In order to prevent ‘servant leadership’ from becoming an unhelpfully ambiguous concept, we’ll continue our discussion of what servant leadership can look like. Last time (see Part 1), we highlighted 3 caveats for would-be servant leaders. Below are a few avenues for what it might look like to lead by serving (or perhaps to serve while leading?).
Service. In considering the implementation of our servant leadership, it’s helpful to keep in mind various forms of service.
Shouting “Service!” during a tennis match is an invitation to give attention: someone is about to get things rolling, to put something forth which will kick off a flurry of activity, necessitating a response.
This is not at all usually what we think of when it comes to servant leadership, and yet this opportunity for instigating action is a key leadership function. This form of service prevents stagnation, stirs up energy and creativity, incites engagement. If any organizational member is bored or disengaged, it may well be that the leader hasn’t served anything up lately which requires showing up on the court, fixing their eye on the ball, and powerfully swinging the racket.
‘Service’ can also be used in another sense: to enable. When a mechanic services an automobile, they ensure that vehicle will be able to continue to function optimally. They remove any potential hindrances or hazards (worn belts or hoses), top up the reservoirs of resources (oil, transmission fluid), and make operational recommendations (check ___ again in 5000 miles).
As leaders, we can provide a similar enabling function through our service: removing barriers, providing access to resource, and making suggestions (bringing items to awareness) so that our followers can be, and remain, as effective as possible.
Self-centered leadership may be quite content to let others take care of themselves, feeling free to let them fail if they don’t pay attention to their own maintenance requirements. But follower-focused servant leadership sees the organizational value in keeping every car on the road, every cog in the machine, every human resource, functioning safely and excellently.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention a third realm of service: doing undesirable, menial, undervalued work. This more traditional view of service is also one of the avenues for outworking your servant leadership.
Rather than only associating your name with the headline-making, banner-waving projects, a commitment to do whatever is necessary so that the group as a whole can move forward may mean doing less-than-glamorous tasks.
An international leader was recently caught at a staff training event doing the dishes after mealtime. One of the trainees was stunned to see such a high-ranking employee engage in a task that seemed so beneath him. But his simple was response was, “This is what needs to be done.” And him washing the dishes meant that the trainees, the intended beneficiaries of this program, could rest or engage, rather than divert their time and energy to something that could be done by someone else…even a ‘higher-up.’
Releasing pressure. Another realm of service as a leader follows-on from this last point and includes areas of contribution where leaders can help to alleviate some burden on followers which would wear them down or distract them from making their own best contributions.
For me, that has often looked like providing a level of administrative support (which reflects my personality & abilities) and facilitating my subordinates in navigating organizational realities and dynamics.
That has also included tracking down answers to questions, which may be time-consuming or when ‘where to find the answer’ is unclear. I’ve been able to do such ‘legwork’ so that my followers can continue to focus on their bigger picture task and not get side-tracked or bogged-down on this single step.
Sharing some of the burden has also meant me happily putting myself on the line as the scapegoat for some of the unfavorable decisions that my subordinates have to make. I regularly tell them, “You’re free to just blame me, and to say, ‘my supervisor said/required this.'”
While I don’t want to create an environment of lying or half-truths, I am all too willing to back their decisions and to put myself into the mix to be the recipient of any fallout, so that, again, they can continue to fulfill their roles without diverting their energy and attention to a matter that has already been settled. It may have been difficult enough for them to make the decision, and it is a relatively small burden on me to run interference for them so that an issue doesn’t continually plague them.
Modeling. Finally, one other realm of service is by functioning as a model—not in the sense of a life-drawing class, and not quite so vague as being a ‘role model’, but rather in a very practical way engaging (and displaying) the habits and techniques which will help to serve them in making their best contributions.
So often, leaders are labeled as the painters of vision for an endeavor, those that provide the motivating, clarifying picture of the goal in order to prompt effective action.
Yet surprisingly, it is not often put upon the leader to clearly demonstrate (exemplify) how to actually get to that goal. There tends to be more of a philosophy of “do what I say [fulfill the vision], don’t do what I do [which is none of your concern, and/or above your pay-grade].”
Instead, the servant leader has an opportunity to remain in the trenches, actively engaged, in public view, as a living example (and true contributor) of what can be done and how it might be achieved.
While not every leader will have the same skill sets as their followers (and certainly some leadership responsibilities are different from the ‘trenches’ work), and perhaps not even the same role experience (e.g. I’ve never been in the roles that my current direct reports occupy), whenever there is an opportunity to model an effective approach the servant leader should readily engage in this act of service. Doing so helps to answer questions before they arise, enables followers to get off on a good start, and underscores the integrity of the endeavor and the organization—as the leaders demonstrate a willingness to get their hands dirty, to expend energy, without remaining aloof from the process nor the product.
Is there more to be said on servant leadership and its engagement with excellent followership? Certainly. But I’ve found that keeping in mind the 3 caveats (not abdication, risking misunderstanding, & not glorious) from Part 1 along with these various notions of service, releasing pressure, and modeling, that I can carry my perspective and implementation of servant leadership a long way.
Try for yourself and see.
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) —
along with our variety of free downloadable resources and the index of other posts on this site.