Leadership 101: Are you a servant leader?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve detailed information about foundational leadership theories, and I’ll finish this series by exploring servant leadership.

Robert Greenleaf introduced the concept of servant leadership in the late 1960’s. Greenleaf asserted that the servant-leader is a servant to their followers first (and society as a whole), and not just someone who desires to lead in order to satisfy a hunger for power or the desire of material possessions. Much like participative leadership, the servant leadership theory promotes service to others; a holistic approach to work; promoting a shared sense of community; and the distribution of power in decision-making.

Some characteristics of servant leadership include:

  • Empathy – striving to understand  other points of view, actively listening to determine the will and needs of the group and displaying genuine concern and care for others, making decisions based on input from others.
  • Integrity –building trust through honesty and consistency in words and actions, abandoning a personal agenda in favor of the needs of the group.
  • Self-awareness – in touch with feelings and having clear personal values and understanding one’s strengths and limitations, being open to feedback to further personal development.
  • Influence – serving as a positive role model and exerting influence through patient questioning, understanding, and discussion rather than coercion.
  • Vision – having foresight through a strong sense of personal mission and articulating a strategic vision that can inspire and motivate others.
  • Development of others – commitment to the growth of others through empowerment and shared knowledge; valuing contributions of all members; discovering the hidden talents in each member.
  • Community building – enhancing collaborative efforts of the group; building community spirit by fostering cooperation from everyone.

Similar to the participative leadership theory, servant leadership espouses the importance of sharing in the decision-making process, in addition to delegating responsibilities and developing trust with followers.

The theories diverge, however, because servant leadership digs deeper into the more spiritual aspects of leadership by focusing on what Greenleaf described as the “call to lead.” As organizational leaders attempt to manage change in an uncertain global economy, servant leaders can help assure followers of their importance and significance to the organization. Servant leaders also challenge their followers to see themselves as component of a larger picture for a greater purpose.

One could argue the merits of servant leaders when observing the performance of their subordinates. While this is a noble and altruistic leadership theory, servant leaders may be deemed too “spiritual” for “practical leadership.” Followers may reject the concept of enlightened leadership because of skepticism with prior leaders, thus prompting them to want to follow a more “practical” (or transactional) leader.

Additionally, some leaders may not have enough emotional intelligence to adeptly handle the nuances of servant leadership – particularly when applying this style to an organizational environment where followers could perceive their leaders as “weak.”

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