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Today, we are finding that organizations around the world are changing their attitudes toward leadership. Leadership has been written and talked about for decades, with great authors defining it in different ways and calling it by different names. In the end, the simple truth is that leadership and life are about people and relationships. It’s about who you are, not what you do. Consequently, servant leadership has emerged over the last 20 or 30 years on a grand scale in some of the most admired and successful companies on the planet.

Executive Summary

In an article published in our April edition titled “Making a Case for Servant Leadership,” Executive Coach Marcel Schwantes introduced readers to the idea that applying daily practices of servant leadership is really the best way to engage workers to perform at a high level. This month, Schwantes returns to kick off a new six-part series that delves deep into the best practices of what a servant leader is and does.

In Part 1, Schwantes provides eight ways great leaders display authenticity—one of the foundations of effective servant leadership, according to the Organizational Leadership Assessment created by Professor Jim Laub.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit this openly to my readers because I have been doing this for a while: Not everyone reading will have a positive view of the term servant leadership or even be sold on the idea that this is a leadership you have to aspire to in your role to motivate your troops. There’s a lot of confusion about what a “servant” actually is and does in the corporate sense. We bring our experiences—good or bad—on a professional level, including the types of bosses we’ve been exposed to over the years and the cultures of previous companies. All these factors drive a lot of our professional behavior and thinking.

And so our wise Jedi Master Yoda has it right in his famous “Empire Strikes Back” quote. There are many things that we must unlearn first.

Business man with the text Learn to Unlearn in a concept image

“To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”

Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher

There’s another quote by a more human guru: Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, who goes on to say, “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” And that is really going to feed into today’s article about what it is that we have to unlearn first in the way we view leadership.

As we dive headfirst into our series on servant leadership and explore its tenets, we need to narrow our focus down to a proven framework that practically works. I’m going to break down this series into six key areas of leadership research and best practice, plus my own observations, while borrowing from the work of Dr. Jim Laub, dean of MacArthur School of Leadership at Palm Beach University and president of the OLAgroup. Laub developed the Organizational Leadership Assessment (OLA)—arguably the best and most accurate tool in the market to assess organizational health based on the foundation of effective servant leadership.

According to the OLA, servant leaders in healthy organizations:

  1. Display authenticity.
  2. Value people.
  3. Develop people.
  4. Build community.
  5. Provide leadership.
  6. Share leadership.

Here are eight ways great leaders display authenticity:

1. They show up with their true selves.

young businessman in black suit screaming into megaphone

We sometimes have a tendency to put on a mask that hides who we truly are—maybe through how we order people around, or how we forcefully command attention with false charisma. Ever been around boisterous and loud leaders who are three decibels above everyone else? There’s a perception that “because I speak loudly, I will command respect.” But false charisma is driven by ego, not character, which we all know is not sustainable. Another person with good emotional intelligence will see right through that false charisma as insecurity and lose respect.

To be an authentic leader, you need to drop the mask and show up with who you are. Now, when I say to show up with your true self, I’m not talking about being the person you are at home watching “American Idol” and eating a bag of chips. And I’m not saying that you have to share your deepest, darkest secrets with your volunteers or co-workers (insert TMI here). What I am saying is that your people need to see your best self. When you show up with your best self, you show up with excellence. You show up with integrity, a great attitude and accountability.

2. They treat themselves (and others) as human beings.

Great leaders display authenticity by making room daily for laughter and joy and by accepting that they’re not perfect and that they make mistakes. These leaders will resist the tendency to protect themselves at all costs. When they make mistakes, they will admit them. And when others make mistakes, it’s safe for them to risk being open enough to say, “Hey boss, I messed up.” This will be possible due to the high levels of trust built over time through healthy boss-worker relationships.

These leaders allow themselves room for creativity and spontaneity, as well as room to build relationships. When conversing with their team, they understand that they don’t always have to be formal and business-like in the way they speak and interact. I’m not saying to be unprofessional or inappropriate, but these leaders allow their people to see them as human beings. When you connect with your employees on a personal level and find things in common to talk about—your favorite jazz band, sports team or hobbies—they will trust you better because you have allowed them into your world by letting them see and know who you are.

