DOs & DON’Ts of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership seems like an oxymoron. Are you serving? Or are you leading? Managers who practice servant leadership are doing both. The Robert F. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership describes the servant-leader as someone who “shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Although this leadership philosophy dates back to around 500 BCE, it has only recently become commonplace. According to the book The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle by James C. Hunter, “servant leadership is emerging on a grand scale in many parts of the world. The evidence of this is that many of the most admired and successful organizations on the planet are now practicing the disciplines of servant leadership.”

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C. is one of the many organizations that exercises servant leadership. The following list of DO’s & DON’Ts presents the basic principles and benefits of servant leadership and shares a little of The Ritz-Carlton perspective.

DO recognize the qualities needed to be a servant-leader.

In the book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, authors James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick define a servant-leader as “a person of character that puts people first.” Servant-leaders are focused on nurturing and coaching employees. Their role is to help others develop and grow. Herve Humler, President and Chief Operations Officer at The Ritz-Carlton, expressed this concept when he said: “My friends are the 40,000 Ladies and Gentlemen of The Ritz-Carlton. I want them to succeed, and I want to make sure they have the tools to succeed.” Servant-leaders express humility, and recognize and value the contributions of others.

Servant-leaders are also people of high moral character. General Norman Schwarzkopf wisely stated: “By far the single most important ingredient of leadership is your character. You will find that 99 percent of all leadership failures in this country in the past one hundred years were not failures in competence. They were failures in character.” Servant-leaders must express qualities such as integrity, strength, empathy, humility and appreciation.

DON’T be concerned that servant leadership will make you less authoritative.

Leaders may be worried they will lose a sense of authority and power if they become servant-leaders. Adam Grant addresses this point in his book Give and Take. He writes: “Research suggests that there are two fundamental paths to influence: dominance and prestige. When we establish dominance, we gain influence because others see us as strong, powerful, and authoritative. When we earn prestige, we become influential because others respect and admire us.” Leaders who are givers and show genuine care for employees build prestige, which “has more lasting value” according to Grant.

Bob Kharazmi, Global Officer, Worldwide Operations at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C., explains it this way: “If you don’t create relationships with your team, then you are using formal authority. When you have a relationship and there is trust, then you have moral authority.” He continues, “formal authority gets the job done to some degree, but it does not get the job 100% done. Moral authority gets the job 100% done. I practice moral authority because if I have relationships, then I have earned trust and then I only need to say something once.”

DO expect servant leadership to increase loyalty and employee engagement.

According to the Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, “Leaders who are seen as persons of character are more likely to generate loyalty, creativity, and productivity among company employees.” Servant-leaders must walk their talk. Their actions need to align with their character. They must also ensure that their actions are helpful and not indulgent or enabling. In the book Turn the Ship Around!, the author, Captain David Marquet, asserts that “Taking care of your people does not mean protecting them from the consequences of their own behavior….What it does mean is to give them every available tool and advantage to achieve their aims in life, beyond their specific job.”

When employees see their leaders empowering, supporting and genuinely caring for them, they will naturally become more trusting and loyal toward their leaders. The Employee Promise at The Ritz-Carlton states that, “Our Ladies and Gentlemen are the most important resource in our service commitment to our guests.” Employees who feel valued for their service are more likely to be engaged.

DON’T forget about empowerment and trust.

Trust is one of the advantages of servant leadership. The Scrumban [R]evolution claims that, “Servant Leaders engender trust, which catalyzes higher levels of worker engagement, the offering of the workers’ discretionary effort and ideas, and greater speed in change and innovation.”

Trust also makes empowerment possible. As Stephen R. Covey notes in the foreword to the seminal book Servant Leadership, “The only way you get empowerment is through high-trust cultures and an empowerment philosophy that turns bosses into servants and coaches, and structures and systems into nurturing institutionalized servant processes.” Empowered employees are better equipped to handle problem-resolution, and they feel a greater sense of ownership and accountability. Covey also says that only those organizations that “align their systems, structure and management styles to support the empowerment of their people…will survive and thrive as market leaders.”

DO see the relationship between servant leadership and organizational culture.

If an organization’s culture isn’t dedicated to service and prioritizes profits over people, then servant leadership will not work. Servant leadership and culture have a symbiotic relationship: An organization with a culture of service will foster leadership committed to service, and servant-leaders need a culture devoted to service in order to succeed.

DON’T be surprised that servant leadership impacts profits.

Organizations that practice servant leadership tend to put people before profits. If you are a for-profit organization it may seem foolish to value people over profits. However, choosing to make people your top priority has a surprising result. “Ironically, the practice of putting people before profits makes an organization even more profitable,” according to the Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership. The book also asserts that “organizations that say ‘people are our most important asset’ and mean it, have a significant competitive advantage.”

Each year The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C. identifies five priorities known as the Key Success Factors. Customers and employees are always the top priorities and financial performance is always the fifth priority. For many decades, The Ritz-Carlton has successfully practiced servant leadership and continues to embrace a mindset of service that includes our customers, our employees, our communities and the world

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center offers advisory services, courses and presentations to organizations that wish to benchmark the award-winning business practices of The Ritz-Carlton. Your organization can learn about The Ritz-Carlton methodology for customer service, employee engagement and leadership development. We also guide organizations through a multi-step process in order to achieve sustainable culture transformation.