Monday, October 29, 2007

Servant Leadership

I’ve been hearing and seeing this phrase “servant leadership” more frequently over these past weeks. Some have called for more of it, others want to define it and understand it better, and I’ve even heard some folk really misuse it (at least from my perspective). Last week I even had some good friends agree that I was doing a good job of demonstrating it (Just how is one to take that? It strikes me that if someone receives a commendation for servant leadership it somehow negates the whole business.). I’m looking forward to working with this vitally important concept, servant leadership, with colleagues in the coming weeks.

Here are a couple of random things that are running through my head on the subject today:

  • Servant Leadership Isn’t Necessarily Flat – I’ve noticed that sometimes when people call for servant leadership, they also call for a more flat organizational structure. It is as if servant leadership and hierarchical organization structures don’t work well together. I think they can work very well together, and it might be that servant leadership works best within good organizational structures and hierarchies. It seems to me that when we approach our organizational system building asking questions like “who should work for me so that I can get my work done?” we set ourselves up for a crummy display of servant leadership by focusing on the leader’s needs rather than the followers’ needs. A better question might be “who would serve this person/group/department best as a leader/resource.” With a focus on which leader would best serve the followers, we begin to set ourselves up for good servant leadership. That sort of approach then leads us to good hierarchical structures since one of the considerations in answering such questions is “who has the talent, time, resources and attention to give leadership in this circumstance.” Flat organization structures may set us up for crummy displays of servant leadership because they spread leaders too thin. Jesus fed 5,000, but washed the feet of only 12.
  • Servant Leadership is Leadership – I’ve noticed that sometimes when people call for servant leadership, what they really seem to want is a servant, not a leader.
  • Servant Leadership is More Walk Than Talk – Especially in the Christian ministry circles in which I operate, talk works really well for a while. But it takes servant leadership in action, over the long haul, to really make the difference. We need to resist settling for talk, and probably work a little harder to notice walk.

What do you think? Post a comment if you’d like to get in on a conversation.


Anonymous said...

On the first bullet point, maybe my concept of flat is different. I can understand how "flat" can sound un-dynamic, less structure with no real “flow”. I personally prefer the imagery of a spider web for a so called "flat" organization with networks and webs that are constantly vibrating information back to the leader. All that to say, I don't think servant leadership and hierarchal organizations are incompatible, just as I don’t think “flat” organizations and Servant leadership are synonymous. I am suspicious of association by “trendy” here.:)

On the second bullet point- Amen to that, seems to attract a lot of people who end up being victims and martyrs disguised as servant leaders.

Joni Welk-Campbell said...

Servant leadership is likely the least understood among various philosophical approaches to leadership. It is my thought that a servant-leader does not decide to be one, but that servanthood is simply the individual's chosen approach to life - at work, home and within their community. They genuinely desire to engage their giftings, and they genuinely care for others. This kind of leader is thinking less of being a leader, but more of implementing the giftings they have for the benefit of others; regardless of position, status or personal view. A servant leader is interested in others' growth - personal and professional, and desires to help them become effective in service and in coordination with their own talents and gifts. The one word that describes a servant leader is "collaborative" and this is clearly contrary to an autocractic approach that requires the leader to first establish authority and then command performance from others. Larry Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership states, "“As we near the end of the twentieth century, we are beginning to see that traditional autocratic and hierarchical modes of leadership are slowly yielding to a newer model – one that attempts to simultaneously enhance the personal growth of workers and improve the quality and caring of our many institutions through a combination of teamwork and community, personal involvement in decision making, and ethical and caring behavior. This emerging approach to leadership and service is called servant-leadership." More and more employees are demonstrating a preference to work for employers who are servant-leaders because everyone benefits through the accomplishments of many.

Anonymous said...

How do followers recognize when they are being led by a servant-leader?

Theresa Froehlich said...

To ask the question, "What is the relationship between organizational structure and servant leadership?" is to craft a theology of organizational structure.

The word "servant", if used in the same way Jesus and the apostle Paul used it, is the Greek word doulos which means "slave". This then makes the term "servant leadership" a paradox. Just exactly how does a slave, who has no rights, lead?

What distinguishes a servant-leader is the exercise of authority, power, and influence. A servant-leader is one who depends (yes, emphasis is on this word "depends") more on power and influence and less on positional or hierarchical authority. Jesus, "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing..." (Philippians 2:6)

A flat organization is not hierarchy-free; it's a shorter triangle. The key issue is not the presence or absence of hierarchy, but the height of the triangle. While a shorter triangle does not guarantee that its leader will lead with a doulos attitude, it does lend itself to a greater measure of mutual accountability and shared power.

In light of what Jesus said in Matthew 20:25-28 ("You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them... whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave (doulos) - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."), servant leadership is not just about attitude, but it is also about altitude. I would venture to say that Servant Leadership is best expressed, not just in a flatter triangle, but in an inverted short triangle.