Tal Ben-Shahar Ph.D.

The Art of Whole Being

Extraordinary Leadership for Extraordinary Times

How to become a servant leader and bring out the best in others.

Posted May 19, 2020

What kind of leadership is needed in difficult times? How can managers best guide employees through chaos and uncertainty? How can parents help children cope with a disturbing reality unprecedented for all?

What is certain is that extraordinary times require extraordinary leadership.

Back in the 1970s, organizational scholar Robert Greenleaf pointed out that the truly extraordinary leaders in history embraced the tenets of servant leadership. Moses and Jesus both saw themselves as servants, not just of God, but of their followers; thousands of years later, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela followed in the footsteps of the great religious leaders. On February 11, 1990, in his first public address after spending 27 years in prison, Mandela said this to his fellow South Africans: “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.”

In organizations, servant leaders essentially upend the typical organizational chart. Most charts have the CEO, president or managing director at the top, then senior management just below, then middle management. At the very bottom, you find the line employees. Servant leaders take this org chart and turn it upside down, so that they are at the bottom serving the rest of the organization. In a way that goes beyond just statements, they genuinely seek to serve those who would typically be under them.

Servant leadership drives superior results, for the individual and the group, for businesses and families alike. It is especially important in the midst of uncertainty, when the path forward is unclear and visibility is fuzzy.

How does one become a servant leader, and bring out the best in oneself and in others?

Listen first.

When scholars studied servant leaders, they identified a number of characteristics, including awareness, commitment to others’ growth and development, foresight, and so on. Chief among the essential characteristics of a servant leader was listening. According to Robert Greenleaf, a servant leader “responds to any problem by listening first” because it is listening that “builds strength in other people.”

Research in clinical psychology affirms this finding, demonstrating that the most empowering therapists are not the most brilliant or insightful ones but rather those who listen empathically to their clients. The same applies in the context of a family—partners who listen to one another are likely to enjoy a strong bond that can withstand hardship, and children who are listened to are more likely to enjoy high levels of self-confidence.

In this time of crisis, we desperately need stronger employees, empowered individuals, strong relationships, and confident children. These are precisely the characteristics that servant leadership generates, especially through its quality of listening.

Express genuine interest in the other.

Listening, whether by a teacher, manager, or parent, is about expressing genuine interest in what the other person is thinking, experiencing, and needing in order to work or feel better. It is about cultivating trust, encouraging openness, and creating an environment that is, in the words of Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, psychologically safe.

My graduate school mentor, Brian Little, embodies the essence of servant leadership. Often, when meeting a student, he would ask: “How are you?... really.” By emphasizing the “really” at the end of his question, he communicated his genuine interest in us. Consequently, we opened up to him, and his generous listening helped us feel better, understand better, and be better.

Listen to yourself.

But it’s not just listening to others that matters. Listening to ourselves—being attentive to our needs at this time—is no less important. Even though most of us are not flying around the world right now, we should remember the advice we received each time we boarded a plane: to put our own oxygen mask on first. To help another in a time of crisis, one needs first to help oneself.

Whether we’re leading a family, a small team or a large organization, “listen first” ought to be our battle cry as we confront complex challenges and traverse treacherous terrains. A commitment to listen and to serve may not guarantee success, but it significantly increases the likelihood that we will emerge stronger and better from the experience—as individuals, as families, and as organizations.

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