Servant leadership: A path to high performance

April 28, 2013

I’ve spent years researching the DNA of high-performing companies, and much to my surprise the leaders at most of those companies did not fit commonly espoused theories of leadership.

Many people believe great leaders are charismatic, have a commanding presence, are visionary and educated at elite schools. Almost all of the leaders of the high-performing companies that I studied had none of those traits.

Instead, they are what I call servant leaders.

I discovered them while researching well-run organizations such as Chick-fil-A and the old Home Depot, both based in the Atlanta area, and even the U.S. Marine Corps, headquartered in Arlington. I found them again and again in research I did on high-performance organizations such as Best Buy, UPS, Ritz Carlton, Room & Board, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Levy Restaurants, the San Antonio Spurs and TSYS.

Those leaders tended to share common characteristics.

Leading by example

These leaders were servants in the best sense of the word. They were people-centric, valued service to others and believed they had a duty of stewardship. Nearly all were humble and passionate operators who were deeply involved in the details of the business. Most had long tenures in their organizations. They had not forgotten what it was like to be a line employee.

They believed that every employee should be treated with respect and have the opportunity to do meaningful work. They led by example, lived the “Golden Rule,” and understood that good intentions are not enough — behaviors count. These leaders serve the organization and its multiple stakeholders. They are servant leaders.

A leadership myth

Many people think that you cannot be people-centric and maintain high standards, because employees will take advantage. That’s another leadership myth.

These high-performance organizations show that people-centric environments and high performance are not mutually exclusive. Employees in these companies have high emotional engagement, loyalty and productivity, and outperform the competition on a daily basis over long periods of time. In fact, the relationship between high performance, high employee engagement and how you treat employees is compelling. My research clearly demonstrates that employee satisfaction drives customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Humble wins

Most people seek a leadership position because they want more pay, more prestige, more perks and more power. They seek and fall for the intoxicating powers of leadership.

Servant leaders side step that failing. They are paid more, but very few ever make the highest-paid CEOs list. Instead, they fight elitism in themselves and their organizations. Many of these organizations eschew corporate jets, executive dining rooms, big decorated executive offices and other trappings of elitism. Some of these leaders had small windowless offices. Some shared administrative staff with other executives.

Behaving well

How servant leaders behave is a key to their successful leadership. Behaviors are means of communicating. For example, treating people with dignity, being in the moment and not multitasking, not interrupting others, listening intensely, smiling, saying please and thank you, acknowledging the contributions of others, admitting mistakes, apologizing, not having to be the smartest person in the room all the time and spending time on the front lines with employees and customers.

Servant leaders do not abuse, humiliate or devalue people. They understand that behaviors either build trust or destroy it, and without trust one cannot generally achieve consistent high employee engagement and high performance.

Vigilant leaders

Like behaviors, a servant leader’s attitudes and beliefs underpin successful leadership.

Attitudes and beliefs are fundamental because what you think and feel drives behaviors. Servant leaders do not think they are better than the people they lead. Servant leaders do not think that unless employees are watched like hawks, they won’t work hard. They believe that if you create the right values and culture normal people will do extraordinary things.

The behavior of leaders, coupled with attitudes and beliefs, either enables or inhibits high performance. Good intentions and words are not enough. The best leaders understand that daily behaviors count.

And leadership is hard work because it takes discipline. Servant leaders are vigilant in fighting elitism, arrogance, complacency and hubris daily.

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. He teaches an executive education course, “Servant Leadership: A Path to High Performances,” in November.

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