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Building a servant-led culture

How to create a culture based on service and servant leadership, from a CEO who turned around a company.

4 min read




Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Art Barter.


Culture — every organization has one. Is your culture thriving? Do people feel like they can make worthwhile contributions and others have their backs? Are people happy to come through the door each day? 

When I joined Datron World Communications, I walked into a failing culture that was extremely toxic, and I soon learned the organization was built on a foundation of mistrust that started at the very top of the company. In 2004, my wife and I had the opportunity to buy the company, and we began the process of rebuilding the culture on the foundation of servant leadership.

One definition of culture is the behaviors, beliefs and characteristic of a particular group. It’s illustrated by how your organization behaves on a daily basis. In a servant-led culture, we strive to behave in alignment with the nine behaviors of a servant leader.

The behavioral expectations at Datron are that we will serve first, build trust, live our values, listen to understand, think about our thinking, add value to others, demonstrate courage, increase our influence and live our transformation.

Under this culture, our employees have achieved goals we never thought possible. Over the last 14 years, we have come through hard times and celebrated great times together and still work to serve each other every day.

How do you build a servant-led culture? Here are six things you can do to foster one:

  1. Flip your org chart. First and foremost, you must change your mindset regarding leadership. Employees do not exist simply to serve a leader’s needs. You are there to serve them. You are there to lead from your heart to inspire and equip employees. If you are at the top of the pyramid, you have no one to serve. Flip the pyramid and you now have the opportunity to serve everyone; if you truly embrace that mindset, you’ll become a leader worth following.
  2. Be a good example. As a leader, you’re always being watched. As a servant leader, you’re being watched even more closely. It’s vital that you behave your talk. No one is perfect and you’ll make mistakes, but when employees know you care about them, they’ll give you grace, especially if you’re willing to apologize.
  3. Use your mission and values effectively. The mission and values of your organization are extremely important if you want employees to understand their work has meaning. Too often, we use our mission and values on marketing collateral but not in our decision-making process. Equip people to make good decisions by allowing the company’s mission and values to become their North Star.
  4. Communicate till you are talked out, and then communicate some more. People want to know what’s going on in their organizations. They’re eager to understand how the business works because it affects them. In addition to wanting to know about the status of the company, you need to constantly be talking about servant leadership. Use the vocabulary of the behavioral expectations you have for them. Make yourself available to answer their questions.
  5. Train everyone with the same servant leadership materials. At Datron, we trained every employee in servant leadership, not just the leaders.
  6. Hire for character first, then competence. To preserve our servant leadership culture when we hire, we look first at the character a candidate displays. Does he/she express a team orientation by talking about team achievements or is it all about “I” and what “I” have achieved? Does the candidate have values that are in sync with the company values? Don’t be in a hurry to hire. Take the time necessary to learn what’s really important to candidates and how they’ll fit in the organization.

Culture is fragile: You must work on it all the time or it can slip away. But creating a culture based on service to one another as well as your suppliers and customers is truly rewarding and will make a difference in our world


Art Barter is CEO of the Servant Leadership Institute, an organization that helps people and organizations put servant leadership into practice. He’s also CEO and cultural architect of Datron World Communications, an organization he transformed from a $10 million company to a $200 million company in just six years.

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