century, servant leadership has already achieved profound transformations while overcoming great resistance in different political, social and cultural contexts. This is the case of Martin Luther King in the USA, Gandhi in India, or Mandela in South Africa. 
  2. Hundreds of companies are already using this approach: including successful corporations such as Marriott, SAS, Schneider, Starbucks and Southwest Airlines. 
  3. Voters are less gullible in the 21st century. The messianic leaders who have all the answers but do not encourage bottom-up participation are increasingly rejected. The rise of the collaborative economy and the emergence of social networks (where an individual can have the same space as a large multinational) are examples of successful citizen participation. Social movements can escape the classic "command and control" structures.

In recent years, we have made great progress in technology and science. But many geopolitical, economic and business challenges remain – and some have become more serious.  

Tackling these challenges needs aspects that are closely aligned with leadership and these include: vision, courage, empathy with otherness, a search for consensus and the breakdown of inertia. Difficult and high impact decisions that help society move towards the common good can only be made by leaders with considerable equilibrium and personal maturity. 

It seems obvious that we need more reputable leaders in the world. We need to explore new approaches and behavioural patterns to recover from this leadership crisis and we must remember that the changes may be surprising – and will not be easy or quick to implement.

The authentic and positive leadership needed to generate a better tomorrow is about serving others and not serving yourself.

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