Servant Leaders & Commitment To The Growth Of Others

In his book The Servant as Leader Robert Greenleaf says:

The best test (of a servant leader) and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to become servants.


I believe servant leaders are committed to the growth of the people they lead and the fruit of servant leadership is the maturity of those being led.

In my mind the idea that servant leaders are committed to the growth of those they lead suggests servant leaders focus not just on what those people are doing or capable of doing but the people themselves. In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey refers to the fable of the goose who laid golden eggs. He talks somewhat mechanistically about the importance of focusing on what he calls production capability and not just production. The danger for many leaders is that they focus on and measure growth exclusively in terms of productivity rather than maturity, expansion rather than transformation.

Leaders who focus on production and not people are generally good task masters but poor people managers and fail to recognise that people are human beings before they are human doings and whatever they do flows from whoever they be! This can result in organisations that look good but feel bad, where there is no gain without pain.

Covey’s view is that if you want more golden eggs you need to look after the goose that’s laying them. In other words leadership should pay as much attention to people as it does productivity, to personal growth as well as corporate growth.

In the context of ongoing discussion about the roles of men and women in leadership it’s interesting to me that in my experience men are generally more focused on the nature of the work whilst women tend more towards the nurture of the person doing the work. This would suggest that men tend to adopt the role of task masters while women tend towards nurturing and coaching. Perhaps this explains the prevalence of women in Human Resources departments, women who then also find themselves trying to persuade their more task focused male colleagues to care as much about people as they do about task! 

So as leaders what does focusing on the person not just their work mean in practice?

1. Establish an emotional connection with those you lead. This doesn’t mean you have to be best buddies with everyone you lead but people are born with the ability and the need to relate emotionally as people and not just functionally as performers. As much as anything else this involves empathy which I have talked about in previous posts.

2. Take an interest and seek to nurture and support the people you lead in all areas of their life – their personal life – not just their professional life, the aspect which by default you might be most interested in. 

3. Help people to understand through the way you interact with them on a day to day basis that you value them beyond that which they are able to contribute. Fred the cleaner may not be a revenue generating head but you can make him feel like a million dollars simply by saying something encouraging to him as you pass him in the corridor. I guarantee the quality of his work will increase that day and it won’t have cost you a penny in salary increases or productivity bonuses. Why? Because people value themselves by how they’re treated not just by how much they’re paid. How I feel massively affects how I function.

4. Ensure that you understand the needs of the people you lead, don’t just focus on ensuring they understand what you need from them. Too often objective setting focuses on what the leader expects from the led not what the led need from the leader. Invest time in making sure you know what those you lead need from you in order to be successful.

I started by saying that servant leaders are committed to the growth of those they lead. I’ve ended by suggesting some practical ways in which this commitment is expressed. I’ll close with one final thought. Most businesses are led by teams of leaders with different gifts, roles and responsibilities. There are those who focus on vision and direction, and those who focus on people, perhaps referred to as HR managers in business. Either way the point I want to make is this. Whatever title or role a leader holds I believe it’s vital that all leaders irrespective of title or role lead with a commitment to the growth of the people they lead. In my experience there is nothing more powerful than a leader who is responsible for vision and direction leading as a servant leader in this regard.

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant