Service-based Leadership


Many of the leadership books I have read are written by former military and CIA people. The one thing they all say that corporate America leaders are not taught is service-based leadership. In the military the main theme taught in boot camp, is not the hard-physical work, yes that is component but each person learns to rely on their teammates, “no person left behind”. Service to others before self is the #1 thing taught. In the Marine Corps officers demonstrate this daily as they always eat last. This simple act emphasizes that the team’s needs are more important than their own.

Intrinsically as humans, we are born selfish. Our first thought is our own needs, food, water, sleep is a part of our physiological needs according to Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. The goal we all have is to reach Self- Actualization on the pyramid which is where we desire to grow and change but this comes after our other needs are met. Our needs constantly change depending on the circumstance of life and even change hour by hour.

Serving others and putting others before us is a learned soft skill. The good news is that everyone can learn this important skill. Service is selflessly acting on behalf of others to ensure their success. When leaders demonstrate the unselfish act, performing service to others it transforms a group of individuals into a team. A leader with a servant’s heart is an invaluable asset, and everyone in a leadership position should seek to adopt this type of mentality. It is the little things that add up and help build teamwork.  Services starts with you!

Just like in the Marine Corps, the basis of service-based leadership is prioritizing your teams’ needs before your own. When your team members feel valued and cared for, they demonstrate it through loyalty, engagement, and innovation.

Service in the workplace could look like:

    • Checking on a colleague, seeing how they are doing, offering your help.
    • Giving someone your undivided attention.
    • Taking the initiative to finish a mundane task that no one is eager to do.

In the book “The Fred Factor”, Mark Sanborn says that you can take any ordinary job responsibilities and make them extraordinary. Sanborn gives an example of a mail carrier who knew that one of the people on his route traveled a lot for work. He was concerned about the high theft in the area and simply moved the mail out of sight so it didn’t appear that no one had not been home for days. The small act of service, was noticing the surrounding and noticed the mail was stacking up and then acted to resolve the situation.

Serving others at work and in life is not a one-time event. Acts of service look different based on circumstances; they all start with communication. Get to know your team members, learn their partners and children’s or grandchildren’s names. Serving others is caring enough to actively listen.

When people feel cared for, they begin to feel safe and experience your commitment to them. They will focus less on themselves and more on their team. Service is a deliberate choice you make. Bottom line is that if you can’t be compassionate, empathetic, and caring you will never build a team of people who feel valued and connected. Being knowledgeable does not make you a good leader, but it is meeting people’s needs so they can be their best.

Service Rules

    • Anticipate the needs of those around you.
      • Seek to serve first.
      • Look, listen, and act.
    • Do not expect a return. (Don’t keep score).
      • Let the reward be that you made someone else’s life a little easier.
    • Always look to create environments where everyone feels valued and connected.

We will work with a variety of people and personalities, I have noticed that for some people serving others is easy for them, second nature. My 15-year-old son has a serving heart. He learned at a young age that service is in the little things. Acts of service are not flashy, fancy, or expensive. It can be something as simple as referring a business to your neighbor, helping a colleague prepare for a promotion interview. When we serve, serotonin, the happy chemical is released in our brains. The more we serve others the happier we are.

The more we practice service the easier it becomes. We hear stories of people serving, the one serving often doesn’t recognize their small acts of thoughtfulness and kindness are acts of service. It has become second nature to them and often they think they haven’t done enough.

Angie Morgan shares in the book “Spark” about a training officer in the Marine Corps. Angie had received word that her grandmother had passed away. The officer arranged for a colleague to take her to her apartment to pack then drive her to the airport where he had an airline ticket in her name ready. The officer also called her parents so they knew when her flight was arriving and after sharing with her these arrangements, he asked what else could he do for her and her family. The service didn’t stop there, he told her not to rush back to training, to take the time she needed, when she got home, he had a bouquet sent with a card signed by the entire class. Have you had an experience like this where you were on the receiving end? Or were you the giver and felt like the action you performed was too small and wished you could do more?

In our daily lives, this happens regularly especially when we are networking and relationship building. Opportunities are around us all the time to refer others or businesses to someone seeking a solution to a need. As we listen, we think “I know just the company or person to help you”. I have made many such referrals and recently a business owner emailed me extremely grateful that I thought of them. It didn’t cost me anything to make the referral. A service-based leader willingly shares their knowledge to help someone solve a problem or just to succeed.

When I served as president of a Women’s organization, my mantra was to trust your instinct, follow your impressions and intuition. I was always encouraging the women that when a person’s name popped into their mind to follow through, call, text or visit. There is always a reason why you think of a person, and often as the giver, you do not know what their need is at the time. The important thing is to act, follow through with the thought.

It is often the simplest things that mean the most. It could be taking a few minutes to say hello to someone, they could have been having a horrible day and spending the few minutes just listening and engaged in conversation could have met one of their needs and made their day. Serving co-workers could be staying late to help put together packets for a presentation. Cleaning the break room, holding the door open for someone as they rush past. It is the little things when we pay attention to our surroundings and the people that these small acts make the biggest impact. Serving others develops empathy which inspires you to be more thoughtful in your interactions. Seek opportunities and act upon it. Your service is only limited by your imagination.

True service in the workplace is empowering – it is providing resources, giving information, and helping others become more successful.

Common Barriers that prevent Service-Based Leadership

  1. Awareness
    • Observe, active listening, and acting.
    • Demonstrating empathy
    • Taking time to get to know others and their personal stories.
    • It is far too easy to dismiss these acts of service as someone else’s job, it is not only for HR.
  1. Time
    • Make/schedule the time. Even if you have to do a calendar reminder to train you. It could be as minimal as 5 – 10 minutes a day.
    • The biggest investment you make in your people is your time. Remember people matter!
  1. Unhealthy Competition
    • When there is unhealthy competition in the workplace, we miss the opportunity to work together and build strong teams.
    • The value of teamwork is priceless.

Service is not always easy. It takes practice to put other people’s needs first and to think about what you can do to set everyone else up for success. The key is to act and not expect someone else to do it. You and your team will witness a snowball effect that occurs when you start serving your team members. Service-based leadership is reciprocated. When one person performs regular daily acts of service others will follow. Do not wait for someone else to act, that someone is you!

Cheryl Viola, MBA, Executive Director