"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

In this article, we share thoughts on the concept of servant leadership from Leigh Taylor, NRECA's director of Executive Search.

As we close out 2019 and start upon a new decade, for many of us, it's a time of reflection. It's a time to be grateful for what we have and to think about what how we can grow in the future. With a new decade, I challenge you think broadly in terms of how you show up in the world—for your co-op, your community, your employees and for yourself.

Traditionally, when we look at growing our careers, it's a very linear progression. We start at the bottom and work our way up, gathering expertise and building relationships along the way to becoming a great manager. However, it's often been said that managers lead processes and leaders lead people. There are as many types of leaders as there are people, as we all bring our individual experiences, expertise, values and motivators to everything we do. Nonetheless, there is one leadership style that consistently brings higher levels of engagement and productivity to an organization: servant leadership.

The term "servant leader" was created by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay, "The Servant as Leader," published in 1970. While the term "servant leader" might be unfamiliar to you, as a co-op employee, the concept of servant leadership is most likely well known. In fact, when we look at the Electric Cooperative Employee Competency of Doing the Right Thing, servant leaders act in ways that put the co-op's values and principles above one's own personal needs and goals. In servant leaders, this typically starts with a leader's desire to serve his or her staff, which in turn serves and benefits the organization at large. Simply put by Greenleaf, who went on to start the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, a servant leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.

Servant leadership emphasizes collaboration, building and maintaining trust, and being empathetic. As we think about our industry shifting from a commodity focus to a consumer focus, coupled with our co-op business model, servant leadership seems to fit particularly well.

Servant leadership is a bottom-up approach to leading an organization and can be quite a shift if your co-op has been accustomed to a more traditional, hierarchical management style. If, as a leader, you believe that you and your co-op want to step more fully into servant leadership, here are a few things that can help you get there:

  1. Understand who you are as leader. Is servant leadership a style that naturally resonates with you? Why or why not?

  2. Think outside yourself. Vern Dosch, CEO of NISC, wrote an insightful book on cooperatives, servant leadership and shared values, called "Wired Differently." In it, he advocates that leaders need to “hypersee”—look beyond the surface and see what lies inside, then diligently work to bring it out. What strengths do your employees possess that are not being utilized? Are your employees able to align who they are with what they do so that they can make the greatest impact for the co-op and themselves? Are you crafting development plans to intentionally build your staff's skills?

  3. Are you listening? A key attribute of a bottom-up organization is an employee base that feels heard and understood. Finding the time and intention to give directed attention to an employee (or member) to hear what's important to them can create value for the individual and increase trust in the relationship. This is particularly important for new hires to ensure that leaders get an accurate picture of their impressions of the co-op and culture.

We know that change sometimes doesn't come easily or quickly. If your intention for the new decade includes a change in how you serve your co-op, awareness of your current leadership style is a good start. However, intentional change doesn't happen without action. I encourage you to take that first step in growing as a leader…today. As author Janet Daily has said, "Someday is not a day of the week."

CEOs: We have sessions on servant leadership planned for the 2020 CEO Close-Up conference, including the breakout session "Concepts and Principles of Servant Leadership" and the closing keynote with Jake Harriman, "Servant Leadership: Put Yourself Last to Finish First."

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Leigh Taylor leads NRECA's Executive Search team. She has worked with many types of cooperatives over the last 18 years as a lender and as an HR consultant, with most of this time dedicated to working with rural electric cooperatives.