The Servant-Leader in Action – Values and Strengths

Workplace engagement has been the subject of rigorous and powerful research into leadership that produces exceptional outcomes. In their most recent studies, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall have uncovered eight precisely worded survey items that correlate strongly with teams that are highly engaged at work and demonstrate high performance. Here they are:

(1)   I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.

(2)   At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.

(3)   In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.

(4)   I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.

(5)   My teammates have my back.

(6)   I know I will be recognized for excellent work.

(7)   I have great confidence in my company’s future.

(8)   In my work, I am always challenged to grow.

In my previous post, The Servant-Leader in Action, we looked at the first two: mission and expectations. In this post, we turn to the third and fourth engagement drivers, values and strengths.

In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.

If mission captures what we are here to do and why we do it, our values define who we are as a community of work and how we go about the business of achieving mission. By working from core convictions, we fulfill our brand-promise to our stakeholders. We looked last time at expectations in terms of ability to perform tasks. Sharing values takes expectations to a deeper level of mutual responsibility to each other as persons first and functions second. Here is where competence meets character and produces trust.

The servant-leader is the Chief-Values-Officer of the enterprise; she must set high standards by shaping and articulating ethical and moral requirements, embed them into the organization’s processes, and address values gaps with effective coaching.

Set the Standards —  Our shared beliefs concerning what is true, and good, and right assures us that we are joined in a community of work with people who define excellence the same way we do. The servant-leader identifies, defines, and articulates these standards in collaboration with those she leads. Above all, she models them in her day-to-day decisions and interactions with everyone she serves. The result is a culture of explicit norms – ideally, no more than a handful – that are not only aspirational, but also observable and measurable. Without core values shaped by servant-leaders and rooted deeply in servant-teams, there’s the tendency to drift in a sea of short-term, reactive choices divorced from higher commitments to integrity. Left unchecked, self-serving leaders can find themselves painted into unethical, even illegal, corners.

Operationalize the Values — The servant-leader must weave the organization’s core values into all the processes of the enterprise, from recruitment and onboarding, through training and management, reward and promotion, to possible termination and eventual succession. In order to engage followers in communities of shared values, a servant-leader must consistently embed  behaviors that demonstrate moral authority and virtuous character into the nuts-and-bolts of doing business every day. Just as the mission must move from a statement to a cause, values must move from clichés to convictions-in-action.

Coach for Values — Finally, the servant-leader must address values violations with an intention to serve. After respectful inquiry and careful listening to understand whether such a lapse comes from a lack of clarity or a well-intentioned mistake, the servant-leader will engage in coaching conversations intended to bring followers back in line with shared values. When coaching fails to produce the necessary change, the servant-leader must make the hard call to end that person’s employment. Let’s be very realistic about this; engagement comes from shared values, mutual expectations, and a commitment to mission.  Sometimes, in order to safeguard engagement, it becomes necessary to compassionately, but firmly, remove people from the team for the good of the whole.

In sum: a team functions at its best when values are clearly formed and articulated, embedded, and enforced. Regularly and consistently telling stories of exemplary practice of the organization’s values in things large and small is a great way to bring them to life. It is the servant-leader’s duty to be the moral compass for her team. Such is the ethical dimension of the servant-leader’s lead.

I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.

According to years of research by Gallup and others, strengths-based leadership is the most predictive of high-level engagement of the eight items. In fact, just changing the phrase “every day” to something less bold decreases the link between those who agree with this statement and the performance of their teams. Strengths consciously applied empower us to deliver near-perfect performance, nearly all the time, with little or no conscious effort. Leveraging strengths produces excellence far more effectively than trying to raise weaknesses to the level of mediocrity. Here are three vital actions to create a strengths-based work culture.

Discover and Embrace Strengths — Identifying our unique configuration of talents leads us beyond a basic sense of our abilities toward true insight into the “superpowers” behind our consistent success.  Strengths-based leadership begins with helping people achieve deep self-awareness and an appreciative understanding of their own motivating core. From there, it spreads out to increased awareness of others’ strengths and the ways in which they uniquely see, and think, and feel, and act in the world. It starts with the servant-leader investing in her own strengths and extending that investment to those they lead. The Clifton StrengthsFinder® assessment from Gallup is the gold standard; check it out.

Deploy Strengths Effectively — Quoting Peter Drucker: “The leader’s abiding challenge is to make people’s strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.” The way we do this is in teams. As individuals, people are “spikey,” and that’s good. Teams, however, need to be well-rounded. The servant-leader looks at expectations and mission and does her very best to align individuals’ strengths patterns with responsibilities. Strengths shine and weaknesses diminish through working together, complementing one another at our best. When servant-leaders know their followers’ distinct strengths and explicitly harness them, they forge diverse, strengths-balanced teams whose complementary strengths are aligned with shared mission, values, and expectations.

Coach from Strengths — We don’t always get to play to our strengths, even in teams. There are times we have to lean into work that challenges and even frustrates us. It still is more productive in the long run to provide continuous coaching that leads with strengths while acknowledging real weaknesses. The strengths-savvy servant leader helps followers identify and own their weaknesses so that they can avoid blind spots and pitfalls. She encourages team members to collaborate, lending each other mutual support. The servant-leader encourages followers  to apply their strengths in novel ways that work around the initial mismatch of task and talent. Finally, though, we sometimes have to “just do it.” The servant-leader is there to cheer us on, pick us up, and get us back into our sweet spots as soon as possible.

To sum up: the servant-leader (1) uses appropriate tools to get to know her own strength patterns and those of her  team members, (2) uses these insights to build well-rounded teams that match the right people with the right responsibilities as much as possible, and (3) promotes continuous growth and development that starts with and sticks to using strengths effectively, while providing ways to navigate as a team around the inevitable times when followers have to meet expectations that aren’t necessarily aligned with their gifts. The result is an engaged culture in which people want to bring their very best all the time.

Next up: trust and recognition.

(Copyright © 2020 — Chris Alan Thyberg – The Serving Way. All rights reserved.)

The Servant-Leader in Action – Trust

We all need to work with people we trust to pursue the mission and meet expectations. We rely on our co-workers to share our team’s values and encourage us to use our distinctive strengths on the job every day. Nurturing trust is critical to the servant-leader’s lead…



Coaching is about becoming a great leader. It’s a partnership of trust and service. Relationship is everything.