General Leadership

Servant leadership as a philosophy

The concept of servant leadership was first talked about by Ancient Chinese philosophers such as Lao-Tzu, then found in the Christian teachings of Mark and was popularized in modern management writings by Robert Greenleaf in a 1970 essay.

To me it is more of a philosophy of value system than it is a prescriptive leadership style. It is about making the priority needs of those you are leading first and your own needs for recognition, aggrandizement, power secondary. Greenleaf was promoting this concept as “the rock upon which a good society is built”. No doubt true, but, in my experience the concept has some real limitations when applied in certain organizational situations.

Defining servant leadership

Leadership DefinitionLet’s begin with an operating definition of leadership. I consider it to be defining what needs to get done and assuring that it is done. It is important to distinguish the product of leadership which I have defined from the style of leadership, i.e. the how. In some contexts, servant leadership works well. In others not.

The characteristics of Greenleaf’s servant leader are described as: “listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community.” I would submit that, while a great list, it lacks characteristics required for situations like a turnaround in a struggling organization. In such situations, I would add decision-making, problem solving, strategic thinking, managing change, etc.

Strong leadership is necessary too

It is my experience that those in organizations gravitate to strong leaders. A strong hand on the rudder makes them feel safe and well served. Yes, they want involvement, affirmation of their accomplishments and many of the other characteristics Greenleaf lauds, but followers will not forgive a leader who does not see and confront what the organization needs to move forward. They will forgive making a wrong decision, but not the failure to make one.

The risk in hitching oneself to the servant leader bandwagon is that if it is your only approach, it can be your death knell. While it is true that the leader must ultimately serve the priority needs and wants of the followers as Greenleaf asserts, there are times when those needs and wants are to be led out of the fire. A leader who inherits an organization whose staff has been suppressed cannot get there from here by affirming belief in the potential of staff. It is the equivalent of beating a dead horse. First, the horse must be revived, and doing so takes affirmative action that then creates safe space for the followers to flourish.

So What to Do?

First, understand that your job as leader is to meet the priority needs of the organization and those serving in it. Thus, job one is to understand accurately those needs and wants. This is done by observation and by inquiry. Once completed, you now have a “To Do” list of decisions needed, problems to be solved, structure to be defined, policies to be clarified, processes to be improved, priorities to be established.

Second, define the ability of those you are leading to execute on their own vs. needing to have leadership established before they feel safe to act. In short, understand the true condition of your management team and workforce. It may be that before the group can begin problem solving on their own, they may need some problems solved. Once a strong leader emerges that is meeting their needs, they will feel safe to begin making decisions and solving problems on their own.

These are not small tasks. The norm for leaders is that in doing step 1, they are able to see only what they can handle. They can become overwhelmed with the result that they literally don’t see many of the problems that exist. When this is the case, their followers see them as being out of touch, having a different reality and as having little value to them as followers.

The challenge with step 2 is that all leaders have a go-to leadership style that they tend to practice in all situations. Moving off this go-to style to meet the true needs of their followers is challenging indeed. It may mean the affirming, servant leader becoming an authoritarian for a period or the authoritarian backing off and letting the team grow by making their own decisions and their own mistakes. Over time, the style one employs will need to shift as the needs of the followers and the organization shift.

I would be happy to answer your questions or act as a sounding board for your leadership questions. Drop me an e-mail, and I will get right back to you.