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Posted: March 07, 2013

Success and the servant leader

The focus: promotion of performance and worker satisfaction

Dan King

Many Colorado companies have their fair share of great business models and leadership teams.  Others, not so much. So why do some companies crush it on a daily basis while other struggle?  One important key: the leadership of a “servant leader." The concept of the servant leader is among the top reasons companies thrive over a long period of time.  

Servant leaders endeavor to serve, support and empower the company through their employees. The focus is on promotion of performance and employee satisfaction.

Alternatively, the “my way or the highway” or “manage through intimidation” methods may deliver short-term results, but they aren't sustainable in today’s environments. Instead of engaging workers, these methods create conditioned robots working on autopilot until they can find something better.   Challenge what “strong leadership” means and decide for yourself.  Sometimes strong leadership is defined in terms that work best for the individual, not the company.

Here are some effective leadership qualities:

Servant leaders have two ears and one mouth. They listen, observe and empower those around them to collaborate and share ideas in a penalty free environment. They set the tone for interaction and let those around them contribute ideas.  This doesn’t mean allowing everyone to work from home.  It means engaging the team for the greater good.  Be careful not to confuse quiet with weak.  I would argue the opposite.

Servant leaders surround themselves with people smarter than they are.  This concept can be uncomfortable if a leader always has to be right at the expense of others.  You know those leaders – the ones that can’t wait for you to finish your points so they can share their omnipotence.

Servant leaders mange to outcomes, not people. These types of leaders have a particular goal in mind.  They communicate the vision, expectations and resources needed to empower their employees to solve the goal themselves without micromanaging.  Particularly, the younger workers want to know the “why” just as much as the “what and how."  They want their work and contributions to be meaningful. This requires the servant leaders to take the time from their busy schedule to communicate directly. You hired them to solve issues and create value – so let them.

Servant leaders are self-aware.  Much like a Level 5 leader in Jim Collins book Good to Great, the self-aware leader is keenly attuned to their observable behaviors and their impact on  the team and company.  They understand their strengths and weaknesses and look for ways to complement both. These leaders embody the “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will."

Servant leaders are engaged.  They care about what’s going on.  You see them in the office walking around, asking questions, calling people by their first name and being accessible.  They want to learn how they can better empower their employees to improve company performance.  If you are an absent leader, it is the same as telling your employees that you don’t care and they shouldn’t either.

Servant leaders admit when they are wrong.  Let’s face it – when you are wrong, everyone knows it.  It doesn’t do any good to keep arguing over irrelevant points.  These leaders admit their mistakes and move on, which gives them credibility and creates trust within the team.

The servant leader leads not by fear, intimidation and coercion but by enabling those around them to be great.  I am excited to see more of these types of leaders in Colorado companies who truly let their employees utilize their best talents. This requires more than just declaring yourself a servant leader. You need to believe in it, live it and consistently apply these concepts. Actions, not words, will make the difference between being successful and just getting by.

Dan King is a financial operations leader with significant experience in venture capital and private equity-backed technology companies in software, SaaS, Cloud and ecommerce business models. He began his career as a CPA with KPMG in the Silicon Valley and is active throughout the Colorado technology and small business community.  Dan can be reached at

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Readers Respond

Bob Vanourek: Co-Author of "Triple Crown Leadership" ( ) is a great proponent of Servant Leadership. His article 'Servant Leadership and the Future' is shared here: By Raj Manickam on 2013 03 13
Thank you for the comments...great feedback. By Dan King on 2013 03 07
Great article, Dan, and well put. Leadership is the most critical attribute in a high-performing organization. It's necessary for effective planning, execution, learning, and most importantly, change. You captured great points, and I appreciate your referencing Jim Collins on Level 5 leadership, which is also a terrific work. By Ed Powers on 2013 03 07
As a coach and developer of executive leaders, Robert Greenleaf's work on Servant Leadership is a bedrock of high-quality leadership development. Those who are naturally oriented to be of service need skill-building so their impact on the organization and its people matches their intentions. Those who expect a "command and control" leadership structure need education on other means by which to accomplish their objectives -- most in this camp simply don't believe accomplishments will happen unless they decree and enforce their way to them. Professional development at the top helps sustain real servant leadership --when times are good and when times are tough. Start where you are -- develop your own servant leadership skills at whatever level of leadership you are now, and you will be positioning yourself to thrive in a wide range of organizations. By Jessica Hartung on 2013 03 07
A few years ago I had a client who had three very good sales/front office people. One of them was the best, really got along with customers and very helpful. Unfortunately, the owner was quite intimidated by his best salesperson - and made things so difficult the guy quit. What happened? A year later the business down-scaled so much my client gave up his brick and mortar building and moved it into his home. Another year later, his company was gone. This was about 10 years ago before the economy went sour. I think this is a very good example of what you're writing about. I'm sure his insecurity wasn't the only factor, but it was one of the most visible. By Vicki on 2013 03 07
I would like to think that the old style "command and control" leader is on the way out. Unfortunately, I see too much of this in the organizations we work for. The leadership tone is often set at the very top and becomes a strong corporate culture component. One individual within an organization will struggle to change that tone. Unfortunately, a "servant leader"may find him or herself pushed aside in an organization with a more aggressive leadership style. By Kathryn Douglass on 2013 03 07
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