Servant ~by~ Leadership

We’ll continue our exploration of various implementations of servant leadership begun in the previous post, where we examined “serve while leading” and “lead while serving.”

whileWhereas the notion of ‘while’ indicated somewhat parallel notions and activities of service and leadership operating within one’s role, the reality we explored is that more often they meld or mask one another and so lose their respective strengths, and responsibilities.

In this post, we’ll explore the more impactful dynamic of ‘by’ rather than ‘while.’

Lead By Serving. Building on the previous trajectory, this implementation completely affirms one’s leadership role and chooses to execute that function through acts of service. This may be in contrast, for example, with choosing to lead exclusively by authority (i.e. by dictate or fiat).

Whereas “lead while serving” featured a habitual and perhaps unchosen service-oriented approach to one’s leadership, here we have a much more situationally aware leader who consciously enacts leadership through service, in whatever way that may be appropriate within organizational contexts of roles, goals, and culture. This situational leadership is a corrective to the previous style of implementation which risks falling into a rut of service-only ‘leadership.’

However, that situational awareness is not so much about the people involved as the circumstances at hand.

Owing to the primacy of the service aspect, the challenge in implementing this form of servant leadership is that the expectations for receipt of, and response to, one’s service—based on culture, organizational norms, personalities, etc.—may be difficult to communicate to followers, and may be unmet, because they are not established in the context of relationship, but rather as a result of a leader’s independent analysis and decision. It has not been entered into mutually, and so it may be rather easy for followers to dismiss one’s service as not, in fact, being acts of leadership, because the follower did not agree to be led this way or wasn’t given sufficient foundation to receive and respond to such leadership. Such a perspective thus may undercut an appropriate leader-follower dynamic which includes both trust and authority.

This lead by serving approach is, like the previous two implementations of servant leadership, predominantly a one-way relationship, and thus is likely to exacerbate any of the other relational challenges one normally faces in leadership-followership (see Chapter 9 of Embracing Followership).

Serve By Leading. In this final approach to implementing servant leadership, we have an others’-focused approach in which the leader helps his/her followers to be & to do by being actively engaged in removing obstacles, channeling resource, networking& advocacy, reinforcing vision, and challenging their thinking and growth.

These are all core leadership functions, and in the “serve by leading” model, they are being enacted with a particular emphasis on enabling one’s followers to achieve with excellence. This is not mere facilitation (recall “lead while serving“), in which one only comes alongside what others are (or want to be) doing. This is leadership: an empowering, developmental, transformational posture to leveraging one’s access, knowledge, and authority so that others can contribute their very best.

This is certainly not a wallflower, background role (“serve while leading“), and it goes beyond the above approach in adding in the two-way relational dynamic. The leader is not just choosing to display acts of service from an internal drive of leadership, but is serving with a very specific focus on the kinds of leadership activities (which include serving, but others as well) that will lead to individual and organizational fulfillment—identifying and implementing those in the context of dialogue and, not just situational awareness, but relational engagement.

This leader knows that the best service he or she can offer their followers is to actually lead them, and to endeavor to do so within a collaborative, consultative framework in which the leader is willing to display dependence and invite them in, even while establishing an appropriate communicative environment which will lead to facilitating the leader-follower dynamic as well as the follower’s necessary and excellent contributions.

servantleadership-2Summary. For me, the ideal (which I have not personally achieved), is clearly this final “serve by leading” model, and it is this flavor of servant leadership which I believe Robert Greenleaf had firmly in mind in his exploration of the topic. In this dynamic, the leader, the follower, the relationship, the needs are all factors. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach, nor is it founded upon a dictatorship nor a doormat.

It’s not about me, it’s about us. Participation. Contribution. Collaboration. Progress.

What more can, or should, any leader or follower be concerned with?


In final news, happy anniversary to me: today marks 5 years of activity on this blog! You can find the several posts from the first week of writing at the bottom of the Blog Post Index page. Have a look at some of the thoughts that initially inspired this exploration of followership (visions and lemmings), the beginning of the thread about contribution, and the importance of participation.

And with this anniversary post, I will here take a hiatus from my regular posting, both for a bit of holiday, but also as I prepare for postgraduate work and begin to develop my research. Until then, with two books, well over a hundred posts on this site, various free and recommended resources, I trust you’ll have sufficient fuel for further reflection and equipping in your journey of embracing followership and facilitating others to do the same.

All the best,



For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:


Followership Guide coverEmbracing 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.

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