Servant Leadership: What is it, Really?

Servant Leadership

The problem with keeping people under one’s thumb is that all you can get done at any one time is what you can fit under it.

Using the term “Servant Leadership” has become popular today. Unfortunately, it is being used by some that claim to practice it, but don’t. Too often, leaders have a blind spot in this regard. They have used the term so much that they assume they are modeling it when in fact they might not be.

Servant leadership is wrapped up not in theory, but in practice. That is, servant leadership is about how we treat people. Talk is cheap, as we have often heard. How do we know that our words and management practices match up, when we claim to be servant leaders?

First, a definition. Traditional leadership too often devolves into a concern for power and control, while a servant leader shares the power and seeks to not to control, but rather to empower people. The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types…The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

In my blog, I will frequently highlight servant leadership concepts. For now, let’s focus on controlling leaders versus servant leaders. What is the difference?

Controllers always try to control, even in areas that are not their responsibility. They seek to convince others that they know things: that in fact, they know best. They have a drive to see their way implemented. If you have worked with such a controlling person, you know that if you plug one hole, such a person will try to come in through another hole to exert undue influence. If you plug all visible holes, these controllers will go underground to exert control “below the radar.” They rarely share credit, but are quick to share blame. Controllers rarely change.

Servant leaders, on the other hand, are quick to share credit but not blame. They will not “throw you under the bus.” Such leaders serve first, and lead second; they seek to demonstrate that they value the opinions of others and they act in accordance with that belief. They are willing to act as coach and supporter for others that implement solutions and are glad to see them receive appropriate credit. They heap praise, not blame.

Traditional leaders too often fear that less work will be done, or that it will not be done as well, if they are not controlling the process. On the other hand, servant leaders know that more gets done when people are valued, trusted, supported, and celebrated for their abilities and achievements. This does not mean that process is unimportant or that people should be left to do things inefficiently; rather, providing appropriate guidance and clear process–and then allowing for initiative, enthusiasm, and innovation–yields greater results.

One might object that being a controller versus a servant leader are not the only two options, and I would agree, except that I also believe traditional leaders tend toward greater control over time, resulting in a loss of initiative and innovation. How much more would get done if leaders provided the right processes and then empowered others to take ownership and initiative, rather than feeling the need to control the outcomes?

Again: The problem with keeping people under one’s thumb is that all you can get done at any one time is what you can fit under it.

Servant leadership: regardless of the rhetoric, we really do know it when we see it; and we also know when we see the absence of it, regardless of the rhetoric that we hear.


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