6 minute read

Are You a Servant or Leader?

You probably read the title of this blog post and answered, “That is an easy question – I am a leader.” Pause there with me. I’ll say that by “servant,” I didn’t mean follower. A servant is very different. Many aspiring retailers and operators share this ambition – so don’t feel like you answered incorrectly. If this was your response, you may be missing out on one of the most influential and impactful forms of leadership today for your store(s). “Servant leadership” is a growing philosophy, proven to bring exceptional health, growth and profitability to retailers and operators across the globe. You can be both a servant and a leader.

Let me start by introducing a significant and relevant issue within leadership in today’s retail environment. Business 101 tells us that in order for any business to focus on a vision and meet a set of goals, direction must be aligned from the top-down. The issue with many retailers (and one reason they fail) is because they also run their human resources with a top-down approach.

When a business operates this way in regards to people systems, leaders consistently tend to “go first” in decision-making and control. They refuse to release authority in these areas. While effective for getting short-term tasks done, this breeds distrust, disunity and eventually turnover.

We do not see this occur in servant leadership. Servant leaders redefine what matters most, focusing on replacing traditional priorities (like hierarchy and task-orientation) with equality and collaboration. The priority for servant leaders will always be the people that they serve (note I didn’t say lead) over the task to be completed.

Servant leadership could be a new concept to you, or it may be old news. Regardless of where you are in the spectrum, I encourage you to read today’s post and apply it like a litmus test. As you read further, stop and ask yourself regularly: “How can I embody the elements of the servant leader?” “Where can I more appropriately apply these concepts in my retail environment?” Good servant leaders must consistently ask themselves these questions. I’ll even help in the process – I’ll give you a few gut checks as you read on.

We’ll start with some history. Although the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by the retired AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as a Leader,” the principle has been around for thousands of years. For example, Jesus Christ was regarded as one of the most well-known and widely effective teachers of servant leadership more than 2,000 years ago.

Countless other recognized leaders (Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and unrecognized leaders (Richard Murphy) since then have employed the principles that Greenleaf put to pen and paper. We are beneficiaries today of their bold decisions.

Jesus, Lincoln, King and Murphy had something in common: a leader’s “go last” mentality (as renowned speaker and author Simon Sinek puts it). By this, I’m referencing delegation of responsibility and ownership. When a leader takes this approach within an organization, it will consequently see more productive team members, less turnover and higher profitability. In fact, Sinek goes on to say in his TEDx Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”:

“…when a leader embraces their responsibility to care for people instead of caring for numbers, then people will follow, solve problems and see to it that leader’s vision comes to life the right way, a stable way and not the expedient way.”

Gut check: How can you care for people before caring for numbers?

Business cases and economic experts today are pointing us to believe that, although counterintuitive to traditional leadership tactics, servant leadership is a more fruitful way to lead. Larry Spears, author, speaker and founder of The Spears Center, said in his journal article “Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders”:

“Servant leadership seeks to involve others in decision making, is strongly based in ethical and caring behavior, and enhances the growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of organizational life.”

Organizations as a whole can see these types of results, not just teams. We’re seeing retailers today build their culture around servant hood, not just fractionally incorporating it into their work environment. Take Wegmans for example, a Rochester, New York-based retailer. Wegmans has been on Fortune’s “Top 100 Best Companies to Work For” since 1998. That’s 18 years of success in building a magnetizing culture – how?

During my research, I reviewed employee comments like: “Management cares about its employees…” and “I feel good about the ways we contribute to the community.” While reading about Wegmans at A Great Place to Work (greatplacetowork.com), I noticed that all five employee satisfaction statistics were above 90 percent. What can I conclude from these? Wegmans leadership serves its employees so the employees can serve their customers. Whey they feel secure and supported, they own their part of the business.

I know what you’re thinking. It sounds easy to be a servant leader in theory. But blog posts aren’t reality. When you get into the nitty-gritty, tough decisions need to be made. Business is cutthroat in today’s global economy, and meeting goals that make investors happy requires sacrifice. You have a valid point, but don’t stop reading yet. Decisions reflect values, even the small ones. In every decision, a leader has the opportunity to determine what values he reflects and promotes.

Decisions that honor people, motivate them. Motivation builds unity and honor establishes a foundation for trust. Traditionally, businesses have used monetary gain to incentivize and motivate employees. Articles like “Why Incentives Don’t Actually Motivate People to Do Better Work” (Business Insider, April 2014) are changing our outlook. I understand that both investors and employees are important. Maybe it is about which one we put first. The evidence is pointing toward honoring our people. Money will follow.

Gut check: How can you embody people-oriented values in every decision, even the small ones?

Now that you can see the value in servant leadership, I want to provide more structure for how to become the best servant leader that you can be. In his article, Spears outlines 10 characteristics that he sees across all servant leaders. Check it out for yourself – it is worth the read. Below I’ve listed my top three and how I feel they apply to the business environment:
Active Listening – a servant leader must be connected to his associates to understand his business.
Conceptualization – a servant leader is called to balance conceptualization (dreaming) and operations (carrying out the dream).
Commitment to the Growth of People – “a servant leader believes that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers.” (Spears)

It’s all about application. So how can you specifically employ these tactics in a retail setting? There are some tips and tricks to help you lead like a servant in your area:
• Spend time daily or weekly with your team. Get to know each of them (that includes their family and their personal life). Examples: do you know the names of your team members’ spouses/children?
• Make your teams’ work/life balance a priority. Examples: how do you normally react to scheduling conflicts? Are their incentives outside of just extra pay for working hard?
• Bring in team members to problem solve with you. Let them play an ownership role; after all, they’ll be executing the decision. Examples: meeting a promotional sales goal or a tough productivity metric.

Gut check: Where can you more appropriately apply these concepts to your team?

For the e-commerce crowd, let me assure you: servant leadership also applies to the digital marketplace. In today’s rapidly changing economy, even if your employees are not customer facing, they are a pivotal differentiator in your end product. If leaders are not ensuring that both people and product are supported simultaneously, your bottom line will take the hit. With servant leadership, people and product go hand in hand and your customer reaps the benefits.

Let’s wrap this thing up. As you walk away from this blog post, I hope you feel both convicted and encouraged. We can all lead at a higher level, so you aren’t alone. Take one decision at a time, but remember that people matter in each one whether they are in the room or not. The greatest litmus test for how well you apply these concepts down the road is this: “Are those served in your business or store growing as people through your leadership?” Be honest with yourself in this, and your business will grow.

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