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Servant Leadership and Winning in Business

A bit of background first. The phrase “servant leadership” was enabled by Robert K Greenleaf in an essay he published “The Servant as Leader.” By its strictest definition a servant leader is an individual who wishes to serve first. The need to lead is derived from the need to serve. This is far different than the traditional leadership style where one leads to gain power and potential wealth. So why do I feel servant leadership requires deeper study for the online or traditional MBA student? To share an answer to this question I need to provide a bit more detail.

First off, we are taught in business basics, a key driver and motivator of a leader is performance of the firm, which results in returning profits back to the shareholders. Whether the firm is public or private, the end result is the same, to win. What firm winning takes is a topic for another day! However, having the right team and tools in place are fundamental building blocks to success. So you may be asking yourself how servant leadership may help realize your business goals. How can attributes such as listening, motivation, persuasion, stewardship, and yes empathy serve as the building blocks to winning?

The best approach to further explore servant leadership is through a personal example, one I experienced some years ago. I had the opportunity to work for an individual who had many of the attributes of a servant leader. First and foremost, he was self-aware. He was fully cognizant of his strengths and weaknesses. But above all else, he put the success of the firm and his team far above his own personal gain. Quite possibly, where he stood in his career, tenured, had influence on his approach. However, he was an individual driven by metrics and performance. He was driven to ensure his team succeeded in their objectives. His strategy was the following; bring out the best in his team by creating opportunities to drive personal growth, act as mentor and sounding board, build business ownership, and most importantly create a strong bond between team members. This leader was not self-serving or autocratic. He facilitated versus simply directing his vision. He valued growth in his team versus personal gain. He relished sitting in the shadows as his team continued to drive the organization to new levels of performance. We affectionately referred to him as the “man behind the curtains.” The individuals/team grew and prospered during his tenure. We were driven to succeed and winning was fun!

That said, a servant leader has the ability to conceptualize what is required to win. The ability to provide the necessary tools to his/her team to grow is a fundamental building block for the servant leader. Fostering “community” within the team is the end result. This demands a holistic approach to management, one that may be found in other cultures when pursuing business on an international scale. From my personal experience, the value this method of leadership provided gave me a different perspective on my personal management approach. Quite honestly, I have yet to perfect the concept of servant leadership. But practice makes perfect. And isn’t that what leadership is really all about?

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About the Author

Pete Papantos is an operations director at a Fortune 500 company. He is responsible for the global execution of their strategic plan and driving operational excellence using lean methods. In addition, Pete is a graduate instructor with emphasis in operations and strategic management — both in traditional and online settings.