Despite being originally described by Robert Greenleaf in 1977, the concept of ‘servant leadership’ remains a popular consideration in the modern exploration of organizational dynamics. This bears out in my own experience: by far the most popular post on this website is our feature exploring Servant Leadership & Excellent Followership.
I’ll be delivering a seminar in a few weeks on the notion of being a follower through the lens of being a leader. Part VI of my book Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture is dedicated to this topic, and I find my thinking continuing to both expand and refine in this area.
Fundamentally, I see leadership as a responsibility to facilitate the excellence of one’s followers. Access to resources and relationships can be leveraged on behalf of subordinates to enable them to do their tasks most efficiently and effectively. Activities of affirmation, advocacy, and promotion can provide the kind of endorsements that followers need in order to gain access to opportunities, and to continue to apply themselves diligently.
While much of my thinking about leadership—through the lens of the leader-follower dynamic—has been these aspects of servant leadership aimed at facilitating followership, there is another facet of excellent leadership that needs to be considered as well.
Instantly, your mind may simply move to the other side of this relationship: servant leader on one side, servant follower on the other. And indeed, I think that is a right perspective. My various chapters on followership contributions and relationship with one’s leader describe our possibilities as followers for serving our leaders.
But today, my thoughts are not about the followers’ service, but rather the leader’s service and followership in regard to his or her leader, as an important facet of the leader’s service to his or her followers. We’re pushing the dynamic up one strata of the organizational hierarchy.
Everyone is a follower; all leaders are followers. As I desire to serve my followers and to enhance their excellence, one necessary engagement for me is to ensure that I am serving and following my own leaders with similar excellence.
On one hand, this is true simply because I want to be a good contributor to my organization, and to fulfill my dual roles. But more so, the quality of my own followership is a significant ingredient in the mix of my service to my followers.
One of my subordinates recently came to me with a funding request. My own direct access to financial resources wasn’t sufficient to cover the full need, so I went upwards to my leader with the request. He has even greater access to resources, and so I described the opportunity and the costs, and he committed the funds to make it happen.
On what basis did he do that?
My boss has never even met this particular subordinate. While I have spoken well of him (that’s those leadership activities of advocacy & promotion), ultimately my boss applied his resources to this request on the basis of his relationship with me and the confidence he has in me as one of his followers. I have a credit balance of trust in my joint account with my leader at Fidelity Bank, and as a result, I can make a withdrawal on behalf of my followers…enabling them to engage opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable.
Similarly, my opportunities for serving them will be maximized if my own relationship with my leader is also characterized by service, care, humility, and submission. Embracing these traits of servant followership will open up the possibility of my followers benefiting from—not just my own resources and influence—but the even greater reserves held by my leader.
The better I follow him, the more I can serve them. Our followership opens up opportunities for our followers.
I should embrace my followership for my own sake, and for the impact on my organization. But, I can also develop my followership as an additional means to enhance my leadership. My potential for servant leadership goes hand-in-hand with my participation in excellent followership.
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).