It can be hard to define the characteristics of a leader in our modern age. Many in leadership positions are corrupt, giving a bad example to follow. In younger generations (mine included), we often struggle to lead at all. Frozen by indecision, or worse, distraction, is a regular occurrence for many of us in the 20 to 40 age range.

We struggle to even identify what makes a good leader. And yet, there are those who just lead. We know it when we see it, although it can be difficult to articulate why. A true leader simply leads; it's part of what they do.

And there are different styles of leadership. The one that has been praised and sought after in the corporate arena in recent years is that of a servant leader.

For good reason!

What is servant leadership?

Simply put, it's seeking the best for those you manage. Wikipedia says it well:

Servant leadership is both a leadership philosophy and set of leadership practices. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

That last statement is a key component of the servant leader, especially in the area of a career. The leader (manager, supervisor etc.) wants to see the employees that he/she manages succeed, to have a fulfilling, satisfactory employment that challenges their abilities and allows them to put their gifts to use while at the same time learning new skills. This type of leader takes a protective stance towards those he/she watches over, defending their needs, championing their causes, and being their voice at different levels of the organization.

In my experience, it's far easier to sing the praises of this approach than it is to live them out.

So what makes a good manager? Rich Armstrong, who has been writing on this topic recently, sums it up perfectly:

… they should first want to help people.

Imagine that … going through life helping others is the way to lead.

This is not a new idea in any sense. The wikipedia article linked above mentions that this concept of servant leadership has been around for thousands of years. My thinking was the same; I know of no greater example of servant leadership than that of Christ.

When His own disciples were following their natural inclinations and striving for position, this was His response:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “ You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

His willingness to serve for the better of others led to the grave. Which fits well with His teaching overall. As the apostle Paul stated:

For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is the heart of servant leadership; if you love your charges as you love yourself, you naturally seek out what is best for them.

Leading from within

But what if you're not in a position of leadership? Personally, this is a situation I find myself in currently when it comes to my career. I've led teams in customer support, in application support, with large implementation projects. I've run a small team when owning my own business. And I'm in leadership positions elsewhere; my home and my church are excellent places to constantly improve as a servant leader.

But at Campaign Monitor, I'm a member of support team in a fairly flat organization. So how does servant leadership apply when you're not in a leadership position?

Exactly the same way as when you are in a leadership position.

It's taken me a bit to fully wrap my head around that. Working for CM has been an amazing time and great experience, but it's also been a change for me personally. After years of progressing through an increasing amount of responsibility, I came to a position where I had no vision to set or people to direct. That was a big change.

But the truth is, you (and I) can adopt a servant leader mentality no matter what position we're in. Doing everything you can to ensure your coworkers succeed is the best habit we can all adopt. You may not be setting the vision for your company or assigning work, but you can put energy into making your teammates the best they can be.

And if a leadership position comes your way one day, you're already practicing the most important aspect of being a good leader.

Truth be told, servant leadership is hard. We're selfish. I have often been a bad leader, whether it's at home, at work, or in other areas of my life. Putting the needs of others first, loving others as much as we love ourselves, is hard work.

But so worth it.

Hat tip to my own supervisor Mathew Patterson, a good servant leader himself, for the links to Rich Armstrong's writing.