The term “servant leadership” was first popularized in a 1970 essay by Robert Greenleaf to describe a leader who is more dedicated to his or her team members than to the accumulation of power or wealth. Since then, the idea has caught on with other researchers and consultants exploring the concept in their own work.

Learning and development (L&D) leaders are perhaps especially suited to servant leadership. The same motivations that lead many training professionals to enter the field — a desire to help others grow, for example — lend themselves well to a servant leadership style of management.

“Learning leaders are in the fortunate position of essentially being forced to be a servant leader as a result of their role,” says Matt Tenney, chief executive officer of The Generous Group and author of “Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.” “Whether a learning leader has direct reports or not, they are responsible for the development of many people within an organization, which is a key aspect of being a servant leader.”

Whether or not you consider yourself a servant leader, and whether or not you have a formal leadership role in your organization, understanding and demonstrating servant leadership can help improve your relationships, make your team more successful and boost your career. Here’s how.

What Is Servant Leadership?

In his 1970 essay, Greenleaf wrote that servant leadership “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.” The best test of whether someone is a servant leader, he wrote, is to ask the following questions:

  • “Do those served grow as persons?”
  • “Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
  • “What is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

Tenney says that servant leaders “make serving employees, vendors and customers an equal, or even higher, priority than enriching shareholders.” They recognize that in doing so, they are still enriching shareholders, because they are creating productive employees and loyal customers.

Tenney believes that servant leadership can help improve talent retention, customer service and innovation. “But what excites me most about the practice of servant leadership,” he adds, “is that if we, as leaders, embody love and consistently demonstrate to team members that their well-being is a higher priority than our bonus or dividends for shareholders, we empower them to love the people around them, both at work and at home.”

What Are the Essential Competencies?

Varying models identify several competencies that define the servant leader:

  • Communication skills: Servant leaders are good listeners, persuasive (rather than authoritative) speakers, and clear communicators.
  • Empathy: Servant leaders work to understand other people’s perspectives, gifts and needs.
  • Self-awareness: Servant leaders understand their own strengths and weaknesses, emotions, and personalities.
  • Community building: Servant leaders understand the importance of creating a community among team members and work to nurture the relationships necessary to sustain a community.
  • Humility: Servant leaders are humble and generous, giving credit where credit is due and being open about their own weaknesses.
  • Foresight: Servant leaders use their understanding of the past and the problem at hand to predict the consequences of their decisions.
  • Ethical: Servant leaders have a strong code of ethics upon which their decisions are based.

Practicing Servant Leadership as a Training Manager

The first step in becoming a servant leader is to resolve to put your team members first. Do you work with them to help them grow and develop as training professionals and as people? When you create team goals, do you keep members’ needs, strengths and weaknesses into account? Do your team members know what is expected of them, and do you provide them with the support to help them achieve those expectations? Do they know that your door is open for them to come to you with questions or concerns, without fear of retribution or judgment? Do they know you appreciate and value them?

If you don’t have any team members, Tenney points out, you can still be a servant leader when working with your colleagues. “By simply being a collaborator who is helpful to the people around us,” he says, “we immediately become a servant leader and, at the same time, are cultivating the skills necessary for being a servant leader when we do, one day, have direct reports.”

In fact, becoming a servant leader is a great way to advance your own career. It shows that you put the organization and its employees first, and it demonstrates your desire to support and care for others — the truest definition of a leader