What is a servant leader? Servant leaders know their employees as whole people and strive to be a positive force in their lives. They build a first-hand understanding of the workplace. They create teams, address disparity, and create a vision for the growth of individuals and business. While most leaders are considered bosses or supervisors, all of us can serve as leaders to our colleagues and to peers as well. To start the path to leadership, it’s important to understand the qualities needed to act as a servant leader.
A Servant Leader is NOT a Servant
The word “servant” brings to mind the image of a butler, out of the way but poised to jump at the need of a master. This is not servant leadership. Better is the image of public servant. For example, mail carriers, district attorneys, bus drivers, and teachers—people whose job it is to enhance the lives of the public.
Try to hold in your mind the memory of a teacher, and we all had at least one, who maintained order, inspired loyalty, and gave that extra attention that grew your confidence. A teacher whose qualities pushed you to reach great success. That’s a servant leader.
How I Learned About Leading [The Hard Way]
I wasn’t always a full-time freelance medical writer. As a registered nurse I’ve worked in intensive care units, home-visited the sick, and cared for the dying. The work was brutally hard, but being alongside fellow nurses, patients, and families gave me a sense of fulfilled purpose greater than any other.
It was just…the management - the people I reported to. Their disconnection from the day-to-day challenges faced by the workers they oversaw, their absence in moments of strife, and their blind adherence to outdated policies left me and many others burned.
Filling the Leadership Vacuum
Although my exposure to leadership seems grim, during my time at the bedside I did find many leaders to admire. They just weren’t my managers. The nurses, technicians, and doctors I worked with filled the vacuum. They bolstered team spirit with regular potlucks (the universal nurse love language). They acknowledged jobs well done. They stepped in to help when a colleague was in need. They encouraged bathroom and lunch breaks and applauded self-care.
No matter your title, you can be a leader. My fellow bedside workers had the greatest power to lift the quality of my work and the joy I and others found in it. These leaders, quite unknowingly, embodied the qualities of servant leadership.
The Labor Hierarchy is Evolving
Over the past several decades, workers have become increasingly mobile. As of 2018, the average tenure of the American worker was 4.3 years. We can anticipate that number will continue to shrink, as every generation is spending less time at a given job—2012 data indicates that one quarter of workers aged 25 to 34 spent less than 12 months at a job. Paltry benefits, a relentless focus on productivity, and an out-of-whack work-life balance have left workers of all sectors jaded, frustrated, and quick to move on. For businesses, turnover is an expensive problem. The loss of institutional knowledge, recruitment to hire new talent, and investment in training are costly. In order to prevent high turnover rates, leaders need to adapt to better serve the needs of their employees.
What Makes Employees Loyal?
Even in the absence of pay raises and benefits, servant leaders create work environments of satisfied, loyal employees. How? They keep the field fertile enough to grow employees as whole people who can reach individual bests. Knowing their work is valued and that they are supported creates a bond between employees and their employer.
Servant leaders show us how our work is purposeful. They offer support to enhance the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses of individuals and the team. They bring us together as members of a group that is striving to serve a greater good.
Leaving the Wrong Leaders
Ultimately, I gave up the nursing job I loved. Despite my qualifications and highly satisfied patients, my single-parenthood and the rigid policy forbidding more than 3 sick days per year was not compatible with my needs as a whole person. School-aged kids get sick often!
The cost to fill the spot of a trained nurse is over $50,000. When I left my position, the cost to our team morale was just as significant. Our group lost a member, and the remaining members couldn’t help but be chilled by the fear that if some unlucky day their loved ones needed them, they would lose their job. They too were quick to seek other employment.
We All Lead and Follow
For several years I’ve had the pleasure of working as a medical writer with clinicians, marketing teams, and policy makers across the country to spread their messages across a wide network. In this role I practice the qualities of servant leadership to acknowledge how bound up my personal and professional success is with that of my colleagues.
As a freelance, I form relationships to grow my business. It is natural that I support the lives and work of my colleagues. Together, our creative strengths combine to best represent the science we write about. Each one of us boosts the others with our own servant leadership ideology.
You Can Be, and Should Be, a Servant Leader
If you’re wondering whether you are, or can be, a servant leader, below are what I consider to be the top 10 characteristics you need to possess. If you’re interested in digging even deeper into this topic, you should check out the education session on servant leadership that will be presented this November at the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) 2019 Medical Writing & Communication Conference.
10 Characteristics of a Servant Leader
- Community building
- Commitment to the growth of others