By Sara Orellana
More than a decade ago, I was in my first leadership position, when I first heard the term ‘servant leadership.’
In the midst of taking over a toxic organization, setting up and running a formerly chaotic summer camp, my board was charging me with learning how to become a servant leader. Honestly, it was not the time to criticize my leadership style; it was a moment I needed mentoring and support, guidance, and help to grow as a leader.
Not one to quit, a fighter through and through, I dove into the change, determined to learn what being a servant leader meant.
Nothing makes you grow like being thrown to the wolves with more than a hundred children and their parents watching. That summer was bumpy. But I worked harder than I ever had, and grew. As much as I love to grow and change, to become a better person and leader, growth has always been a challenge.
Fast-forward to today. I have a much better understanding of what servant leadership means.
Just as the saying, “great leaders eat last,” is not a good summary, similarly, the idea that servant leadership means you serve your staff is not an accurate statement.
Being a leader means that you never show fear or stress, you stand tall and face challenges, and you set the tone for your office.
After leading countless teams in a variety of settings, I define servant leadership like this:
• Make self-care a priority for staff and yourself. Pushing yourself beyond your limits repeatedly doesn’t make you grow; it burns you out.
• Set the standard of using your vacation time. In fact, expect your staff and yourself to use all vacation time.
• Take the time to hear your employees. Nothing makes a person feel like an important part of a team as being heard.
• Learn about your team. Learn dietary restrictions, food allergies, birthdays, and other important dates.
• Laugh. No matter what happens, laugh.
• Remember, no matter what happens, information is NEVER a commodity.
• Make yourself available to your staff, have an open door policy, always be patient with questions, and empower your staff to complete their jobs.
• Say thank you and mean it.
• Take the time to stop and celebrate your wins.
• Take criticism with an open mind. Try to understand the person’s perspective, but never allow toxic behavior to persist.
• Be the first to work and the last to leave.
• When you can, give your staff breaks.
• Go out of your way to do the little things – cleaning, picking up, taking the trash out, and answering the phone. Show you are never above any task.
• Hold your team accountable. Set goals with mile markers and make sure everyone hits their goals.
My understanding of servant leadership is definitely untraditional. To say I learned how to lead in the midst of a battle, would be an understatement. What I can say is learning to step back and ask “what I would need if I was the employee?” has helped a lot. Having my daughter remind me that other people have different needs helps a lot too. Making sure I cultivate an environment of growth and nurturing has made my efforts to be a servant leader better.
No matter what style of leadership you choose to follow, you must first be a leader.
I would love to hear what other leaders have to say about servant leadership.
Sara Orellana is an independent entrepreneur who specializes in strategic planning, leadership, and grant writing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.