A Quick Guide to Understanding Servant Leadership

September 8, 2020

Leadership is nothing new. The concept of leadership has been around since the days of Aristotle and Plato and has evolved countless times throughout the centuries. But in 1970, a new theory emerged. Developed by Robert Greenleaf, servant leadership is the idea that empowered leaders serve their followers and to enable them to live and work to their full potential.

For more insight, I turned to the President and CEO of Concordia University Texas, Dr. Donald Christian, to get his thoughts on the topic. A servant leader himself, Dr. Christian has had a significant influence on my leadership journey.

Q: How do you define servant leadership?

“Servant leadership is leading in such a way that, by giving ownership, freedom and power to others, provides the opportunity for them to become servant leaders themselves.”

Servant leadership is the belief that there is a natural feeling for someone to serve others first. One individual serving will inspire others to serve as well, and this movement should grow as long as the servant-leader is focused on the growth and well-being of their followers.

Q: Why should students practice servant leadership?

“Servant leadership is one of the hardest things we have to do – empowering others to lead does not come naturally. By practicing it, we can develop a habit to think this way, learn why it is more or less natural for some and understand what our blind spots are.”

Like all DECA members, I love a challenge. Hearing Dr. Christian’s words was empowering for me. As emerging leaders, we strive not just to be “good”, but to be the best. Knowing that something is one of the “hardest things we have to do,” serves as a call to action for us to step up to the challenge of servant leadership.

Q: How can servant leadership help individuals grow into a better leader?

“At Concordia University Texas, I am building a strong bench of leaders so that I am not consistently being drawn into the details of decision making. My leadership is more consistent over time because others feel empowered and believe their work is meaningful.”

I started my leadership journey as a DECA high school chapter officer and was immediately drawn in by the feeling of being a leader. However, it wasn’t until I started a Collegiate DECA Chapter at Concordia University Texas that I realized why I enjoyed it – I have a desire to serve others. Realization helped me refocus my leadership strategy based on the principles of servant leadership.

Q: How can students begin to exercise servant leadership?

While this all sounds great, knowing where to start can be tricky. Fortunately, Dr. Christian shared his top suggestions for putting servant leadership to use in your daily life.

  1. When doing chapter or group projects, observe how you and your teammates defer to other members, allowing them to use their gifts and skills before offering your own.
  2. When asking others to join or participate, are you giving them options on their participation or providing a real opportunity to say “no” – and to feel okay about saying it.
  3. Regularly reflect on how you think about and feel about leadership, especially on how you see others responding to your leadership.
  4. Ask others for feedback, especially from those whom you respect and who will be honest with you.  Don’t ask, “How am I doing as a leader?” but more specifically, “How do you see me empowering others to lead and serve?” and “What might I do differently next time when working with others?”
  5. Create your own servant leadership rubric and do a self-check every week.
  6. Read everything you can about servant leadership so you can be clear about what servant leadership is.
  7. Interview respected leaders about their relationship with servant leadership.

I love DECA because of the opportunities to lead and serve at the local, association and international levels – whether you are elected to a position or not. Through serving, we inspire others to follow in our footsteps. Even if you only impact or inspire one student, that same student can follow your example and possibly impact thousands in the future.

I encourage all DECA members to lead groups more effectively by deferring to others’ opinions first before stating your own. Focus on others before yourself and do not just run for a leadership position to boost your resume, but run for office to inspire and help others. If you want to take your leadership to the next level, explore servant of leadership. It has changed how I lead ten-fold and I know it will do the same for you!

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