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By Mike Esposito

What is a servant leader? Robert Greenleaf was the founder of the modern servant leadership movement, and he said it best: “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is vastly different than one who wants to lead first, perhaps because of the need to assuage a desire for power or acquire material possessions.”

Examples of companies that practice servant leadership include SAS, Southwest Airlines, Costco, Zappos, REI, Quiktrip, Aflac, Marriott, Nordstrom and Starbucks, just to name a few. Uncoincidentally, many of these organizations have also made the Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list.

Wanting to serve others has long been considered a foundation of being a great leader. But how do you know if you are truly leading for others or for yourself? Being a servant leader doesn’t literally mean being a servant. We’re not talking about fetching coffee for your employees. If you aspire to be a servant leader, ask yourself the following list of questions to see if you are acting for others or for yourself.

When I make a decision, do I think about how it impacts others?

Someone who thinks “How does this benefit me?” is disqualified as a servant leader. It truly requires caring about others.

Do I make my employees’ jobs easier?

Let’s say you’re a sales manager and your lot guy comes to you and says he can’t move cars because the key machine is broken. You could tell him to go talk to the controller to see about getting someone in to fix it. But if you’re a servant leader, you will immediately call the controller and tell them you need someone to fix the machine right now because you can’t move the cars. Because of hierarchy, the controller is more likely to act quickly than if the lot guy asked. As a manager, being a servant leader means you remove obstacles so your employees can do their jobs.

Do I value diverse opinions?

As a dealer you have absolute power. You can easily adopt the attitude: “It’s my way or the highway.” If you have a strong opinion about something that needs to be done, you can order it to be done. However, if you’re a servant leader, you will gather other opinions. You will ask managers and employees who may be impacted by your decision what they think, and you will consider their opinions.

Do I cultivate a culture of trust?

If you’re a servant leader, your employees must be able to trust you to always make the right decision. For example, if one of your dealership’s core values is integrity and you find out that an employee has stolen from you, what would you do? Fire them, right? What if it’s your top salesperson who sells 30 cars per month? If you’re a servant leader, yes, you would still fire them. Otherwise, you are breaking trust with your other employees.

Am I developing other leaders?

The worst leaders believe they’re the smartest person in the room. Servant leaders are aware of their shortcomings and always try to hire people who are smarter than them or who are skilled in an area where they may fall short. Additionally, the servant leader provides opportunities for growth and teaches others to lead. This means the leader is not always leading, but instead deputizing others to lead.

Am I helping my employees with life issues?

A servant leader truly cares about their employees and helps them with life issues, not just work issues. Here at Auto/Mate we had an employee who was dealing with some health issues. His position required a lot of travel, but we re-worked his responsibilities so that he could travel less and focus on his health.

This is one example of helping with a life issue. It’s also important to offer employees opportunities for personal development beyond the job. As a leader, you can start company programs for weight loss or lowering personal debt. You could offer to pay for classes. This demonstrates that you care about your employees and you’re investing in their well-being.

Do I encourage others?

Another hallmark of a servant leader is encouragement. A true servant leader says, “Let’s go do it,” not, “You go do it.”

Do I sell or tell?

A servant leader is the opposite of a dictator. It’s about persuading, not commanding. It’s no coincidence that many great leaders have been salespeople. That’s because employees generally don’t want to be told what to do. A good leader can convince employees what needs to be done in a way so that the employees want to do it, and want to follow you.

Do I make decisions based on short-term goals or long-term goals?

Are you always worried about the next quarter, or do you make decisions based on where you want to be five years from now? A servant leader thinks about the next generation, the next leader, the next opportunity. That means a tradeoff between what’s important today versus tomorrow and making choices to benefit the future.

An example of this is the recession that began in 2007. The CEOs of Southwest and Costco both stated that they wouldn’t lay off any employees, and they didn’t. They chose not to because they cared about them and knew in the long term they would need those employees. So those companies took a short-term hit but in the long run, they outperformed many of their competitors.

Am I humble?

The servant leader doesn’t think he or she is better than everyone else. When your dealership has a great month, do you take credit or do you give it?

One of my favorite quotes about leadership is this: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they say: We did it ourselves.” –Lao Tzu.

What do you think the qualities of a servant leader are?


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