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November 26, 2018 practice point

6 Phrases Servant-Leaders Can Use to Encourage Innovation

By Dr. Crystal J. Davis

At the end of the day, or quarter or fiscal year, the ultimate success of an organization depends on the people who make up that organization. As a leader, do you take time to listen deeply to your associates? Research consistently shows that employees who sense that the ‘boss’ cares for and supports them are happier, more engaged, more productive, and it shows up on the bottom line.

The difference between a servant-leader and one who places their own prestige or success above the greater good of the company is a stark one. “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant [leader] to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Robert K. Greenleaf, “The Servant as Leader” (1970). The phrase “lead by example” is nowhere more deeply ingrained than in those who practice servant-leadership.

The hardened sceptic/cynic may view servant-leadership as something that is ‘soft’ or something that is for ‘humanitarian purposes’. It is anything but that. When committing to embrace servant leadership’s paradoxes we shift from an ‘either/or’ way of thinking (and acting) to a ‘both/and’ approach. It is working to find solutions that often are not easily addressed by yes/no, black/white, on/off thinking. It is seeing the many shades of gray that exist between polarities. Doing this gives us the chance to explore, discover, and co-create alternative paths.

So how do you apply the servant leader mindset to your law firm? An easy way to start is by practicing active, authentic listening. Of the 10 core competencies of servant-leadership, the foundational competency is listening. It serves as the vehicle through which the other competencies can be nurtured. Servant-leaders understand that great leaders are good communicators who can speak eloquently and efficiently, but at their core are excellent and empathetic listeners.

One way that servant-leaders can develop listening skills is to practice reflective listening. Reflective listening includes three components:

  • Nonverbal clues: Learning to be aware of nonverbal communication in yourself and in others
  • Understanding the content: Understanding the speaker’s main ideas and asking questions to clarify
  • Understanding feelings: Listening for and being aware of the feelings a person may have when communicating

Too often we fall back on noncommittal responses like “I see” or “Oh, really?” or “You did?” when listening to our friends, family, and co-workers. Those gap fillers are not considered reflective or empathetic listening. Instead, you should use “door-openers.” Door-openers are responses that engage the person who is speaking and make you an active listener. But you still have to use the right door-openers to encourage open communication. For example, below are some door-opening phrases that are either Supportive Segues or Conversation Killers.

Supportive Segues

Conversation Killers

Keep talking, you’re on track.

The problem with that idea…

Keep going.

It’s not a bad idea, but…

I’m glad you brought that up.

You haven’t considered…

How can we build on that?

We’ve tried that before.

That’s an interesting idea.

You don’t understand the problem.

Let’s try it.

Has anyone else ever tried it?


Each of the phrases on the left acknowledge what was just heard and encourage the speaker to continue with the conversation or idea they are pitching. On the other end of the spectrum, the phrases on the right do acknowledge that you listened to what was just said, but they essentially slam the door on the speaker’s opportunity to continue leading the conversation. The Conversation Killers are simply a sneaky way for a leader to take over and follow his or her own plans, rather than collaborating with the other party. Consciously using Supportive Segues, even if the speaker needs some guidance or direction, instils confidence in your employees and encourages continued innovation.

Servant-leadership is certainly a change from the stereotypical dog-eat-dog law firm mentality, but in an evolving legal landscape, it may offer a path toward greater employee commitment and personal growth. Take this first easy step of adjusting your active listening prompts and see if a servant-leader model could work for your firm!

Dr. Crystal J. Davis is a servant-leadership consultant based in Junction City, Kansas.

Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).