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

Context is Key

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.
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.
risk in confining oneself to the servant
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. 
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

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.

is founder and
president of Professional Growth Systems, LLC, (Anchorage, AK) and author of CREATING HIGH PERFORMERS:  7 Questions To Ask Your Direct Reports
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