Through many formal and informal cafecitos y charlas (coffee meetings & conversations) over the years with founders, funders, advocates, champions and other members of the startup community, I have met leaders with vision and passion around innovation being a catalyst for good change. We have spoken about how our shared values of integrity and impact intersect, especially amongst my fellow investors who INVEST in the change they want to see in the world. The startup ecosystem has taught me that even though the journey is crazy, rough, and exhausting, the light of progress through innovative new products and solutions for the world's biggest problems is something worth launching, scaling, and funding. My academic interest in servant leadership stems from my deep belief in helping others, from leading a life of volunteerism even as a young girl in Venezuela; my mother taught me through concrete actions to be willing to take the shirt “off my back” for anyone in need. I give of myself, ALL OF MYSELF, to my community, from taking founders' calls at all hours to strategize on launch or scale challenges to my prayer calls every Friday with my small groups of purposeful leadership sisters to equipping college students to reach their full potential through entrepreneurship to putting my family first always. Diving into the theories of servant leadership, initially coined & researched by Robert Greenleaf in his historic 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader”, I learned to appreciate the path of servanthood in a purposeful, trustworthy, giving, positive, motivating, uplifting, yet POWERFUL, determined, driven and committed way.
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”-Robert K. Greenleaf.
The modern leadership ideas and practices around servant leadership, however, for me, seem to be predominantly around the corporate world or faith-based institutions. I was fascinated by seeing the interconnections between what I was researching and the practicality of the startup ecosystem from BOTH sides of the venture table. By deep diving, my community taught me that serving before self, believing in others, growing an ecosystem of proud entrepreneurs, advocates and investors, is what I have wanted & yearned for every day.
I strongly believe that my actions will make this world a better place. This is what it truly means to be a servant leader. I am not leading for myself but for others; for a higher purpose, standing on the shoulders of greats AND rising all around me, because we are #StrongerTogether. You should imbibe this thought pattern as a leader in any sphere of life. If you lead out of a place of service, you would always seek the best option for the common good, not for yourself only. Hence, as a business leader who wants to exude servant leadership, you would place the general good (this could be the good of the company or the good of a relationship or the good of a community and so on) above what you want for yourself. Like the Ubuntu culture says, “I succeed because we succeed.” We should never forget this; we are all parts of a big body; when the whole body is thriving, we are all thriving.
The Four (4) Practical Pillars
To address servant leadership in a more holistic manner at the individual, team, and community levels, here is a 4-part framework to guide the understanding of servant leadership for the startup ecosystem. The core of the framework is divided into four (4) practical pillars that servant leaders should embrace & continue to hone daily:
- Others Before Self
- Higher Purpose
- Abundance Mindset
- Lift as You Lead
Let's dive into some discussion about each pillar:
Practical Pillar #1: Others Before Self
Servant leadership is rooted and amplified by empathy and soft skills of a leader who seeks impact above profits and others before self. A framework is a logic model, and this framework is based on my observation as well as the survey and data collected in pursuit of verifying my hypotheses.
As a leader, you need to realize that the people you are leading look up to you and will copy what you do as well as listen to what you say. If you place others before yourself, they will do the same and this will encourage a healthy relationship in an organization, company, and community. A healthy relationship will translate to a healthy workplace atmosphere and this will mean higher levels of productivity.
As a good leader, you create selfless leaders from your followers. Your followers are not people who mindlessly follow what you say, but they will be people who are leaders in their own right and lead selflessly at that. Below, I will show you the attributes you need to have as a leader who places others above self.
Practical Pillar #2: Higher Purpose
The aim of a business should not only be to make a profit but to actually solve a problem. There should be a particular thing that drives the company. This is important because money may not always come in. However, the purpose of the company should stay. This is especially true when the business’s purpose is not something ordinary but a higher purpose, something that is bigger than even the CEO of the company. That is what makes companies go from good to great, to have a social purpose of existence. This social cause or mission can only be drafted by the servant leader, who will of course naturally integrate the contributing ideas of those involved.
Another way to define a higher purpose is to have a calling in life. Having a calling is having a mission greater than yourself. A higher purpose is also having a vision of a world, a better world. Having a calling or a higher purpose gives a servant leader access to the characteristics they need in order to be a servant leader! Yes, they are a circle that feeds each other, and they tend to coexist. Having a calling that comes from a true passion to give back or change the world drives the servant leader. A higher purpose comes in infinite forms and fashions; each person tapes into their own sense of drive and purpose. For some servant leaders, their purpose is to help their team and the people who are part of the venture be the best versions of themselves they can be. The business may have another purpose, but a servant leader can serve in the capacity of serving the dreams and visions of those they work with. That creates a better community, better culture, and a more just and mindful world.
