Question: In a job interview recently, the hiring manager corrected me after I talked about my leadership experience. He said, “It sounds more to me like you’re a servant leader.” What’s the difference?
Answer: It’s been said often that someone with a military background is a natural leader. You’ve been taught to take risks, assume accountability, face adversity and uncertainty, and care for those around you. Leadership is that act of leading and influencing others in a team, organization or initiative.
Servant leadership takes leadership one step further. A servant leader -- someone who leads with a servant heart -- describes a philosophy that is selfless, focused on others and not about power, fame or credit. A servant leader truly is more concerned and passionate about bettering the environment or those they lead than taking control.
Servant Leadership Means Leading with a Servant Heart.
In describing your passion for leadership, you likely emphasized the needs of your team, your caring nature and commitment to seeing others grow, even if that comes at your own expense. A servant leader is someone who:
• May not get recognized or seen for their traditional leadership strengths (for example, an ability to take charge and drive toward a vision). They do not seek attention or recognition.
• Shows appreciation, cares for and values people. They’re able to see the unique qualities and strengths of those they lead and will nurture and curate those strengths so that individual succeeds.
• Is humble. Humility speaks to the servant leader’s ability to receive input and feedback, fully embrace their strengths and weaknesses, and remain open to growth and learning. Their humility leads them to put others first.
• Earns the trust of those around them. Influencers, decision-makers, stakeholders and those being led trust the motives, words and actions of the servant leader because they’ve proven themselves trustworthy.
• Is inclusive and encourages diversity. Servant leaders believe every voice is valuable and encourage diversity of thoughts to reach greater understanding.
How Can You Develop Servant Leadership Skills?
To grow your abilities toward more service-based leadership, consider the list above first. Are you already doing those things? Do you seek credit and recognition for your work? Are you demonstrating how you value people around you? Can you truly say you’re humble? Do people trust you? Are you embracing diversity in your communications, actions and relationships?
If you’re not doing those things, how could you learn them? While a class or workshop can help, there are books, TED Talks and lessons you could learn from to grow your skills. Consider if there is someone in your network who you’d identify as a servant leader and from whom you could learn. If there is, observe how they act, speak and relate to those they lead. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity for mentorship from someone you admire and respect.
If you do fit the criteria outlined for servant leadership, then the next step is maybe the most important: You need to build others into leaders. Servant leaders are committed to empowering others to grow their own value, contribution, vision and ability to serve. On top of the qualities listed above, this one is where you ensure a sustainable vision for a mission or purpose outside of yourself.
If the hiring manager identified your qualities as fitting the servant leader model, consider how you could work the term “servant leader” into your narrative. If you can truly back it up (by living the values of a servant leader), then you have achieved a tremendous accomplishment in your life and career.
The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty” (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.
A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.
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