Robert Greenleaf, who is considered the founder of the modern servant-leadership movement, suggests the test for servant leadership is: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”
I believe that in order to answer the question, “Do those you serve grow?” you first have to find out where people are. You have to get to know them and find out what their gifts are, what they love doing, and what they don’t like doing. Then you can help them grow in the areas where they want to grow.
There are any number of ways you can help people, depending on what their individual needs are and where they want to go. That might involve putting them in a different position to utilize their gifts. It might be supporting them in their educational goals, and that could be more than just paying their tuition. We had one staff member at Datron enroll in an executive MBA program that was done mostly online but sometimes required attendance at classes in a different state. They were not required to take personal time off; we paid her during those times she had to be away during the week. Others may need encouragement and hope in dealing with the challenges of life. Just make sure you are invited into that area before you offer your help.
Sometimes when people leave our company voluntarily, especially those in our Engineering Department, it has nothing to do with money; they want to be more challenged technologically
or some other way, and we want to support them by giving them an opportunity to grow at another company. “Do the people you serve grow?” doesn’t come with a requirement that they stay employed at your company. Corporate America has a difficult time dealing with this one, because most of the time when they invest in people, they want them to stay.
Servant leaders don’t look at it that way. Our concern is whether the person grows; and if that means letting them go to a better opportunity, we let them go. We know we’ve impacted that life to the extent we can, so we let them go somewhere else and enjoy that. We all like to see our companies grow, as well, but we have to see that we grow in the right way. We ask ourselves:
“Does it matter how we grow, or is it just about growth?”
Here’s our challenge to companies that really want to practice servant leadership and help their people grow: Time is the most valuable commodity you have. Give it to your employees; let them see that you’re investing your time in them. And that doesn’t mean just going down the hallway and saying, “Hi, how are you doing?” It means putting your direct-reports on your calendar and investing thirty to sixty minutes in them on a regular basis. Our proven theory is that, if the leaders invest time in their employees and help them grow, companies will see great improvements in the annual evaluation process they already have in place. As Theodore Roosevelt once said:
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The best way you can show them you care is to take the steps to meet them where they are, and that involves investing your time in them.
“Do those you serve grow?” is a very relevant question in servant leadership, and it doesn’t have a time frame on it. People will grow at different speeds. They will grow faster in the areas
they’re comfortable with, and their growth will be slower in the areas where they’re not comfortable. You have to understand that process and be patient.
I keep what I call a “cheat sheet,” which is a list of notes I keep electronically on everyone that I meet with one-on-one. After each meeting, I record the things we talked about or the challenges that person had on that date. That way I can keep better track of each person’s growth. I can compare where they are today with where they were, say, a year ago. Maybe I needed to spend an hour with that person a year ago talking about issues, and now I only need to spend fifteen
minutes. You’ll find that as people grow, both their trust in you and their confidence in themselves increase, and they are able to make more decisions without your input.
There is nothing more rewarding than seeing people latch onto something, learn about it, understand it, apply it in their life, and then hear the stories of how that impacted their lives. I think the true measure of servant leadership is the life stories that come out of those we serve.