It requires a certain amount of faith that the human race is good and the human race can innovate our way out of the challenges we face to serve as a leader with a higher purpose. This is at the core of a leader who embraces servant leadership and this
Practical Pillar #3: Abundance Mindset
Abundance is a mindset every servant leader should embrace. When you have the consciousness that your business will definitely succeed, it will. When you know people are intrinsically good, you will find those people. When you feel you have enough to give, that enables you to impact others in a massive way.
When you have an abundance mindset you’ll pass this mindset on to the people working with and for you, and you’ll create a healthy workplace atmosphere for everyone. Those with an abundance mindset are often visionaries and see the limitless possibilities in the world.
Practical Pillar #4: Lift as you Lead
As you are leading, you are not only encouraging others, listening, and building your network, but you are also encouraging others to be lifted, grow, and develop in positive ways. You are more focused on helping to build up others by getting them opportunities that they could not obtain on their own, connecting them to the right people for the exact need in their lives, and appreciating the small and large things they do.
As you lead and connect with others, you can lift your colleagues and your team to new heights. It takes guidance and encouragement all at the same time. This type of leadership characteristic has a multiplier effect because as you intentionally lift others , others grow and embrace the servant leadership qualities they see in you. Having a grateful heart through all of the mindful connections you make allows for others to see the power of purpose, the power of a servant’s heart.
As a busy investor & entrepreneur, I need quick and easy ways to incorporate the professional and personal development goals that I am working on. I am always seeking to improve myself, my interactions with others, and my leadership skills. Here are three (3) doable (and daily) actions that you can use to become more of a servant leader, embracing the 4 practical pillars above.
Action #1: Acknowledge that your people (team, employees, & community members) are gifts.
It took an awareness of self to realize that turning inward is myopic while turning outward and empowering others is expansive. It took personal exploration to realize that creating inclusivity is an honor and a privilege and that when the uniqueness of every person in your community is exalted the whole world benefits. I dream of a world where all believe that all voices must be heard and an inclusive culture then embraces all unique people. It is this dream and this passion that shapes actionable steps that it takes to “Acknowledge.” The people working with you are gifts. It is a privilege that they work with you and not someone else. Acknowledge their efforts and commend them for it. Yes, giving credence to your team goes beyond passing nice positive comments to them (preferably through spoken words in a zoom call or in a meeting), but it’s a good start that will go a long way. Another easy way to acknowledge people is to just listen to them, intently listen and provide a space for them to voice their opinions and ideas.
Action #2: Level up your gratitude
Gratitude is truly a powerful force. You may have used the word a lot or practiced gratitude, but there is a great deal of power that comes with utilizing the art of gratitude first in our individual lives and then when leading people.
Begin with morning mantras
Set up space (I have them taped to my mirror) where you can read your mantras every day. Create mantras that make you feel hopeful and optimistic every day; they will help you generate positive feelings about your entrepreneurial or investor journey. You can start with these examples (if they resonate):
« I am enough. My talent & gifts to this world are enough
« This day is another day to serve, to love, to live
« I attract good fortune from the people I meet, the path I am on & the
« I am grateful for the very air I breathe, the fact that I can feel my heartbeat. (this gratitude mantra can be nice to start your day with as well)
End with gratitude
Set up a gratitude journal at your bedside where you jot down what you are grateful for that day. The journal can be a lined notebook, a set of index cards, a white sketchbook, whatever it takes to be free to do this EVERY NIGHT to get into a habit. When I started, I had a hard time, honestly, with writing them down, so here are a couple that could help jump-start this habit:
« I am grateful to be live another day
« I am grateful for the text I received from a friend that they are recovering from covid
« I am grateful for sun today
« I am grateful for family & friends
Action #3: Create Micro-moments of connection
Trust is all about building relationships, and relationships are all about connection. Great servant leaders are more relational than transactional. They commune, they talk, they are empathetic. Whether these qualities come naturally or not – you can use the tool of “micro-moments of connection” to build these qualities.
Micro-moments of connection are deceptively simple, you might think you are already doing them, but go through the following checklist and make sure you actually are. Micro-moments of connection build trust amongst your colleagues, and this is one of the “stupid simple” things you can do.
To end with inspiration to do more, be more
Servant leadership should be embraced. Especially embraced in the startup world, where getting ahead is everything, but also where truth, integrity, and morals make for good partners, great startups, and a healthy economy.
It’s complex, though. It’s rewarding, ultimately. It’s worth learning about, absolutely.
Explore servanthood. Research time to work on you. Create community around a north star of guiding values. Create change inside you and around you. Impact until it hurts, because true impact is servanthood, sacrifice, solitude, civility, & honor. Be the servant leader you are called to be, not constructed by someone else, nor dictated by self-serving pop culture. You are beautifully and wonderfully made.