In conversation with a colleague recently, I discovered how broad the notion of ‘servant leadership’ has become. From Greenleaf’s presentation—from which I would summarize servant leadership as being focused on the development of the organization and its followers—to simple notions of exhibiting varying degrees of humility or altruism, ‘servant leadership’ is in danger of becoming so broad and ambiguous of a concept that it will lose relevance as a helpful platform for communication and reflection.
Having spent much of 2019 examining Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, I have certainly been influenced by his writing, and find much of his particular emphases to accord well with my own concerns for followership.
And so, in an effort to offer some clarity or definition to the concept of ‘servant leadership,’ here are a few of the key facets that I hold onto and attempt to implement. We’ll explore them in two parts, with this first post addressing three caveats of a servant leadership approach, and the follow-up focusing on some specific avenues of leading by serving (see Part 2).
Not abdication. While it should be obvious, it seems necessary to state: servant leadership is leadership. It is not a vacuous concept, wishy-washy simply because it has a humble term like ‘service’ attached to it. When so many attributes have been incorporated under the banner of ‘leadership’ (see ‘Leader: the ideal human being?‘), it becomes ever more likely to ignore the authority and responsibility aspects of servant leadership. It is not just serving, it is not simply influencing as a result of service, but it is leading from a particular perspective and by engaging in certain other-oriented activities.
Perhaps my favorite quotation on this reality is from James Galvin: “Some people take on a role but lead poorly and then call it servant leadership…. They are passive leaders who excuse their lack of action as servant leadership” (I’ve Got Your Back, p.53).
In my own chapter on “Influence, Submission, and Reward,” I offer this:
The modern notion of “participatory servant leadership,” which is en vogue in many organizations, provides a helpful paradigm for considering…two-way influence. Leaders must do “leaderly” things like make difficult decisions and exercise judgment. At the same time, they must serve in the trenches, seemingly disrobed of their splendor as a superior and prepared to receive direction and input from others. (Embracing Followership, p.156)
Risking misunderstanding. The last sentence cited above gives rise to another point of awareness: servant leadership may indeed include an element of potential misunderstanding as acts of service may not be understood as expressions of leadership. Instead, they may be seen as weakness, lack of passion, or passivity.
Jesus Christ of Nazareth, often heralded as the archetype for servant leadership, told His followers (in the midst of washing their feet at dinner): “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterwards you will understand” (Gospel of John, 13:7). In case there’s any doubt, and so that His followers don’t regard Him as a mere foot-washing domestic servant, He then shortly afterward confirms, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am” (verse 13).
Leader + servant = servant leader.
Certainly, the expression of servant leadership is one that must be carried out with a sensitivity to ethnic and organizational culture. Because the message communicated by one’s actions is determined in large part by cultural expectations and norms, determining how to serve while leading (and how to lead by serving) may require careful consideration, especially if you are not a member of the dominant culture—whether because you’re a relatively new hire, you’re living overseas/cross-culturally, or otherwise have a minority identity (generation, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.).
Not glorious. One of the attributes that is somewhat inherent to the title ‘servant leadership’ is the notion of serving, and for many, that label readily conjures up images that are rather inglorious, if not downright negative. Consider the connotations of related words & ideas: servitude, servile, submission, humility (humiliation?).
These are not often our desired destinations for our career trajectory. And yet, it bears realizing that if we do have an others-focused approach to our leadership, rather than the aggrandizement of ourselves and the furtherance of our own reputations and careers, then we may indeed end up engaging in work that is far from spectacular.
I regularly joke (read: “admit”) that my own work is not very glamorous, and so when called upon to give a report, I mostly share the far more interesting things that my subordinates are engaged in. No one wants to hear about someone washing feet and windows. And they don’t really need to. What’s the grander organizational achievement for which these actions are part of the effort? If we don’t mind keeping the spotlight off ourselves, there’s no better place for us to look than the bigger picture, celebrating the collaborative efforts that have resulted in progress toward our common aims.
How do we make those (inglorious) contributions? Come back for Part 2.
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) —