Servant Leadership

There is a disturbing trend among business leaders today. While problems are obvious on Wall Street, the challenge is systemic. For too long organizations have enabled and empowered narcissistic employees with the “win at any cost” mentality and an emphasis on their personal success over that of their staff, customers, organization and it’s stakeholders. These self-centered managers, mistakenly dubbed leaders, often produce great short-term results, through hard-driving, fear-inducing and domineering tactics. As a result of these tactics, short-term benefits are often realized through excessive cost cutting, burning out staff and often deceitful manipulation of peers. These efforts often produce great results in front of the smoke and mirrors. However, as the smoke fades and the mirrors fall, these organizations are left a shell of their former selves. As a result, the narcissistic leader’s successors and direct reports are dubbed poor performers as they attempt to revitalize hollowed resources. Unfortunately, many organizations do not realize there is a better solution called servant-leadership.

When it comes to leadership, there are many named styles, variations within each style and countless evangelists and critics of each. I have been fortunate enough to work under many different styles and found servant-leadership delivers the greatest benefits for all stakeholders while generating optimal long-term, sustainable growth. As a result, I researched the concept of servant-leadership and found it to be an ideal leadership style for executives in all fields. However, I also found limited knowledge of servant-leadership in most industries*, especially information technology. Below I highlight some of the core attributes of servant-leadership in an attempt to reveal how this leadership style excels where most leaders today fail.

The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.
– Robert K. Greenleaf

Serving First
Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term “Servant-Leader”, explained that the servant-leader wants to serve first, then finds leadership their optimal method of service. When the primary motivation for a leader is their own career growth, the main aspiration is not placed on the organization’s sustainable growth, but on the actions that will most quickly promote that individual’s success. Unfortunately, these actions often directly conflict with the methods that will generate sustainable results. This is why it is important for organization’s to identify and promote individuals that seek to serve first.

There is nothing wrong with the career-minded individual. Certainly, few people are successful that care little about what they achieve professionally. The problem rests with individuals that do not understand they are a part of something larger than themselves. When one’s sole or even primary motivation is their own selfish gain, they are taking their eye off the ball that is the corporation’s sustainable success. The proper servant-leader therefore can, and should still pursue career growth. However, the servant-leader pursues their career aspirations as secondary to serving others – their staff, customers, organization and stakeholders.

Stewardship
Meriam-Webster dictionary defines Stewardship as “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care”. Servant-leaders understand their role as a steward of the company’s resources. For example servant-leaders are more likely to say “our team” than “my team”, “the budget” than “my budget”. Stewards recognize that resources are not given to them, but temporarily placed in their care with the expectation of strong returns. The best leaders therefore understand it is up to them to leverage those resources for optimal performance for the organization, not for their career. As stewards, servant-leaders do not possess anything the organization provides, but accept responsibility for the ROI of those resources.

Humility
One of the reasons it is difficult to find publications referencing servant-leaders is the inherent humility these individuals possess. By nature, those who want to serve first are unlikely to seek public attention for their accomplishments. In fact, the servant-leader often defers credit for accomplishments to their team, while accepting responsibilities for the team’s failures. As a result, these humble individuals rarely grace the covers of Business Week, CIO magazine or other trade publications. There are exceptions though, outstanding servant-leaders like Herb Kelleher, founder and former chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines, that still receive press coverage for their famous success. Still, the vast majority of servant-leaders understand the success is not about them, but about their organizations, their staff, customers and other stakeholders that they serve. The result is humility that contradicts the over-the-top, shameless self-promotion so dominant in narcisisstic managers.

Sustainability
Quick wins at the cost of future success is not an option for the servant-leader. Instead, in their role as servant first, good leaders understand that any solution that is not sustainable, is not acceptable. Successful leaders realize their track record does not end when they move on, but instead, just begins to play. The successor that was developed and ideally chosen by the servant-leader, is the final determinant in the predecessor’s success. Leaders that insist team members find their own replacement before accepting promotion, have the right idea. In contrast, managers interested in self-promotion often hop around, stretch the resources to the furthest extent and leave a shell of an organization behind.

Obviously, deriving quick results is great and even necessary. Working hard and expecting your team to do the same is important. Pushing for results, stretching your team for development and driving unnecessary costs out of the system are all expectations of good leaders – especially in turnaround scenarios. The difference is that servant-leaders draw the line when cuts become too deep, excessive hours drag on too long or engineering cuts results in abysmal quality. The servant-leader does not achieve immediate success at the cost of sustainable solutions.

Continuous Development
All too often, leaders who achieve a certain level of success, feel they “made it” and cease to focus on developing their skills as leaders. Assumptions are often made that because they have “been there, done that” for positions beneath them on the organization chart, they knew all they needed to lead. In contrast, servant-leaders understand there “are no human beings, only human becomings”** and recognize the importance of continuing to develop leadership skills. In fact, most good leaders do not consider themselves deserving of the description servant-leader. Instead, most of these individuals consider themselves students of servant-leadership, striving to develop the skills, but recognizing that becoming a full-fledged servant-leader in all one does is a nearly impossible achievement. As a result, most servant-leaders are life-long learners, excellent at proactive listening and never afraid to say, “I did not know that”.

Given the apparent positive results generated in the short-term by narcissistic managers, organizations could almost be forgiven for supporting and promoting these individuals into increasing levels of seniority. Almost forgiven, that is, were it not for the well known fact that people, especially leaders, are the most important factors in the success of an organization. If organizations seek long-term results, sustainable growth and leaders who are out to benefit the organization, not themselves, they need to identify and promote servant leaders.

Of course, the above examples are only a few highlights of what defines the Servant Leader. Fortunately, there are great authors on the subject that are far more astute and comprehensive when explaining what it means to live the paradox of servant-leadership. For a short presentation introducing the concept of servant-leadership and other resources on servant-leadership, please visit www.lichtenwalner.net/servantleader.html.

* Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what servant-leadership is and is not, that may be proliferating this lack of awareness and support for servant-leadership. I intend to clarify some of these misunderstandings in a subsequent post.
** Attributed to the wife of James C. Hunter, author of The Servant .

About the Author:

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder ModernServantLeader.com - the leading blog on servant leadership and top 35 site for any leadership topic, globally. Ben also speaks and consults on IT and management topics for a large variety of clients. Find out more about him at https://ModernServantLeader.com.

5 Comments

  1. @joe_marchese February 21, 2010 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    Great message, Ben. The points that particlualrly resonate with me are that once we become managers it isn't about us any more, and that we never stop learning. We have to work on the system in most businesses that focuses exclusively on immediate results. I'm all for those, in the context of sustaining the conditions of success in an ongoing way. We may even have to look at 'success' in a new way.

    • BLichtenwalner February 22, 2010 at 3:43 am - Reply

      Great feedback Joe. I like the way you put that – "once we beome managers, it isn't about us any more."

  2. Gustavo Treat September 5, 2010 at 8:22 am - Reply

    Now, in that case, it was kind of our fault.

  3. […] noticed that my best bosses held weaknesses in my areas of strength. This is a classic sign of a servant leader – they build a team that balances strengths and weaknesses. I wrote about this in […]

  4. […] With this in mind, I often find myself promoting the practice of Robert Greenleaf’s model of Servant Leadership in writing and in conversation. This leadership framework has gained traction in recent years and […]

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