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Servant Leadership for a New Generation

A group of women sitting around a table in a meeting.

​Sometimes looking towards the future begins with a glimpse of the past. In 1970, Robert Greenleaf wrote the famous essay, The Servant Leader, in which he famously stated: "The servant-leader is servant first. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" Now, a half century later, much of Greenleaf's wisdom is set to find a new home and interpretation in today's contemporary world.

First, let's start with the adage that demographics is destiny. Baby Boomers and Gen X are quickly being replaced by Gen-Y Millennials and Gen-Z. With these two new generational cohorts currently making up around 50% of the workforce, they're a force to be reckoned with. Per Charles Vance, professor of management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, "It makes sense for employers to pay close attention to their needs. Social scientists, academics and research think tanks continue to focus on a handful of core values that are specific to these two cohorts that employers would be wise to incorporate: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); corporate social responsibility; environmentalism; work-life balance; and professional and career development. What this looks like in your organization is a critical factor that can impact retention, discretionary effort, and ultimately workforce ROI."

In light of the exponential growth of remote technology, Millennials and Gen-Z may change the world of work more than any generation since the industrial revolution. Understanding how to lead these new generations isn't as difficult as you might think but requires a renewed mindset open to a brand of selfless leadership that will—to DEI's main premise—attract, include, expand, welcome, develop, encourage and grow talent.

Getting There

How do you grow this type of selfless leadership that Greenleaf made popular 50 years ago? By incorporating it into every aspect of your personal leadership style. This is about strengthening leadership muscle across your frontline operational team, and it's not just a nice-to-have. It's critical for attracting, developing and retaining top talent that might otherwise look more to a "Me, Inc." style of career leadership if their needs are not met rather than demonstrating a corporate allegiance to your organization.

It starts with the interview. Ask, "Why would accepting this position make sense in terms of it being the next logical step in your career progression? How would accepting our position help fulfill your reason for leaving your current organization? If you were to accept this position, how would you explain it to a prospective employer five years from now?"

It continues with ongoing communication and feedback during quarterly IDP (individual development plan) meetings. Ask, "How are you progressing toward your annual goals? Will you need to pivot or are you running into any roadblocks? What can I, as your supervisor, do to provide you with more structure, direction and feedback to help you meet your preset goals?"

It thrives on training and career development. Ask, "What are you focusing on now to build your resume and your LinkedIn profile? How are you measuring your achievements and accomplishments and turning them into bullets for your quarterly and annual reviews? How can I help you expand your professional network, build stronger technical muscle or help you gain more organizational exposure?"

Per Kim Congdon, global vice president of HR and talent management at Herbalife Nutrition in Torrance, CA, "You're creating a foundation where you're someone's favorite boss, their internal coach and mentor, and the selfless leader paying it forward. You're creating an expectation and a rhythm of achievement, modeling the leadership behaviors that your subordinates will need to excel in their own careers over time. You'll likely find your team retention skyrocketing since no one wants to leave a selfless leader and mentor for a 15 or 20% increase elsewhere. They know they can't find that kind of experience or career fulfillment anywhere but in your shop."


Moving an entire team of frontline operational leaders to this mindset of becoming a favorite boss, a career mentor and coach, and a trusted confidante may seem unnatural to you. If you, for example, were part of the Baby Boomer or Gen-X generations, you'll likely reason, "We had to figure it out for ourselves; they can too." But that logic misses the mark, according to Congdon. "The expectations of this new generational cohort may seem idealistic but think about what they've experienced. Millennials witnessed the Great Recession of 2008 and the years of stagnation that followed. Gen-Z witnessed the coronavirus pandemic and its continuing fallout. Lurching forward, stopping and regressing in light of layoffs, mergers and integration, outsourcing, offshoring, global employment competition and the like make it easier to understand why more of an independent mindset may have taken root in America's youngest generations."

A Way Forward

But just because prior generations had to figure things out for themselves in different times doesn't mean that your current leadership style can't adapt to these contemporary demands. After all, they're simply different values and morally responsible ones at that. As time warps and corporate and career twists and turns drive forward at an unrelenting pace, it becomes time for leadership to calm the room. To make things safe. To listen more, to mentor and to share wisdom.

According to Vance, "We've somehow lost our ability to sit around the campfire and have elders pass down wisdom to the newer generation. It's time to rethink that paradigm. True, about a hundred years ago, movies came onto the scene, consuming our collective imaginations. Soon afterward, broadcast TV could reach millions of Americans, narrowcast (cable) TV could reach smaller cohorts with specific interests, and mono-cast (digital) communications could reach one person at a time. We've been telling someone else's story ever since. It's time, however, to tell our own story and personalize the work experience—to return to a 'mono-cast' approach to one-on-one caring and authenticity. In essence, leadership is the greatest gift the workplace offers because it allows you to touch so many lives and pay it forward."

Become someone's favorite boss: have their backs, challenge them to challenge themselves, and help them grow, not only professionally but personally. Make it your goal to create as many leaders as you possibly can—whether they're growing through the ranks of management or thriving as individual contributors in their own right. Look to American poet Maya Angelou's famous words as guideposts to your own leadership style: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Think about it: Would you want to work for you? If the whole company followed your lead, would you be happy with where you took it? To quote spiritual author Neale Donald Walsch, make of your life a gift. What you want for yourself, give to another. And teach what you choose to learn. It's that simple. It can be that much more rewarding. Greenleaf in 1970, it turns out, was far beyond his years in terms of his ability to predict and influence the future. Selfless leadership is a timeless concept and a model for the future, just as it was the model of our past. We can thank today's tumultuous world for inspiring us with what we should have seen all along.

Paul Falcone is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles and author of 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews, The Performance Appraisal Toolkit, and 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees.


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