Servant Leadership Demystified

Let’s get a little nerdy today and dive into servant leadership. I’ve heard too many off the wall things said about it that I know many of you will appreciate some clarity. Servant leadership is not a preference thing like ice cream or cookies, it is a specific leadership model with specific behaviors associated with it. I’ve literally had to refrain myself from running up to a stage to take the mic when hearing servant leadership being encouraged as a means for keeping people from leaving a particular organization. It couldn’t have been further from the essence of servant leadership, which is all about serving others for their sake, not the organization’s (in fact, a servant leader would encourage someone to leave if their current assignment wasn’t the best fit for them). So, let’s dive in.

With all the talk about what makes a leader a good one, leadership actually has a very simple definition. It’s the process someone uses to influence “a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (you can read Northouse’s Leadership book if you really want to nerd out about all the models of leadership that have been used over the decades). Responsible leaders keep in mind the impact their decisions will have on the future and lead people “as equal human beings who earn a license to lead from their followers.”[i] And when they do so they achieve sustained success in their organizations and in the lives of their followers (aka the people they lead).

When leaders ignore how positional power works, and the true nature of effective leadership, leaders (knowingly or unknowingly) can use their positional authority to manipulate people to achieve their goal. Some of the most well-meaning people abuse their positional authority because they do not understand how power, authority, influence, and leadership dynamics work. This is why the use of power, and the necessary development of effective leaders, is critical for leaders to attend to today.

Why the servant leadership model? Well, studies reveal that it is one of the best universal leadership models today. The hallmark of servant leadership is putting the needs of followers first. This includes putting their interests and success above the needs of the organization as well as above the needs and success of their leader. Authentic servant leaders genuinely believe that everyone has inherent worth and value, and that a leader is in their position in order to serve others and use their position to help others maximize their potential, not merely to serve their own self interests or the organizations.

Seven core behaviors are used by servant leaders:  conceptualizing, emotional healing, putting followers first, helping followers grow and succeed, behaving ethically, empowering others, and creating value for the community.[ii] “Conceptualizing” refers to someone’s ability to see the needs of the organization as a whole and problem-solve in such a way that it supports the mission and vision of the organization. They simultaneously focus on their followers’ personal development and growth and ensure the harmonization of their followers’ passions and responsibilities.

Servant leaders ask questions like:

·      Are people’s assignments providing appropriate challenges to help them develop?

·      Are people being supported enough?

·      Are people’s needs being served in their current positions?

·      Are people getting the feedback they need to develop in their roles?

·      Does everyone have the skills and resources they need to succeed?

·      How can I serve people better?

Too often, organizations’ missions are at the forefront of decision-making with little to no regard for the individuals who serve it. The absence of genuine servant leaders in organizations leads to manipulation and the abuse of positional authority to get people to do something “on behalf of the greater good.”

In the servant leadership model, empowering others has been proven to effectively promote followers’ personal growth and development, as well as ensure consistency in their performance. When empowerment is utilized to its fullest, leaders genuinely share their power and authority with their followers as opposed to simply loaning it to them. Loaned power looks like leaders who swoop in to change things at the last minute under the guise of “saving the day” and are the bottleneck through which every decision must go.

When people are truly empowered, they have the freedom to work independently, to make decisions on their own (and hold ownership of the outcomes, desirable or not), and to be self-sufficient.[iii] Unsure if you effectively empower others? Just ask them through an anonymous survey.

The benefits of servant leadership are too many to list. But they do include positively impacting society by focusing on meeting needs outside of organizations, increasing interdependence on teams as individual’s confidence in their teams rise, empowering others to fulfill their destinies, increase in creativity, and it holds up across cultures because of its emphasis on follower’s needs and empowerment.

I honestly get excited imagining a world filled with servant leaders. Don’t you?

[i] Thomas Maak, & Nicola Pless, “Responsible Leadership in a Stakeholder Society: A Relational Perspective,” Journal of Business Ethics 66, no.1 (2006): 112.

[ii] Robert C. Liden, Sandy J. Wayne, Hao Zhao, & David Henderson, “Servant leadership: Development of a multidimensional measure and multi-level assessment. Leadership Quarterly 19, no. 2 (2008): 161-177.

[iii] James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (5th ed.), (San Francisco, The Leadership Challenge, 2012).