The concept of “servant leadership” is capturing a lot more headlines today – and rightfully so. It’s an ancient concept, offered to us as early as the 6th century B.C. by Lao Tzu, as recorded in the Tao Te Ching. A few thousand years later, we’re finally waking up to its insights.
Today, I’d like to answer a question I hear frequently from discerning executives looking to recruit servant leaders to their organizations. Simply stated, they ask me, “What are the most important attributes of a servant leader?”
Well, there are many! But a good starting point and a compelling trait to look for is an “attitude of gratitude.” In my experience, across any border or culture, in public and private sectors, no element of servant leadership is more consistent than gratitude. You don’t need any particular training to detect this fundamental virtue. Everyone can recognize it, and we all know when it’s sincere. It’s the simplicity of the principle that makes it universally relevant.
One of my favorite expressions of gratitude and humility was offered by the brilliant Walt Disney. When asked to describe his greatest accomplishment, he said, “It seems to me shallow and arrogant for any person in these times to claim they are completely self-made, that they owe all their success to their own unaided efforts. Many hands and hearts and minds generally contribute to anyone’s notable achievements.”
If you find yourself straining to detect gratitude in a leader, colleague, or direct report, chances are this isn’t part of their “operating model.” And if this basic appreciation factor is lacking, there’s a low probability of finding additional servant leadership attributes.
Whether you’re recruiting for servant leaders or you’ve taken interest in the ancient wisdom of the Tao and wish to embrace the principles personally, you can look to your gratitude meter for an indication of probability and progression.
Zig Ziglar, the master of motivation, was at the forefront of promoting the merits of operating and living with an attitude of gratitude. “The more you recognize and express gratitude for the things you have,” he said, “the more things you will have to express gratitude for.”
Gratitude opens leaders’ minds and spirits to realize that they are not omnipotent, but rather stewards of the resources, people, and even the brand of the organizations they represent. Those who work for and with such leaders will find it much easier to cascade gratitude to their own customers, partners, and colleagues if they stand in the shadow of a true servant leader.
And there’s a payoff – this gratitude will be returned in the form of future sales commitments, increased loyalty, and improved engagement.