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What Is Servant Leadership? The Benefits for Lawyers

By Tatia Gordon-Troy

The benefits of living your life and building your practice in the service of others.

Being of service is at the heart of a business trend known as servant leadership. It’s a phrase we’re hearing a lot about these days, yet the principles are as old as the ages. The term, however, was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Since then, dozens of books and articles have been painstakingly composed on the topic — explaining, dissecting and advising on what servant leadership is and how to implement it.

So, what is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a management style in which you lead by placing the needs of your team first. Given the fear and uncertainty surrounding managing hybrid work and holding onto talent through “the great resignation,” it’s no wonder law firm owners are rethinking their leadership style.

In theory, servant leadership is something most of us may already be incorporating not just in our law practices, but in our daily lives. We try to lead with the “humble and willing” concept that we are first and foremost the servant. The optimal and expected result of this philosophy is that by interacting with others (in this case, our clients and staff) with a natural inclination to serve, we build trust and garner inevitable respect.

A Strong Foundation

Greenleaf laid out a fairly straightforward concept: “Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built.”

These are profound words and yet most of us have experienced the opposite of what those words encapsulate — namely, the managers who act as bullies, the egocentrics, or the tyrants who enjoy domination over their staff’s daily lives. It’s an artificial sense of power granted by proxy via a title.

Instead, Greenleaf holds that true power comes from garnering respect and trust from those who then naturally turn to you (even depend on you) for consistent and reliable leadership in good times and when faced with challenges.

The benefits of servant leadership include:

  • Greater employee loyalty
  • A healthy company culture
  • Greater productivity and problem-solving

In addition, those who follow a servant leader tend to be more engaged, which increases not only job satisfaction and retention, but leads to better client service.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

It might be oversimplifying the concept, but servant leadership has been compared with the act of parenting. The adage “Do as I say, not as I do,” rarely works at home with the kids, let alone at work with your employees. Employees, just like children, will always look to the “boss” to set an example. If you’re gracious, caring and hardworking, if your true ambition is for the good of the firm, your staff will begin to embrace the concept as their own.

“In essence, the servant leader provides a framework within which their team can flourish, rather than prescribing them specific direction on each of their duties,” according to Aída Lopez Gomez in her enlightening article “What Are the Pros and Cons of Servant Leadership?

That framework creates a clear and sturdy bedrock upon which you can then build a team of strong individuals who are allowed to shine, Lopez Gomez adds. As the boss, owner, manager of people, you should know what peoples’ strengths are. If you don’t, it’s time for a little research and one-on-one time!

By providing a clearly defined framework, letting go of the tight leash and guiding rather than micromanaging, Lopez Gomez says you’ll invariably reap the rewards. You’ll have greater output, happier employees and a team mentality. It’s the stuff of winners.

All for One …

Perhaps it is trite, but whenever you begin a team-building exercise, there must be the agreed-on precept that you are “all for one and one for all.” Traditionally, firms operate on the billing-the-most-makes-you-top-dog concept, which can pit lawyers against one another. This leads to burnout, high turnover and a very tense work environment.

Leading by example for a servant leader prohibits the characteristics that naturally fester when everyone is out for number one. At the helm, if you wish to implement servant leadership, you must first embrace and then exhibit those traits that demonstrate a sincere concern for others.

Facing a crisis is certainly one way to determine one’s ability to demonstrate concern for others, according to J. Henry Walker IV, chair of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP. In an article for JD Supra, Walker writes, “A servant leader’s success will ultimately be measured by the success of the organization, not on his or her own particular triumph. A crisis brings out both the best and worst in an organization. Its strengths are more apparent, but unfortunately, its weaknesses are as well.”

Walker adds that a servant leader must be aware of the organization’s challenges in order to lead effectively. “Such awareness should foster empathy, patience, and recognition of the need to step up and serve.”

Are You a Servant Leader? Implementing the Concept

There are 10 key principles of servant leadership: 1) listening; 2) empathy; 3) healing; 4) self-awareness; 5) persuasion; 6) conceptualization; 7) foresight; 8) stewardship;(9) commitment to the growth of people; and 10) building community.

In Greenleaf’s words, “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.” A true servant leader focuses on employees’ development, seeking ways to help people grow as individuals. The idea is that the successful implementation of servant leadership will increase your profits even faster and in a much more amenable way.

Sounds easy enough, right? Kind of like the whole “Do unto others” idea. Unfortunately, in the hectic day-to-day, that high-minded philosophy can slide to the back. Greenleaf recommends tackling the process in small steps. Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts to incorporate into your management style that will help you become a more servant leader:

DODON'T
Do pinpoint ways you can support your team.Don’t spend time dictating your expectations of them.
Do encourage team members to observe your actions.Don’t track their every move and micro-manage.
Do ask for input, suggestions, and feedback.Don’t tell your team exactly what to do and how to do it.
Do practice (a little at a time) giving away power.Don’t take every opportunity to impress and accumulate more power.
Do more coaching and less preaching.Don't constantly lecture and admonish.

According to Rebecca Herman, Graduate Professor of Leadership at Purdue University Global, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on strategy, goals, financial performance and customer satisfaction. “Those are things we expect leaders to do. We want our CEO to focus on things that are going to bring us profit,” Herman says in an interview with Purdue Global.

“But servant leaders go further,” Herman adds. “They focus on providing their employees with development opportunities. And since servant leaders put people first, they get to know them on a different level. They help them to develop, they give them opportunities because they empower them versus micromanage them.”

Leading by Example

“If you talk the talk, you must walk the walk,” another adage that fits the situation at hand. Being a servant leader takes commitment and requires intentional actions. If you have the desire to serve the greater good at your firm, you are committing to the success of your firm and to the success of the people within it.

Get ready, set, lead on!

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

For more on embracing servant leadership:

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Tatia Troy Tatia Gordon-Troy

Tatia L. Gordon-Troy is a Maryland attorney and a career publisher with more than 20 years of experience developing books for lawyers and law firms, and building content-based marketing strategies in the form of magazines, newsletters, monographs, blog posts and white papers. Tatia runs her own consultancy and author services company, Ramses House Publishing LLC, through which she helps attorneys leverage their expertise to market themselves and their practices. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @tatia_troy, and search Clubhouse @behindthebook.

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