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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

How to Become a Servant Leader in a Digital Age

Perhaps no other thinker has done more to define the practice of servant leadership than Larry Spears. Spears, who runs a center for servant leadership and has written over a dozen books on the topic, has searched the canon of servant leadership texts, case studies, and examples to distill 10 characteristics of servant leadership.

After years of analysis of servant leadership scholarship and theory, Spears determined that servant leaders share the following characteristics:

  • Listening: clarifying the will of a group

  • Empathy: listening with positive intent

  • Healing: creating wholeness

  • Awareness: of the self, and of the situation

  • Persuasion: convincing, rather than forcing compliance

  • Conceptualization: seeing the bigger picture

  • Foresight: identifying likely outcomes

  • Stewardship: "holding something in trust for another"

  • Commitment to the growth of people

  • Building community

According to Spears, not every servant leader embodies all or most or even some of the characteristics on this list. But chances are, those who are committed to this practice will find some overlap with these characteristics.

Still, I question whether this list holds up today.

Spears published this list in an article printed in the 2010 edition of the Journal of Virtues & Leadership, and 2010 was a remarkably different cultural moment. Social media was gaining popularity but was still mostly the domain of the young and tech-oriented. Smartphones were widely available but were mostly owned by affluent, professional consumers. Today, digital distraction is the default experience: swiping and scrolling having replaced small talk and conversation - multi-tasking and messaging having become the normative ways of working.

Can you really listen deep enough to clarify a group's sense of will when pings and alerts divert both your own attention, and certainly the attention of other group members? Can you actually create a sense of group wholeness when digital distractions cut into our moment to moment experience?

I would argue that Spears' list is still a useful and authoritative compendium of the habits of the servant leader. I would also argue that such a list has pre-requisites for a distracted, digital culture. In other words, these traits of servant leadership require pre-work.

The pre-requisites are simple: First, slow down. And then, tell stories.

Slowing down: Each of Spears' attributes requires the servant leader to step aside from the fast flow of the digital age. One can't listen deeply if you're sprinting from one task to another, nor is it possible to take the time to persuade others without effort and intentionality. Conceptualization is constrained by our tendency to sprint from one meeting to the next. Thus the first-prerequisite of servant leadership is to "slow the proverbial roll" that engulfs our efforts. While slowing down seems simple in theory, it is nearly impossible to adopt in practice, with everything in our surrounding culture pushing us to accelerate. It's not so much that the servant leader creates intentional moments of slowness: leadership retreats, mindful pauses, cleansing breaths. Rather, it's that the servant leader consistently deploys micro-habits to subtly slow things down.

A few specific habits of slowing down come to mind from the servant leaders I have worked with:

  • A commitment to small talk: Idle chatter is not irrelevant, and the servant leader recognizes this. Not only does the servant leader tolerate small talk at the start of a call, a meeting, or a presentation - he or she welcomes it. Moreover, the servant leader remembers the details that emerge from these conversations: who is seeing which movies, who supports which sports teams, who is doing what over the weekend. When prioritized, small talk makes a big difference in slowing the pace.

  • An elimination of digital distraction: The servant leader recognizes that multi-tasking is a myth. Whether closing a laptop screen and turning off a phone in a face-to-face setting, or turning on one's webcam in a group Zoom, or taking a weekly digital Sabbath - the servant leader sees the tension between analog focus and effective service.

  • A return to shared values: Many organizations have shared aspirations, many workers take assessments to understand their core values or personality types. The servant leader draws upon these commitments and sources of motivation at the start of a shared effort.

When we slow down, we create one of the pre-conditions for servant leadership, and make it possible to share stories.

Telling stories: A few years ago I toured the offices of Menlo Innovations, a small software development firm in Ann Arbor, MI. Menlo is led by Rich Sheridan, who describes himself as the company's Chief Storytelling Officer. Among the standard executive-level responsibilities, Rich sees himself as responsible for the telling of stories: those of the customer, the employee, and the end-user. It's this ability to create coherent, compelling narratives that makes Menlo Innovations a joyful place to work.

The digital age is saturated with content but short on stories. We know what people do but we rarely understand the why.

Telling stories is about creating coherent stories from the scattered, fragmentary data of our day-to-day existence. It's about pushing ourselves to understand purpose - of our own efforts and those with whom we collaborate. It's about starting with small talk and gradually moving towards the big picture conversations that create deep trust.

When we commit to slowing down and telling stories, we begin to practice servant leadership. When we slow down and tell stories, Larry Spears' list of 10 characteristics is all the more likely to describe how we lead people. And our communities are more likely to say they were better off because of our leadership.


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