Servant Leadership is intentional.  It is about why we lead others. The words of Erwin McManus explain this beautifully:

“Servant Leadership is about the why. It is about motive. Servant Leadership isn’t a strategy or an approach toward leadership. Servant Leadership is the intention and the essence of our leadership. This is why it is so important to know how to serve before you learn how to lead.

Serving and leading change you. If you become a leader before you become a servant, you will use your talent to move people to fulfil your agenda regardless of their well-being. You will see and treat people as cogs in your wheel to move and use as you deem necessary.

If you become a servant before you become a leader, you will see your talent as a gift to be used for the good of others. You will see yourself as a servant to a higher calling, a more noble mission, a purpose greater than yourself. 

The power of the servant leader does not come from their position but from their sacrifice. They are followed not because they are feared but because they are admired. Their gravitas is not based on their title or rank or status, but on their blood, sweat and tears. They have earned the right to lead because they have set the standard for what it means to serve. They choose to serve. They were chosen to lead.”

The intention of the Servant Leader is paradoxical. In the choice to serve, they are elevated into positions of leadership because service gets noticed and rewarded. Servant Leaders never aspire to be positional leaders, but they end up there because their intention is to serve others and have their best interest at heart.


This happens through innovation. Adam Mitchinson and Robert Morris define innovation as follows:

“Innovation involves questioning the status quo and challenging long-held assumptions with a goal to discover new and unique ways of doing things. This requires one to have new experiences, which provide perspective and an opportunity to grow one’s knowledge base of understanding. High learning-agile individuals generate new ideas through their ability to view issues from multiple angles.”

Servant Leaders are constantly and consistently asking questions about the needs of their employees and the needs of their customers. They never fall into a comfort zone of assuming that what worked for my employees and customers last year is working fine for them now. Servant Leaders will, therefore, intentionally shape the culture to promote this type of innovation to improve the customer experience as well as the employee experience. It is important to note that the Servant Leader will start with the employee and their experience in order to get them to buy into this culture that will innovate to improve the customer experience.

Leaders who keep assuming will always look for the first solution to a problem. Sometimes these solutions seem tried and tested; therefore, it becomes the default, especially when the leader is under pressure in a high-stress environment. Servant Leaders want to move beyond the first solution and find the best solution. New and better ways of serving our employees and customers are available, but for them to be found, innovation is necessary.


1. Curiosity

Through research, educational psychologists have learned that at the age of 3, the curiosity levels of a child are 100%. This is fantastic. Have you ever had a child in your presence that is three years old? It is a sight to behold, question, after question after question! Why? Why? Why? It is a new world that needs to be explored. Most things are seen for the first time and need to be understood. A 3-year-old has the vocabulary to ask and will utilise the one question that answers all of life’s mysteries: “Why?” So, pedagogy (child education) will focus on helping the child make meaning of all things new.

Andragogy (adult education) teaches us that by the age of 23, our curiosity levels drop to 5%. Humans lose 95% of their natural curiosity between the ages of 3 and 23. The reason for this is simple; by the age of 23, most adults believe they know it all. They have finished school and are now mature enough to take care of themselves and own their lives and the way they see life. Very few things are new, and we start operating more and more on assumptions.

So how do we wake people up and cultivate curiosity? How do we get adults interested again? How do we get adults to pay attention again? The Servant Leader does this by creating certain experiences for his employees and then assisting them to reflect on them. According to studies in andragogy, adults learn best when they have new experiences and reflect on those experiences. Servant Leaders design these experiences for their teams for them to break away from the status quo and then reflect on what they learned from the experience and what the new opportunities are.

We assist some of our clients in this endeavour, where we take a team out of their comfort zone, into a very uncomfortable environment and then get them to reflect together on the experience. We once took a group of executives to go and dine in a squatter camp. Imagine the fancy suits and shiny shoes, walking in streets of dust mixed with sewage running down the street. It changed their entire perception of who live in these neighbourhoods and what the real challenges are. The majority of the executives are still involved in this community today, teaching business owners and giving extra classes in Math, Accounting and English. What do you think happened with these executives? Do they have more gratitude? Do they view their personal struggles differently? Did they get their company to do more for the community? Did they learn more about their customers? Absolutely! Innovation at its best.

Other examples of these experiences might be to work in a different division for two weeks, a different country for a month, or volunteer at an NGO for a week.

2. Experimentation

In 2010 the “Institute for the Future” published their core leadership skills for the next three decades that will be needed by business leaders. One of the skills was Rapid Prototyping:

“Rapid prototyping is the ability to create quick early versions of innovations, with the expectation that later success will require early failures. Rapid prototyping enables us to learn from failure quickly, again and again. It is the trial-and-error method that has always been important for innovators but on a faster cycle. The motto of rapid prototyping is fail early, fail often and fail cheaply. Rapid prototyping is a perfect leadership style for the VUCA world — where truth emerges from engagement, trial and error — because it allows leaders to try out their own ideas quickly, as well as tap into the maker instincts of potential collaborators. Few leaders get it right the first time, and it will get even harder in the future. Early failure is often the key to later success. The failures of “computer conferencing” in the 1970s contributed to the eventual success of MySpace and Facebook, for example. This lesson from failure took a very long time, however. In the future, leaders need to speed up the process. As Alan Kay was known for saying when he was at Xerox PARC, “The purpose of research is to fail but to fail in an interesting way.” Rapid prototyping is all about failing in interesting ways.” Leaders make the future: Bob Johannsen

Rapid Prototyping is a form of experimentation. There are many examples like rapid prototyping that is being used to experiment, but all these forms of experimentation will fail if the environment to experiment is not designed by the Servant Leader.

Stefan Tomke, a Professor at Harvard Business School, has found with his research that it takes more than good tools to build a culture of experimentation. His opinion is that it takes a complete change of attitude, which includes embracing a new way of leading your employees. Here are some of his suggestions in building a culture of experimentation:

  • Do everything you can to cultivate curiosity. It must become normal to ask questions and to challenge.
  • Insist that data trump opinions. This way, leaders must be honest and look at the facts, interpret them correctly, and make changes accordingly. This will do away with holy cows that keep your company and client base from growing.
  • Democratise experimentation. This means anyone can launch an experiment in the business if the motive is to learn and grow the company.
  • Embrace a new leadership style. In a culture where experimentation is done by all, micromanagement, command and control, and autocratic, directive management practices will lead to disaster. You need leadership that serves, equips, and empowers employees to be their best!

Roger Martin, who is the Dean at Rotman Business School in Toronto, has found in his research that the best creative thinking and innovation happens on the frontline of the business, those who work with the realities of their clients every day. This is where experimentation should be encouraged, and the frontlines should be prioritised when it comes to experimenting.


The research shows us that a work environment that pushes curiosity and experimentation leads to a highly agile learning environment. This, in turn, leads to better workplaces, better products, better services, more clients, and higher profitability. This is what makes Servant Leaders so effective, they think of their employees and clients. They put them first, and in the process, the shareholders win as well. Servant Leaders understand the logic of creating a great place to work for employees, who continuously improve services and products for customers through their curiosity and experimentation, which leads to higher profits and dividends for shareholders.

Servant Leaders serve first. They serve all stakeholders first, and then, they win as leaders.

Author and Contributor: Hermann Du Plessis – Founder & Director @ TTLI (LinkedIn Bio

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