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How to be a Servant Leader. Confucianism points the way.

Statue of Confucious
Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Servant leadership is a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of putting the needs of others before your own. Servant leaders are humble, compassionate, and focused on helping others succeed. They are also skilled at building relationships and creating a positive work environment.

This is not a new approach to leadership but is closely related to the Confucian philosophy of “ren” which can be translated as “humanity,” “humaneness,” “goodness,” “benevolence,” or “love”. It characterizes the behaviors that individuals should exhibit to promote a flourishing human community.

Ren is essential to servant leadership as it provides a foundation for building strong relationships with employees. When leaders are ren, they can connect with their employees on a personal level and build trust. This trust is essential for effective leadership, as it enables leaders to motivate and inspire their teams to achieve common goals.

Ren also emphasizes the importance of compassion. Effective servant leadership has its basis in Confucianism and its focus on the well-being of employees. They are not only concerned with achieving organizational goals per se but through personal development and employee empowerment, corporate goals are met.

Finally, ren is about self-cultivation. Servant leaders are constantly working to improve themselves. They exhibit a high degree of both self-awareness and corporate awareness.

Translating to Business Speak

  • Servant leaders with a basis in Confucianism creates more engaged and productive teams.

  • They build strong relationships with colleagues and customers.

  • They are more likely to be trusted advisors or members of other leaders’, Kitchen Cabinet.

  • They have a passion for developing emotional intelligence.

  • Servant leaders manage their own emotions to minimize effects on decision-making and team-member interactions to promote constructive thinking.

  • They lead from behind; they set a destination, perhaps even hint at decisions that will help meet a corporate goal but never pull an employee to that conclusion. This disenfranchises the employee.

How to Apply the Principles of Servant Leadership

  • Listen to your team: Take the time to hear their ideas and concerns. This demonstrates not only that you value them but that you don’t always have the answer and more than likely someone on the team does.

  • Empower them: Give the team the authority and resources they need to do their jobs effectively. Let them make decisions that will either help or hinder their efforts because either way they will end up with a superior end-product.

  • Celebrate success: When they achieve, take the time to recognize it.

  • Be willing to learn from your team members: Don't be afraid to ask your team for feedback. Servant leaders are open to learning and you value their input.

  • Be a role model: Demonstrate the principles of servant leadership in your own life as a means to promote this philosophy throughout their personal and professional lives.

Final thoughts…

You may not have considered how much effective leadership is rooted in classical thinking. But it does and there are other concepts you should consider as well. Whether it be the philosophy of war as Sun Tzu sees it or the concept of “wu wei”.

Some concepts stand the test of time.

The roots which underpin human nature haven’t changed much in the course of recorded history - the circumstances which can twist them have. Therefore there are a lot of learnings that can be had by looking backward.


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