The notion of servant leadership has been en vogue in recent decades, fueled in part by Robert Greenleaf publishing his classic text in 1977. Given our cultural fascination with leadership, and our desire to imbue the concept of leadership with as many positive qualities as possible (see, “Leader: the ideal human being?“), it’s not surprising that the combination of leadership and servanthood became a popular notion.
As the idea of followership continues to be explored in more recent years, it’s worthwhile to consider how excellent followership and servant leadership are the same or different. Are they simply two perspectives on the same characteristics? Or is there an important distinction that should be part of our consideration?
Head coach of the Baltimore Ravens NFL team, John Harbaugh, offers a few thoughts on servant leadership:
(You can view a full playlist of followership videos here.)
Harbaugh highlights a number of facets of servant leadership: doing whatever you can to help others be their best; working together to accomplish and build something and to see where those efforts take the group; being diligent to find out where you need to insert yourself in order to help others perform and achieve their best; asking one another for input; establishing relationships of faith, trust, and belief that are empowering; serving others with a heart that really cares, and checking our heart motivations along the way.
As happens so often with such leadership lists, there seems little here that we wouldn’t also hope to see in excellent followership.
(See this free downloadable resource to facilitate your own reflections on the similarities and differences between leadership & followership.)
But with the difference in roles—leader and follower—the implementation of these service-oriented characteristics is where we might see the most important differences.
I read recently that leaders have 3 groups of constituents: their direct reports, their peers, and their bosses. It was observed that most leaders spend less than 1/4 of their time working with peers and bosses combined, and 3/4 managing their direct reports. On the other hand, the very best leaders were said to spend approximately 1/3 of their time with each of these three segments of relationships. (See Introduction to Type and Leadership, by Sharon Lebovitz Richmond.)
Those without official leadership titles (followers), may only have 2 of these 3 groups in their sphere of working relationships (peers & superiors), which potentially leads to a narrowing of focus. Whereas Harbaugh states that who he spends time with is somewhat organizationally determined by its structure and hierarchy (his first responsibility is to his assistant coaches and various coordinators), followers may have a bit more latitude in who they can connect with.
This was true in my own experience in working with an international non-profit. When I had no formal leadership responsibility, I was relatively free to network, connect, and partner anywhere I liked–so long as I accomplished my tasks. Now in a leadership role for the last 15 months, I have noticed that I have a much narrower group of peers, a more formal relationship with my own boss, and a very concrete body of direct reports that I am responsible for.
On one hand, as a leader this gives me great clarity on whom to be a servant to. On the other hand, it does also limit me at times from inserting myself into projects or networks that would be an excellent match for my abilities and desires, but which fall outside my first priority responsibilities.
Servant leadership and excellent followership differ primarily in scope of relational consideration. Whereas a leader has a number of clearly defined relationships that he/she must engage in (and may choose to adopt the servant posture in), the follower may face more of a challenge: in knowing what and where the various needs are, deciding where to apply his/her excellence, and potentially in gaining the access to do so.
One of the best things a servant leader can do is to provide the endorsement (advocacy, sponsorship) of his/her followers to open up the networks and opportunities so that a follower can fully utilize his/her excellence. (See Chapter 27, “Empowering & Promoting” of Embracing Followership, along with our blog post: Leadership Lesson #4.)
Are servant leadership and excellent followership the same thing? Are they two sides of the same coin? Two perspectives on the same phenomenon? I think it’s better to say that they are descriptions of the two roles present in the ideal complementary leader-follower dynamic.
Whereas an exploration of servant leadership may be (as Greenleaf says) “a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness,” embracing excellent followership is “becoming the actuation of something deep within us.”
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For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017).