SERVANT LEADERSHIP & How the U.S. Marines Encourage Service-Based Leadership #HarvardBusinessReview

by Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch, Harvard Business Review, 2/5/17.

Robert K. Greenleaf first introduced the concept of servant leadership to businesses in the mid-1900s. The two of us learned about this approach, branded as service-based leadership, in the United States Marine Corps. The basis of service-based leadership is prioritizing your team’s needs before your own. As Marine officers, we always ate last, ensuring others had food on their plates before ours were filled. During down time, we kept our teams busy with training opportunities so they could broaden their skills, which also curtailed complacency. When it was dark and cold in the field, we made a point of being present on the lines (not hiding out in a warm tent) to show our teams we were right there with them. Through our actions, we demonstrated that we were willing to go without food, free time, and comfort to ensure our people knew they were supported.

The result? Our teams felt cared for and valued, and they demonstrated their loyalty through their initiative and engagement. While we never used an employee survey to measure the impact of service-based leadership, anecdotally it was clear: A majority of our team members had the Marine Corps emblem tattooed on their bodies. This was a strong symbol of the deep connection people felt between themselves and the team they were a part of — a connection so strong that individuals wanted to maintain it for the rest of their lives.

When we left active duty for the business world, it was surprising to see how few managers knew about, and understood the merits of, service-based leadership. We met managers who regularly undermined their own efforts to build loyalty and connection on their teams. Rather than holding career discussions with their team members, they would do things such as flaunt the perks of their position, emphasizing the privileges associated with their role, which sent a signal that their team’s future wasn’t their priority.

If managers want to get the most out of every team member, they can adopt many of the Marine Corps’s service-based leadership practices. Understanding the concept isn’t enough; they must overcome the three common barriers that prevent managers from putting the needs of their employees first: awareness, time, and unhealthy competition.


… at a fundamental level, it is a manager’s job to attend to employees’ needs. Communicating proactively, demonstrating empathy, and getting involved in team members’ goals can’t be delegated to HR. Managers need to know their team members on a personal level and understand their strengths, their goals, and what motivates them.


…Few managers feel they have the time to act on their good ideas about how to engage the team. They have to make an intentional effort to build service-based leadership into their work routines. They can start by scheduling 1–2 hours of space into their calendar each week for team engagement. It can begin with small actions — an agendaless call to discuss “what’s going on,” an impromptu invite for lunch or coffee, or an unscheduled visit to the shop floor or project space to see how the team’s doing…

Unhealthy Competition

Too often, businesses put an emphasis on star individuals who “win” consistently, with little emphasis on social cohesion… This infighting was a serious barrier to collaborating and kept them from their more important work: taking care of their team members. Once the team streamlined its compensation structure to ensure it rewarded performance, capturing a more complete picture of contributions, the arguments disappeared, and team members had the energy and capacity to focus less on themselves and more on the interests of their company and their employees, which they had overlooked…

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