Servant leadership was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970 as a response to the autocratic, ineffective ways corporations interacted with and set expectations for employees.
It was a call to leaders to think of their jobs and how they treated people from a different perspective. It was groundbreaking in business culture and remains one of the higher levels of operational thinking and identification of self for leaders within organizations.
When I was first exposed to this concept by James Hunter, in his 1998 book The Servant, it was an incredibly powerful message. As a traditional hard-charging, take-no-prisoners enterprise salesperson, I immediately recognized the impact servant leadership could have on executives who were responsible for leading large, complex teams of employees, as well as salespeople who were responsible for leading large, complex teams of buyers.
Servant leadership just made sense as a core operating principle that I could adopt to establish the respect, trust and understanding I needed to differentiate myself from more manipulative and transactional competitors. It became a higher-level way to engage buyers and ultimately create larger and more successful customer relationships. And, it made me incredibly successful at introducing new ideas and leading buyers to change, just as the principle helps executives do the same for their employees.
The Problem with Traditional Selling
Historically, corporate leaders share many of the same toxic traits with traditional salespeople, which is what servant leadership seeks to abolish.
Too many leaders and salespeople see growth as something that must be achieved by force. Aggregating power, establishing dominance, leveraging authority and using manipulation are considered viable techniques for persuading others that what you want is best for them, and that it is in their best interest to help you get there.
The biggest problem with these traditional sales and leadership tactics is that they work in environments where leaders see success or failure as a zero-sum game. There is no we, there is only me. What is missed by these traditional power leaders is that when only one side or person benefits at the expense of another, neither side is able to recognize the full potential of the relationship or deal.
The power leader almost always leaves value on the table and almost always underperforms the servant leader by a large margin. The fact is, any tactical gain that may convince the power leader to ‘take no prisoners’ comes at such a cost it makes little sense as a sustainable growth strategy.
The Concept of Servant Leadership
Let’s look a little deeper into the concept. The first rule of servant leadership is to ‘serve’ share goals, i.e. to serve those who have goals that are aligned with your own. When goals are aligned, both parties benefit from their commitment to the relationship.
In a corporate environment, the leader who practices this principle will not have to assert her power and authority to motivate her team as long as the team understands how their goals are being served by the direction the leader is recommending. Any member of the team who needs to be convinced or persuaded to follow, likely has goals that are misaligned. They may be better served by finding a new role or team with which their goals are better aligned.
The second rule is to ‘lead’ people along a share path to change, a path the leader is uniquely qualified to identify and walk along side each team member. This is a proactive role with a high degree of accountability. One that is earned by the leader, not one that is given or achieved by appointment.
The choice to follow rests with each member of the team and their belief in the leader’s commitment to the shared goal and competency in getting there. Servant leaders are required to earn the respect, trust and understanding of their team, which can make the approach difficult to adopt for leaders who lack the desire to walk the talk. This is as true for executives as it is for salespeople.
How Servant Leadership Creates Greater Sales Success
No doubt, servant leadership turns traditional sales and leadership concepts on their head. Particularly when applied to sales, servant leadership becomes a powerful and undeniable growth strategy with the ability to transform sales and customer-facing team members into Growth Multipliers — i.e. salespeople who ‘serve’ shared goals for growth and ‘lead’ buyers along shared paths to change.
How does it work? Salespeople that ‘serve’ buyers who have ‘shared goals’ by definition only invest in buyers who have problems that are aligned with their solutions. These salespeople become skilled at thoroughly and quickly separating shoppers and tire-kickers from qualified buyers through a combination of questions that both discover the buyer’s situation, and provoke the buyer’s vision and imagination.
Salespeople who also ‘lead’ those buyers to change take a proactive role in earning the buyer’s respect and co-creating successful buying decisions. Salespeople who serve without leading, however, can only follow and play the role of a passive order taker. One who adds little real value to the buying relationship, and ultimately relies upon luck to keep his or her job.
Power leaders who are more comfortable using force and psychological tricks to manipulate buyers are simply willing to trade the promise of a transaction for transparency. In other words, they are willing to take a deal even if it means creating misaligned customer expectations that end up becoming the problem of internal delivery and customer success teams. This is a short-sighted approach that does not ultimately fit a recipe for sustained growth.
Applying servant leadership begins with an understanding of why people need leadership in the first place.
The simple truth is this: change is scary.
As a salesperson you play the role of a professional problem-solver, you have knowledge and mastery others desire. This unique capability puts you in a position to lead buyers through the uncertainty of change. As a servant leader, you must have the ability to assume the mantle of leadership when required, to deliver the expectations and desired outcomes of everyone involved.
The question you must ask and answer is can you lead? Can you deliver confidence to your buyer along with your solution? Can you differentiate your knowledge and mastery to stand apart from the competition? Can you not only deliver the solution your buyer wants, but the impact he or she expects? Can you make change less scary? Can you make your buyer successful?
The Growth Multiplier™ Movement
Servant leadership is a timeless principle for producing sustainable revenue and profit growth. The Growth Multiplier Movement represents a diverse community of CEOs, sales leaders and professionals committed to growth, by aligning sales and customer-facing teams around the culture and core values of servant leadership.
Today, the number of our peers who still view sales as a zero-sum game of winners and losers is shrinking. The mindset is a century old, the tactics don’t work anymore, and fewer people are willing to compromise their reputation and personal brand to sell this way.
In response to the old-school power leaders still out there, we are building a community of modern Growth Multipliers — sales and customer-facing team members who compete and win as servant leaders. All it takes to join the movement is a spark of curiosity and the commitment to lead change for yourself, your company and your customers.
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To your continued success!