Thursday, February 4, 2016

Servant Leadership Revisited

Guest post from William Dann:

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

To me it is more of a value system. Servant leaders value the needs of followers over their own needs for recognition, being right or being in control. 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 real limitations when applied in certain organizational situations.

Defining Leadership

Let’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. Other management theorists such as Ken Blanchard focus on leadership as enabling the full potential of subordinates/peers to be contributed to an organization.  In that context, servant leadership works.

However, an organization needs clear direction and a clear set of rules.  At the end of whatever process is used to define these, a leader must hold them firm. That is, the vision, culture and organizational framework to which the “full potential of employees” are to be applied must be clear and consistent. Defining what needs to get done and assuring that it is done is a pre-condition for servant leadership to be effective.

Context is Key

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 a turnaround or similar situations.  For these, I would add organizational assessment, decision-making, problem solving, strategic thinking, accountability for results and managing change.

It is my experience that employees 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 confining oneself to the servant leader philosophy is that you will, in fact, not meet the needs of employees.  There are times when those needs are to be led out of the fire. 

A leader who inherits an organization in which the staff has been suppressed cannot execute a turnaround by simply affirming belief in the potential of staff and delegating responsibility.   It is the equivalent of beating a dead horse.  First, the horse must be revived, and doing so takes affirmative action that creates safe space for the followers to flourish.  The affirmative actions involve 1) creating a clear set of expectations, 2) establishing a clear set of rules and 3) identifying and removing barriers to employees being effective.

So What to Do?

Step 1, 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, and priorities to be established.

Step 2, 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 barriers removed by you.  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 no 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 so overwhelmed with the result, i.e., the “to-do list”, 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 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 (being a Situational Leader) requires high intention and flexibility.  It may mean the affirming, servant leader having to be an authoritarian for a period or the authoritarian backing off and letting the team grow by making their own decisions and their own mistakes.

There is no greater joy or reward than effectively leading others.  But, getting there requires constant learning and growth.  This, in part, explains why effective leaders are a rare breed.

William Dann is founder and president of Professional Growth Systems, LLC, (Anchorage, AK) and author of CREATING HIGH PERFORMERS:  7 Questions To Ask Your Direct ReportsFor more information visit

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