3. They approach conflict with great awareness.

An authentic leader doesn’t assume and jump to conclusions. They look at difficult situations from several angles. They talk to several people for perspective, get clarity and then determine a course of action. Sometimes the final decision may not be popular, but it’s always the right one.

An authentic leader seldom casts blame or points fingers. You’ve likely heard the expression, “For every finger you point, there’s three pointing back at you.” In conflict management, the authentic leader will avoid creating distance, being silent or stone-walling—all passive-aggressive ways to deal with conflict. And such leaders are naturally assertive and speak up when they have to. Now, I’m not saying that authentic leaders speak up so they can run over people with their authority. But an authentic leader does have the courage to run toward the eye of the storm because they know that cutting through a conflict to resolve a problem with respect, dignity and listening to understand first is easier than the negative consequences of running away from a conflict.

4. They speak their truth.

Authentic leaders don’t say things to sugarcoat, to try to please others or to try to look good in front of their peers. They don’t betray themselves or others by using words or making decisions that are not aligned with who they are. It’s highly unlikely that you will hear such a leader being talked about around water coolers on Monday morning for “throwing someone under the bus.” These leaders speak clearly, honestly and with integrity. That’s why they usually have great reputations. (Article continues below)

5. They are teachable.

Leaders in a healthy organization gladly accept the role of a learner because they know it will make them better. They know that each person has something important to teach them. The truth is, good leaders don’t always know what is needed and what to do. And so they are willing to listen before making suggestions. They ask questions and are sincerely interested in the answers.

6. They listen to understand.

Effective communication isn’t just about talking; it is also the ability to listen and understand what’s happening on the other side of the fence. In today’s virtually connected world that relies on technology rather than face-to-face interactions, it’s even more important to be able to know the cues on the other side that you would normally get eyeball-to-eyeball. But it goes way beyond that.

Accountant Listening His ClientAuthentic listeners don’t dominate the conversation by talking only about themselves or the task at hand. Whether in meetings or one-on-one, they listen and reflect back what they heard to clarify (e.g., “What I hear you saying is…”), and they ask questions to probe the other person’s feelings or opinions on the topic of conversation. That can be as simple as saying, “Tell me how you feel about this.”

Authentic listeners are careful not to talk over someone’s point. That just shows impatience on their part, and it may cause the other person to lose interest in the conversation or shut down.

Authentic listeners in the truest sense of servant leadership will listen for meaning and understanding with the other person’s needs in mind. The listening has one modus operandi: How can I help this other person? Listening in this way allows you to build trust as a leader, since your people know you have their interest in mind. And you benefit from this style of listening because the more receptive you are to helping your people, the more you create a safe place for them to be open enough to give you great input, great ideas and great contributions.

7. They are accessible.

Great leaders, particularly during hard times, are out in front of the organization sharing plans for the future. They don’t hide behind closed doors or conveniently delegate important communication needs to others. Employees will look to leaders for information, clear expectations and status of what’s going on when the chips are down. Great leaders are especially adept at “walking their four corners.” They spread the gospel of engagement by being amongst the people, joining their meetings, being interested in what they’re doing and connecting with them from the neck up.

8. They promote trust and open communication.

There’s a type of leadership I have seen where employees walk on eggshells, not really sure where they stand and how open they can be with each other and especially with those in management roles. Imagine coming to work there every day. This is an environment where perhaps some risks are taken but failure is still feared and many workers don’t feel valued. Even worse, many feel used by those in leadership positions.

People respond to leaders they can trust and are motivated to the rafters in trustworthy organizations. Why? Because they feel safe. When they are allowed to take risks, exercise their creativity, communicate ideas openly, provide input to major decisions without reprimand and work alongside their leaders as partners—not worker bees—in a spirit of collaboration, you will see your employee satisfaction surveys skyrocket.

In what ways do you display authenticity?

Read also, Part 2 in our series: How Great Leaders Value Their People

Related podcasts:

Webinar Scheduled

On September 8, 2015 at 1:30 p.m. EST, Executive Coach Marcel Schwantes will host a related webinar for Carrier Management readers titled “Six Servant Leadership Practices That Drive Performance and Increase Your Bottom Line.” Webinar topics include: “How the best leaders communicate to influence and build trust” and The motivational force behind getting the best out of your employees.”

To sign up for the webinar, go to

Topics Leadership